What drives you?

May 03, 2024 01:36

“What drives you?”

All eyes were on me – the instructor at the front of the class. Before me were thirty eager high-schoolers, ambitious and aspiring, bushy-eyed and cherubic yet by no means naïve. This was year 2022 -- I was running a summer debate camp, and I had the opportunity to work with some of the most intelligent and savvy teenagers in the world.

The nominal goal was simple – to get them to understand and grapple with making choices that would pave the way for an impactful career, one that could do much good whilst serving them well. Yet I, as the perennial gadfly and dissenter, had sought to challenge the frameworks of everything else that my skilled colleagues had taught in the camp – including the founding principles of the schools of thought that prevailed during that camp. Effective Altruism, anyone?

A hand shot up.

“I am driven by a desire to make a positive difference!”

Very good. What kind of difference? How do we measure positivity? What is the best gauge for impact? How can we quantify – or should we even quantify the outcomes of our actions to begin with? Can I separate and discern between the fruits of my labour with the outcomes of your actions – or could it be that our actions and intentions are so inevitably intertwined that there is little use in trying to tease out the impact of the individual?

The plethora of questions was met with a somewhat uneasy, pregnant pause. Another hand cropped up.

“I want to make money. Lots and lots of money, so I can spend it on whatever I’d like. Go big or go home.”

One should always be praised for honesty. Except I could tell the individual in question probably wasn’t being serious – or perhaps I had thought wrong. He had come across as one of the most generous and community-oriented individuals in the cohort, so I had always harboured hopes that it wouldn’t be money. But there’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of money –
“I want to spend 10% of what I earn, and then donate 80% of it to charities that actually make a difference. I’ll defer to GiveWell for more information.”

A standard Effective Altruism (EA) answer. One that has the surprisingly wholesome effect of placating both the altruistic and the egocentric in attendance. The former nods away – if not somewhat reluctantly, given the recent spate of ‘EA practitioners’ who have gone down rather ignominious paths. The latter also finds in the answer sufficient grounds for the benefit of doubt: after all, gradualist shifts towards communal impact is more than what we could ask for in an era of profligacy and self-serving careerism.

But I wasn’t just the stereotypical EA advocate. I wanted more. So I pressed on – “So it’s not really money that drives you, but social impact. But does this not collapse into the earlier problems of quantifiability and measurability of impact? Why do you assume that you, qua an individual, can come to know best as to how to make a positive difference? Is there not a worry that we are succumbing to our tendencies to be intellectually hubristic?”

At this moment, a quiet murmur chimed in: “I am driven by my parents, my family, and my friends. My parents tell me what to do. My family convinces me that I should do what I do. And my friends are there to tell me what not to do.”

I found the answer rather thoughtful and gestured that she should speak up. She elaborated – more confidently and steadily now – that she had always wanted to please her parents whilst growing up but had increasingly found herself caught between her aspiration (to become a journalist) and her parents’ vicarious dreams (law, the Bar, and making lots of money). So, what gives? Her friends served as the de facto buffer and supplied her with the courage with which she applied for Journalism at college.

Then other voices began to join in – like an incoherent, disorganised chorus that nevertheless ‘clicked’. Some were driven by fame. Others were driven by a search for security, a craving for recognition, and – indeed – professional success. At times I’d throw them a retort – “Do you really want this because you care about it, or do you want this because you want to signal that you are driven by it?” (virtue signalling). At times I’d encourage them to debate one another – “Does this make sense to you? Do you share his thoughts here?”

And then there are times when I’d think to myself, “What a brilliant passion and sense of conviction.” But whatever I made of the causes that propelled my students, I made it a rule that I would never castigate or shame a student for their passion – or, more precisely, for what they identify or view to be a passion. It was not my place to tell them how to live their lives; it was, however, my role to equip them with the audacity to reflect, to conduct introspection, and to be truthful to themselves – what, really, drives them?

We are driven to excel along dimensions of value that we care about. I would struggle to be convinced that running a marathon is a key hallmark of personal success – not because it isn’t, but because I have developed preferences and tastes over the years that lead me to shun physical and aerobic exercise. For others, publishing an article on a queer reading of Qian Zhongshu’s “Fortress Besieged” may not be a particular accomplishment – though it certainly would be for yours truly. A person without dream is akin to a salted fish. A life without drive is akin to the salination process that keeps the salted fish dry, crusty, and perennially lifeless.

Assistant Professor, HKU