The new ideals

What does it mean to pursue your passion?
What does it mean to pursue your passion?
Image: Unsplash/Saeed Mhmdi
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In my role as CEO of Venture for America, I encounter hundreds of idealistic recent college graduates. Many aspire to combine doing well and doing good, expressing an interest in “social entrepreneurship,” “environmental sustainability,” or “international development.”

In practice, it’s not clear what their first steps are upon graduation. What does working in environmental sustainability mean? Joining a non-profit that does something wholesome might not be realistic due to financial constraints, availability, or the desire to be trained for the marketplace. And most young people do not feel ready to start a business, socially conscious or otherwise, at the age of 22.

The advice that many get from their parents is to seek business experience, which at the high-end today means joining a management consulting firm, investment bank, law firm, or even a big tech company, with an eye toward further schooling in something firm and practical.

I certainly got this message back in the day; I went to law school and became a corporate lawyer after graduating from Brown. There wasn’t a lot of introspection baked in—I just wanted to be successful, whatever that meant.

What ideals are our young people pursuing? In his book Self and Soul, Mark Edmundson, a UVA professor, writes that Western culture has historically prized three major (traditionally male-dominated) ideals:

  1. The Warrior. His or her highest quality is courage. Historical archetypes include Achilles, Hector, and Joan of Arc.
  2. The Saint. His or her highest quality is compassion. Historical archetypes include Jesus Christ and Mother Theresa.
  3. The Thinker. His or her highest quality is contemplation. Historical archetypes include Plato, Kant, Rousseau, and Ayn Rand.

Edmundson mourns that these ideals today have been largely abandoned. The new ideal is what he calls “the Worldly Self of middle-class values.” To get along and get ahead. To succeed and self-replicate. The three great ideals continue to live on in diluted form (e.g., professional athletics and Spartan Races for the Warrior, non-profits for the Saint, Malcolm Gladwell/Arianna Huffington and the blogosphere for the Thinker). But anyone who pursues one of these ideals to their extremes in modern life would risk seeming ridiculous, impractical, unworldly, and even unbalanced.

I’ve been reflecting on this because I meet so many young people who are idealistic—they want to improve the world. But they are not sure what that means in terms of work. And of course in real life they have bills to pay—financial pressures mount ever faster in this era of student indebtedness and elevated rents. The sense is that personal qualities are increasingly marginalized in favor of technocratic, market-driven skills. The old ideals are a bad fit for today.

Instead, finance is the new courage, branding is the new compassion, and coding is the new contemplation.

What path would we want a talented young person to take? I started Venture for America five years ago to channel smart young people to startups and early-stage companies in Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Providence, and other US cities.  The goal was to create US jobs and cultivate entrepreneurship in areas of need. The idea was that if you work with an entrepreneur for 2+ years you might become one, and the thing we need most is new jobs and opportunities.

I also thought that it would form a different sort of person. If you work at a Detroit or Baltimore startup for a few years, you’re going to become a different sort of person than if you’d worked at a Manhattan law firm or large corporation in Silicon Valley for the same period.

What we’ve found is that entrepreneurship is as much about encouraging individuals to discover and hold strongly to what they value as it is any technical skill. People with character and conviction will try to change their surroundings for the better. They’ll get motivated enough by a problem to try and solve it. Sometimes that involves starting or building a company.

Determining one’s values isn’t easy. If you ask a young person what they value, often they’ll cite family and friends and a desire to live a balanced life.

Yet, starting a company typically means imbalance. It takes over your life. You need to care enough about what you’re doing that that’s okay. That’s the central issue—getting people to care deeply enough about something that they’ll walk through fire for it and stick with it for years.

We have a credo here at Venture for America that we ask our young people to adopt:

My career is a choice that indicates my values.

There is no courage without risk.

I will create opportunities for myself and others.

Value creation is how I measure achievement.

I will act with integrity in all things.

The first one is likely the hardest to live by—My career is a choice that indicates my values. We are what we do over time.

The old ideals around courage or compassion or reflection have been replaced for many by “success.” What do you want to be? Successful. For many, the questions continue and the answers aren’t satisfying.

A man I’m privileged to call a friend, Graham Weston, says that what everyone wants is to be a “valued member of a winning team on an inspiring mission.”

In my experience, he’s right. The new ideals that are emerging—and what people truly want to be—are builders. Nurturers. Problem-solvers. And occasionally, if they get really charged up and have some things going for them, founders. I wish that more people were trying to join teams that they find inspiring. They would give rise to more organizations tackling hard problems.

The old ideals are dying and the marketplace is offering its own rewards. Here’s hoping that new ideals are on their way—and that we can play a role in helping people discover them.