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Let’s say I’m a government concentrator, and let’s say I have some goals and dreams. Let's say those goals and dreams aren’t finance, consulting, public office, law, journalism, academia, or activism.
What does that leave me with?
Stick with me: I’m talking hardwood, laminate, tiling, vinyl, carpeting, and stone. Not standing up for the rights of others, not yielding the floor to the prosecution in a court room, and not generating a party platform, but rather, building a place where people can literally stand, mixing and constructing materials that will yield a floor, and creating a physical platform where others will later host parties.
Sure, flooring is probably not on most government concentrators’ minds when they think about where their studies may lead. But, oddly enough, there seems to be a precedent for it.
I was on a plane going back to school at the end of winter break when I decided to talk to the guy next to me. Since he wasn’t a girl, I was able to strike up a conversation. I learned that he had spent over a decade in the flooring business, running a company.
It turns out he attended Harvard as an undergrad as well, concentrating in government. He then went to business school, eventually entering the flooring business.
It all seemed kind of strange to me. The study of government leads to all sorts of fascinating and powerful avenues of work, which deal with the intricate questions of how to run a society and protect people’s basic rights. And business graduates often get to be on the cutting edge of industry, driving us into new ways of living and interacting with others.
But flooring! Floors have been around forever. Or, at least, since three days after the creation of light. They’re not new. I don’t see how they could be incredibly innovative. If someone doesn’t buy a floor from you, he or she could surely buy one from someone else.
Of course, I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I asked a simple question: “If you could go back, would you change anything?”
After reflecting on his education and where it led, he didn’t hesitate: “No. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
That may be a good definition of success. But is it enough? Once I got back to school, the answer to that question seemed to be a resolute “no”. Here, there’s a different ethic of success: Go out into the world and change people’s lives. Make a difference. Shake things up, a lot. And shake them up for the better.
In this frame, flooring probably doesn’t do enough. It’s not innovative. It’s too much of the same. This Harvard ethic—the ethic of change and progress, of honoring those who use their education to not just be “another cog in the machine”—is pretty widely accepted. We honor the changers of the world.
But I think the zeal for that honor has some negative consequences.
Let’s assume this guy’s flooring company was basically modeled the same way as most other flooring companies, except it did things a little better, giving it an advantage in the market. Is that a less successful use of a Harvard education than something that produces broader “change” in the world, like founding Facebook?
We first have to look at the ways we evaluate the merits of change. We prefer big positive changes to small positive changes. Yet, not all changes are positive. Technological changes have produced great sources of energy as well as dangerous weapons of mass destruction. Sociopolitical changes are often lauded by one political party but criticized by another.
Let’s go back to our comparison. Assuming the flooring company provided better services and was run ethically, leading to its success, we could say it produced a small but positive change. On the other hand, Facebook’s invention was a much larger but more controversial change. The site is either connecting people like never before, or ruining social interaction, depending on who you ask. So which venture is more “successful?”
Honestly, I lean towards the latter (I like Facebook). But we must recognize that there’s no single answer. And I fear, in general, that our reverence for grand changes—the unchecked cult of worship surrounding those like Zuckerberg—can blind us to the merits of more modest, but surely good, change. We must always aim high, taking advantage of opportunities for great, positive change. But we must also remember that small, good steps can be just as honorable as large, ambiguous leaps.
As I departed from the plane, my conversation partner caught up with me and said, “You know, when I was in college, I had as much hair as you.” He’s bald. I laughed as we exited.
I hope that when I’m older and established in a career, I’ll feel successful. But for now, I’ll take my head, full of hair, with dreams up in the clouds, knowing I’ll be happy as long as I do something good with my life—even if that good ends up being closer to the floor.
Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House.
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