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Wandering alone though downtown Washington, D.C., on a Friday night, I stumbled upon a brass band on a street corner in Chinatown. There was a tuba, two trombones, a few trumpets, and a man on a drum set, bopping and sliding, smiling and swaying, playing out upbeat, brassy tunes for the whole city to hear.
It can be easy to ignore street performers, but this band grabbed the attention of almost every pedestrian walking by. The tune was so infectious, so delightful, that everyone who heard the band swerved toward the music and began to dance along. The crowd of dancing, happy people grew so big that the police showed up. Instead of breaking up the act (as I half expected them to do) the policemen mobilized to block off the street so that the growing crowd of dancers could spill off the sidewalk onto the asphalt. Within half an hour, hundreds of strangers were dancing together, unprompted, in Chinatown’s lamplight.
As I jived to the beat and surveyed the crowd I thought about how these performers had achieved a huge success. Tonight, they had made the lives of many unsuspecting strangers more joyful, more memorable. The world was a brighter place because these musicians had set up their brass band on a street corner.
As I play with ideas about what I will do after college, I worry that my post-graduate career may never get close to achieving the sweet, staggering success of those performers on that summer night. I could go to work every day, work hard, push myself, make progress, get promotions, and never discover the far-reaching consequences of my actions for people in rural North Dakota or metropolitan Hong Kong. I could go to work every day, work hard, and have no clue as to whether my efforts were objectively making the world a better place.
Of course, not every contribution to society will spark instantaneous joy. Enduring improvement is just as valuable, and many would argue more valuable, than the momentary bliss that comes from lighting up a street with brassy melodies for a few evening hours. But though the flicker of a grin on the face of a passerby is ephemeral, few can deny that the musicians birthed something valuable that evening.
The street corner musicians knew the impact they wanted to have on their city, and the smiles and dancing that erupted around their act proved that their impact had been realized. But for many of the jobs we will seek after graduation, the impact that our efforts have on our communities, our cities, our nations, and the world is less clear.
In going to work at a non-profit, one could be helping to fight against a major world inequality or one could be putting a bandage on a more systemic problem. By choosing to become a reporter one could help make marginalized voices better heard, or one could inadvertently exploit someone’s words for a purpose the speaker never intended. We could start doing wrong before we realize the consequences of our actions. When a job is embedded in a large, multi-faceted institution or a massive world issue, the far-reaching implications of our work will likely be obscured for much of the time that we are employed, if not forever.
Even though we may never know how the things we do ultimately transform the world, we can recognize the values we hold and commit ourselves to working towards them. For example, I care about having a diverse array of experiences that help me better relate to people from different backgrounds. I care about doing something that someone will remember because it affected his or her life positively. I care about being financially independent and having time to devote to people and relationships. I hope to do more good than harm.
The professionals profiled in my column this semester could articulate what they valued, and they achieved fulfillment when they found ways to steer their work so that it aligned with their value system. Ernest L. Greer ’88 believes in racial inclusivity, so he spends as many hours fighting for enhanced inclusivity in Atlanta’s arts and education circuits as he does working in law. Anne Taintor ’77 devotes her artistic and business skills to making tokens that will make people laugh while encouraging them to question public representations of women. Dan M. Pallotta ’83 finds ways to transform ambitious adventure and athletic pursuits into financial support for causes people care about, and Meg B. Swift ’93 bases her career around the people and organizations that she feels best support the needs of those less fortunate.
None of these Harvard alums would have been able to chart their future paths as seniors at the College, but they probably would have been able to articulate what they valued and thought deserved attention in the world.
Fulfillment will come when we identify our values and act towards them. Whether we are aiming for smiles on the street, tweaks to a system, or a more inclusive discourse, it matters not so much what we do as a job but rather how our work can ultimately strengthen and support our beliefs. In our four years at Harvard each of us has continued to construct and rehearse a unique set of values. When the real world hits us, let’s perfect those values by ensuring our jobs put them into practice.
Ginny C. Fahs ’14 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. Her column looks at Harvard alums who pursued unconventional career paths.
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