What would you do if you had nothing left to lose?

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of listening to people complain about the economy. It’s not that I don’t empathize with the millions of people who are struggling to find work and keep work. My friends and family members are among them. It’s just that I don’t find complaining to be very productive. That said, you may notice, like my friend Matthew did, that I am complaining about other people complaining – something he then complained about. Enough already!

The point is I’m more interested in hearing what people are doing about it. Which is why I loved “The Economics of Pursuing Your Dreams,” a recent NPR story on how a horrible economy can make it easier for people to take employment or lifestyle risks that they wouldn’t take under normal or better economic conditions. Like running a farm or starting a swing dance studio.

It’s an inverse approach to the classic question asked by high school guidance counselors to help find your dream career. Instead of asking “What would you do if you had a million dollars and didn’t have to work?” the question is “What would you do if you had nothing left to lose?” It’s not that the people interviewed in the story are naively blind to the difficulties of the economy, it’s just that they decided to use this time as an opportunity for new possibilities and potential. While it’s true that the couples interviewed had financial support that is not available to many people, I still thought it was inspiring and hope you do too.

Thanks, and be kind.

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3 thoughts on “What would you do if you had nothing left to lose?

  1. I lost my job shortly after the stock market took that 1000 point plunge, back in 09. I wasn’t thinking about the economics of pursuing my dreams. I was thinking about the economics of survival. I had to think about it every single day. It’s not something I can easily forget, and trust me, I wish I could. It was the worst time of my life. I very nearly got kicked out onto the curb.

    The NPR feature, to me, reeks of its constituency: Liberal, Middle Class, White people. That’s fine. It’s a valid perspective (and it is my background, too…) but honestly, our generation will be the first to enjoy a lifestyle less prosperous than that of our parents. I experienced this in a really visceral way.

    When I was a kid, I remember, they taught us in school that we were all special, that we should all follow our hopes, and dreams. That we could be whatever it is that we wanted. After the recession took me down a few economic pegs, I became totally invisible. People who used to know me stopped talking to me: nobody likes a downer, after all. The only people who called me were collection agencies. They shut off my internet access, which I discovered was a luxury. My remaining friends would send inane little tweets to me on their iphones, (which were worth roughly two months of my rent) asking me where I had gone.

    I became just another shabby slob, standing in a long line for social services with all the other slobs. As they rejected my various petitions for aid, the government workers looked at me with thinly veiled contempt, and explained to me that I was college educated, and quite privileged. This was, in some ways, more honest and easier to swallow than the patronizing sense of concern, understanding, and liberal kindness that I got from my old uni’s Career Services Department. “Can you travel?” “Maybe you should get on Monster.com?” Their sense of relief was palpable as we wrapped up our meeting, and the door closed behind me.

    I got the letter from NSSR sometime in April. By the time I scanned the word “SCHOLARSHIP” printed on that rich white letterhead, I was screaming and jumping up and down like an idiot. It was my one chance, and I took it.

    So, what the hell… did I follow my dream, or did I do it just to survive? To this day, I’m not sure. Now I’m here, going to school on Fifth Ave. The New School did this for me. I know I complain a lot… but honestly, they gave me this one chance. Now maybe you know why I was always a little salty and cynical in class: I still don’t really feel like I belong here among the high-flying Ph.Ds on Fifth ave.

    Agency is a really popular concept now, in the discourse, on the radio, and in academia. We look for choice. Individual choice, in any situation. I’m not so sure if we have choice all the time though. After what I’ve been through, I’m just not sure. Sometimes, you just have to survive. Even the concept of the Individual, I find questionable. Individuality is a luxury. It’s possible to become totally invisible. That kind of alienation will leave an impression on you, trust me.

    I was very lucky. My experience had a definite beginning, and ending. I was only a tourist in that realm; Some people are born into it, and live their entire lives there.

  2. Dear Anon,

    Like you, I too grew up with the “you can do anything” speeches, but like a lot of young women my age, I misguidedly confused this message with “you can do anything, everything and you will do it perfectly.” The quote that Ginger Rogers could do everything that Fred Astaire could do, but backwards and in high heels, was taken as a mandate, not just friendly second wave feminist motivation. So when faced with some kind of failure, I recognize that deafening thud that occurs when we fall.

