Rites of Passage
Think back to being a kid, and you can probably remember a rather dubious rite of passage that occurred when you figured out that you weren’t going to be a sports player, lead singer, or Hollywood star. You probably felt sad, but your parents and older siblings likely breathed sighs of relief that you’d never be explaining to people that a manual labor gig was your “day job.” State lotteries notwithstanding, giving up on improbable dreams is considered by adults to be a sign of maturity in budding adults.
If you think about this, the easy message to hear is “you’re not going to be great, so give up.” It’s depressing and oft-lamented by college kids having mini crises of identity, but it’s actually a more nuanced and pragmatic message, if a poorly communicated one. It’s that the expected value of these vocations is horrendous. For baseball players, actresses, and rock stars, there’s a one in a million chance that you’ll make ridiculous sums of money and a 999,999 in a million chance that you’ll make $4,000 per year and have half of it paid to you in beer nuts. So the expected value of going into these positions is about a $4,200 per year salary and a handful of beer nuts. So the message isn’t really “give up because you’ll never make it” but rather “steer clear because anything but meteoric success is impoverishing.”
The better play, we tell our children, is to head for the corporate world where the salaries range from minimum wage in the mailroom to tens of millions per year for CEOs of companies that create stock market volatility. Most importantly, you can find every salary in between. So if you aim for the heights of CEO and fall short, mid-level manager making $140K per year isn’t a bad consolation prize. And so a funny thing happens. We consider it to be a rite of passage to abandon the delusion that you’ll be Michael Jordan, but we encourage the delusion that you’ll be Bill Gates until people are well into middle age.
That’s right, “the delusion that you’ll be Bill Gates.” You won’t be him. You won’t be a CEO, either, unless you pop for your state’s incorporation fee and give yourself that title. You’re about as likely to “work your way up” to the CEO’s office over the course of your career as any given child is to luck into being the next multi-platinum pop star. So, it’s a rather strange thing that we tsk-tsk children for indulging pie-in-the-sky fantasies past a certain age while we use nearly identical fantasies as the blueprint for modern industry. Kid wants to be Justin Bieber? Pff. Thirty-year-old wants to be Mark Zuckerburg? Keep working hard, kicking butt, and acing those performance reviews, and someday you’ll get there!
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