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avatar by Vincent H. '23

a weird metaphor for careers

over spring break i met a grad student. we were talking about why they feel the need to work on impactful research, and after a while they said something along the lines of: 

look at the sandwich you’re eating. you didn’t grow the lettuce or the wheat or the tomatoes, or crush the wheat into flour or cut the lettuce or tomatoes. you didn’t bring all the ingredients to the restaurant, and you didn’t cook any of them yourself. you didn’t design or construct the building or the cooking equipment. other people had to do all of those things for you

you know how in ‘avatar’, whenever aang enters the avatar state we see all the past avatars? that’s what i see every time i look at the world. everywhere i look, i see the work of all the people who came before me, and how other humans were instrumental in designing and building and maintaining almost every aspect of our civilization

you expect me to just work a chill tech/quant job and relax in my free time and not care about my impact on the world? you think i can just look at all the previous avatars and say “nope, sorry, this line of work ends with me and i’m not going to try to continue it”? maybe people not fully aware of the nature of the world can do that. but once you realize that everything you touch is the result of the backbreaking, soul-crushing labor of the humans that came before you, once you feel that knowledge in your bones and it becomes a lens through which you continuously process every experience, i don’t think it’s possible to say no to trying very hard to improve the world

(said grad student was probably one of best people i’ve ever met at coming up with extended verbal arguments on the spot)

that conversation happened over a month ago but it hasn’t really left my mind since. i think this is because the ideas the grad student expressed were at once very resonant and very troubling for me

on one hand, i think i’d strongly prefer a world where more people kept an explicit goal of improving the world and used that as one of the primary criteria for making decisions like what job to work at after college. i think we’d be in a better place right now if that were the case, and i think my conversations with friends would be more interesting if they all had work they were passionate about. i’ve also previously explored and written about ideas related to reincarnation and everyone being the same person, so naturally i’d be attracted to the avatar metaphor

on the other hand, i don’t really believe in obligation to the past, especially because obligation is often used to guilt or pressure people into specific behaviors, especially because that guilt or pressure often results in needless anxiety. that is not exactly the same as what happened in this scenario, since the grad student told me the avatar idea wasn’t stressing them out, but it’s a reservation i have against all arguments of this form

i told all this to a friend, and they asked me how i’d want to resolve this discrepancy. at first i said i wanted a system to decide when to do things for myself (which might also be bad for the world) and when to do things for other people (which might also be unpleasant for myself), to which they pointed out the obvious – that i already have such a decision-making system, since for each action i already decide whether to take it or not. then i said there’s a part of me that wants to help myself and a part of me that wants to help others, and what i really want is a way of satisfying both parts of myself

for a while i thought the way to go about this was to align the two objectives – i tried to push myself towards skills and projects and work that would be good for myself and good for the world. i don’t think that really worked out though (considering that at various points i worked for big tech and finance and crypto, all of which have somewhat dubious relationships with the world), and it was also a very constraining mindset to have

but more importantly, aligning the two objectives doesn’t actually resolve the issue at hand. ultimately i don’t think the problem is actually that it’s difficult for me to find work that is good for myself and good for the world; the problem is that those two parts of me both feel the need to be attended to most of the time. i should be allowed to take turns focusing on one thing at a time without the other feeling neglected. i should be able to do selfish things for myself without feeling like i’m letting down the avatar and i should be able to do difficult things for other people without feeling like i’m ignoring my own needs. i think my inner selves should be kinder to each other, and i am trying to figure out how to make that happen