A behavioral scientist, Vic Strecher is a professor, and director of innovation and social entrepreneurship at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He spoke at the Festival on June 24th on a panel called “Secrets of Successful Kids: Grit, Purpose, and Artificial Intelligence.” We caught up with Strecher, a presenter at the Aspen Ideas Festival, to learn more about his work studying the science of purpose.
Read below for a letter he wrote to college graduates about choosing who you want to be.
On this early Spring morning, I’m sitting in my backyard beneath a living canopy of chirping birds. They’re sending out signals for mating, food… maybe just fun. I don’t know much about their world, but I understand that they’re far safer up there than they would be on the ground. The almost inconceivable stretch of their evolving wings proved to be a fundamental advantage in the animal kingdom.
Soon these birds will lay eggs, hatch them, and then try to protect their young in the nest. But if the offspring stay there too long, a squirrel will eat them. They need to jump out. Some will fail their inaugural flight and fall to the ground, where they’ll be eaten by a neighboring cat or by Uncle Lenny, my batshit Jack Russell Terrier, whose sole purpose in life is to rid the yard of anything he considers vermin. The rest of the young birds will fly, eventually going on to eat, mate, and have fun in the relatively safe canopy above the ground.
Many college students take (generally at gunpoint) a course on philosophy. It’s here that they might first encounter Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher known primarily for originating the hipster mustache. Students who successfully decipher his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” will find early in the book a beautiful allegory. It begins with a camel.
The camel seeks to understand the struggles, burdens, desires, joy, and beauty of the world and, having done so, transforms into a lion. The lion, in turn, finds and destroys a dragon (society) on whose every scale are etched the words thou shalt. Once the dragon is defeated, the lion finally transforms into a child — making the inconceivable stretch of evolving wings, and taking humanity to new heights.
If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you’ll recall the star child who emerged at the end of the movie. This is the child of Nietzsche’s allegory. The story also inspired Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” (the same music playing as the star child appears). Nietzsche’s influence on Kubrick is apparent in an interview conducted the same year as 2001 was released:
“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
If you’re just graduating from college, odds are you’ve developed some understanding of the “struggles, burdens, desires, joy, and beauty of the world,” and are ready to become lions. Hopefully you understand that you need to “supply your own light” — to literally choose who you’re going to be. (If you’re not ready to be a lion, you may want to consider a couple of gap years in the Peace Corps. It’s a great organization!)
Remember, you are who you choose to be — so you should be very careful who you choose to be.
A 2009 study asked graduating college students what they aspired to be. Some cited wealth, fame, power, reputation, and other self-enhancing aspirations. Others placed greater importance on personal growth, empathy, kindness, community — self-transcending aspirations. The researchers found first — perhaps unsurprisingly — that both groups of the students were likely to attain what they aspired to be. If you choose to be like Paris Hilton, you’re more likely to be like Hilton. If you choose to be more like Angelina Jolie, well, you’re more likely to be like Jolie.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Following up a year later, the researchers found that the graduates who attained self-enhancing, hedonic aspirations reported greater anxiety and physical symptoms of poor health, whereas those attaining self-transcending aspirations reported greater life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive feelings. In another study, individuals with more self-enhancing values were found to have greater genetic expression of inflammatory cells known to cause heart disease, cancer, and many other illnesses, than did those with more self-transcending values.
Does this mean that Jolie will live to be 140 and Hilton will explode next week in a giant ball of pus? Probably not. But in my own experience as a teacher, I’ve never seen so many students focused on material success but at the same time so anxious, depressed, and lonely. I’ve also noticed, over time, that self-transcending students are generally happier in the long run, even in terms of career success. They tend to be better students — more engaged in the substance of their classes — which leads to a more solid foundation for success after graduation.
Aristotle wrote that the happiest people are those who have “kept acquisition of external goods within moderate limits,” and that “Any excessive amount of such things must either cause its possessor some injury, or, at any rate, bring him no benefit.” He was speaking from experience. As a mentor to Alexander the Great, Aristotle had seen excesses that would make Donald Trump sick with envy. He said that we all have both self-enhancing and self-transcending aspirations, but compared those driven by self-enhancement and hedonistic desire to “grazing animals.”
“What’s so bad about grazing?” you might ask. Fair enough. Who doesn’t like to graze on good food, drink, sex, beauty, and other things that simply give pleasure? And yet most of us still understand that there’s more to life. Most of us would like to be financially comfortable, to be well regarded, and to have some degree of control in our lives. But most of us understand that emblazoning our names on hotels and planes isn’t going to make us truly happy. We realize that being the richest person in the cemetery is rather meaningless.
So as you jump out of your nest (keeping an eye out for squirrels and terriers!), make sure you do so with a big, transcending purpose in your life. In my research on this concept, I’ve collected thousands of purposes from people of all ages and backgrounds. One of my favorites (and badass) comes from a graduating student who was determined to “Be helpful, vulnerable, daring, strange, honest, refreshing, affectionate, unconventional, decisive, bold, empathetic, grateful, curious, and outrageous.”
Graduation from college isn’t the only — or even the most frightening — leap you’ll make from a nest, but it’s one of those seminal moments when you’re given a chance to choose the new person you want to be. So be careful who you choose to be. In doing so, I hope that some of you choose to make the inconceivable stretch of evolving wings, taking humanity to new heights.