    As a soy latte-drinking, former Volvo-driving, iphone-toting, bleeding heart liberal who grew up with a sunny Midwesterner’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of philosophy, I also understand the NPR constituency of which you speak and acknowledge that it is a specific and somewhat privileged group. Sure, I would have liked NPR to find a more diverse range of people to interview for its story (they exist!), but I still think there’s a good message about having just enough optimism to take a big risk in hard times.

    What inspired me about this piece is the perspective. I think it’s a lot more common for people to be bitter or “salty” as you euphemistically put it than to do some soul searching and try to find a positive approach to an otherwise dismal or even impossible set of circumstances. I also think we make our own luck. Obviously for some people this means a lot more work than for others. Were you lucky to get into school and to get a scholarship? Yes and no. You worked hard and you were lucky that this was recognized by university admissions. Were you following your dreams or surviving? Again, I think it’s probably a little bit of both.

    What disappoints me is that instead of being happy for a new opportunity (and for a scholarship no less!) you came out of the experience cynical. I understand the insecurity of not feeling like you belong, but I think you’re missing out on a lot by not getting over it and removing that chip from your shoulder. School is always a little awkward – whether it’s the first day of kindergarten or mid-way through a masters degree – because we’re all still trying to figure out where we belong. That’s a big part of why we’re in school. For me, it’s the main reason.

    Do we have free will or are our lives on a pre-established path? How much agency do we really have? These are important philosophical questions that much greater minds have ruminated for centuries. I have my own thoughts of course, but I think my opinion on these matters is fairly irrelevant. However, I do think we have a choice in terms of our outlook on life. I believe that is entirely up to us.

    And to that point, I disagree with the assessment that our generation is “the first to enjoy a lifestyle less prosperous than that of our parents.” I think this depends on how you define prosperity. My mother has worked at a job she dislikes for 30 years and my dad did the same until he was handed a cardboard box and told his service was no longer necessary. Is that success? We keep being told that our lives are going to be worse than our parents, but I refuse to believe it. This May I will get a masters degree while my dad graduated from college because he didn’t want to get drafted and my mother got her B.S. to improve her job security when I was in 6th grade. I have made more money than my parents, I have made less money than my parents, and I have made no money at all. I am grateful for all of these experiences.

    In conclusion, I don’t think prosperity can be measured by economists, property lines or bank accounts. I do think we make our own happiness. And finally, I’m inspired by people who have just enough optimism to take risks when faced with difficult times.

    And as a postscript, I’d like to thank you for one of the best reader interactions I’ve had so far as a result of this blog. I hope people feel free to post their own views on here and that there are more discussions like this in the future.

  3. Context. Context. Context.

    Anon criticizes the reeking context of the NPR report. Yet ANY American today is not only better off than 80% of the living world population, and better off than 95% of all humans who have EVER lived in the past 10,000 years.

    Sure, criticize the population of NPR listeners for their privilege (which being NPR listeners, they might actually acknowledge), but don’t acknowledge you’re responding because you’re LITERATE and USING THE INTERNET and NOT STARVING. Recognize the larger context too.

    Maybe we are the first generation to do worse than our parents. Maybe we’re just another generation to do so. Maybe that question is a false framing, because either way, even if is true, that’s fine with me.

    My parents had the resources to be materially happy. That’s been true of most white Americans for the past 70 years. Today most Americans (especially the NPR demographic) have those resources too.

    The recession doesn’t really threaten whether we’ll live or not. Yes, I acknowledge that as a result of the “economic downturn”, there is a fraction of the population who, in order not to go hungry, or to sleep in a bed, may need to stand in line for hours and deal with social awkwardness.

    But that is not starving. That is dealing with a change in social status.

    When I was a kid, I was told Santa Claus existed. As an adult, I look back and see it as a helpful myth. The same with the tens of thousands of fourth graders who right now believe they can become astronauts or presidents or NBA basketballers.

    We are told these things because they help us mature. If you’re an adult and stewing because you didn’t get to be a professional singer or a Navy SEAL…welcome to adulthood.

    I’m not Zen monk. Sure I’m unhappy because of social and/or existential issues. That’s a normal human cognitive bias.

    But I’m not complaining about it. It just is.

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