Success Story

A decade ago I stumbled onto this comic:

Success Story by Billy Burg

For reasons I couldn’t clearly articulate, the comic deeply affected me. Now I think I have an idea why.

Here in North America (and much of the Northern Europe), we subscribe to the protestant work ethic: the idea that salvation comes through hard work and deferred gratification. In general, I think this is a good thing, and I’d rather live in a North American or Northern European culture than a Latin American or South Asian one (to name only two with which I’m familiar).

But taken to its extreme, the protestant work ethic can lead you to work doggedly to climb the next rung of whatever ladder is placed in front of you, sacrifice all pleasurable and “non-productive” activities to the altars of career and “efficiency,” and end up with no life to truly call your own.

Success, it seems to me, involves a proper balance between future-orientation (a.k.a. planning, goal-setting, ambition, determination, “grit”) and present-orientation (a.k.a. following curiosities, indulging whims, hedonism, enjoying the moment, “flow”).

The first without the second becomes endless toil, asceticism, and martyrdom—and if you only have one life, what’s the point of that? You might die any day, after all.

The second without the first becomes aimless pleasure-seeking and willful disregard of the fact that tomorrow exists and your actions today will affect it. (Maybe in the cartoon above, Beatrice ends up destitute and unhappy a few years down the line because she never took a moment to stop playing with her puppy and making necklaces to consider her future.)

These ideas seem intricately connected to education. My biggest gripe with traditional high school has always been its massive waste of human potential: so many kids sit bored and listless and unengaged in school, prodded along by carrots and sticks to do problem sets and standardized tests that they resist at every turn. If we instead focused on the big, hard, messy, important questions like “How do we kindle voluntary engagement and buy-in from young people?” and “What kind of school would kids be heart-broken not to attend?”, we educators & taxpayers would better spend our time/money/energy. I believe we should more seriously consider what makes young people happy and engaged right here, right now, today. Hence my enthusiasm for unschooling and self-directed learning.

I’m clearly a skeptic of the kind of relentless future-orientation that traditional education promotes and a fan of present-orientation and the potential it holds for self-motivation. I love the idea of young people tackling the question “what will I do today?” instead of following some prescribed path. But I also find myself constantly nudging the young people with whom I work towards goal-setting, deeper self-reflection, and long-term commitment to their learning projects. Hmm. Balance seems to be the key.

[See also: My 2012 blog post defining success.]


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