Heroism and Schmuckdom

For those of you out there who aren’t devoted (and now paying) fans of the New York Times like myself, I wanted to discuss an article that struck a chord with me recently.  On May 24th, David Brooks’ wrote The Service Patch for the Times’ editorial column.  Brooks considers himself a political moderate, though many people would see in him serious conservative leanings.  His columns rarely speak to me, but when they do I find myself a bit flummoxed.  This column fits squarely within that category.

The Service Patch, to provide a bit of a précis, discusses the moral dilemma faced by young, intelligent, and competitive students coming out of a college or graduate school, summarized by the question of “What do I do with my life?”  Or, to put a finer point on it, and quote the E.B. White dictum on a poster on my wall through much of college “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

He breaks down the choices for young people into essentially going into finance, consulting, or investment banking, the “crass but affluent” route – or getting “the service patch” and going into the “poor but noble non-profit world.”  He notes that most students don’t truly consider other options, and for many students examining the resource allocation dilemma of how to best improve the world with their talents, community service or non-profit work serves as a patch show their penchant for deep critical and moral thinking.

He says “I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero.”

I found the duality of his thinking a bit grating—I often do.  It seemed that he over-simplified the choices of today’s graduates, many of whom are more than capable of critical analysis of how to apply their talents, and creative enough to realize their options are far broader than Brooks imagines.  Nonetheless, the binary he describes spoke to me.

As an undergraduate, I studied things I loved and found intensely interesting – environmental studies and geography.  After graduating, I went immediately into the not-for-profit world, volunteering for non-profits, and then running one.  These experiences were great learning tools, but they also showed me the limitations and ad hoc, inconsistent momentum in that sector.  These experiences made me want to learn more and develop better business skills and strategies to grow and more effectively navigate a path to improving the world around me.

After applying to, deferring from, and eventually deciding against law school I got a Master’s degree in Natural Resources Law and Policy which put me, as I saw it, on a path to working in environmental policy – what I envisioned as an effective way to shape the world around me and positively shape laws and regulations to utilize best-practices and sustainable thinking in resource development. But, when I graduated in 2009, at one of the lowest points for the economy, I was the only person in my graduate class with a job… and it was for an oil and gas company.

By David Brooks’ calculations, I might not fit into the category of students who follow the path to finance or consulting but in some respects, I think I did.  I think the moral calculations required to put an environmental studies major who headed a non-profit energy efficiency advocacy group to work for an oil and gas company, involve the same degree of rationalization and circuitous, hopeful thinking that drives a young person with “deep moral yearnings” to jump into investment banking or finance.  Thoughts like “this will give me the resources to do what I want later”, or “I will learn skills that I can apply in the future” rationalize decisions that make the here and now more palatable. While friends and significant others may question the decision or accuse you of selling out (as my then boyfriend did), with parents and professors congratulating an early job placement and a comfortable salaried position, the decision can be a relatively painless and rational one, even for those with deep moral reservations.

For a long time, I truly struggled with my decision to take a job in oil and gas.  I did feel like a sell out – even though I could back up my decision-making with well-reasoned arguments.  I started volunteering for an environmental group to assuage my conscience.  I gave LOTS of money to charity.  After all, it was just dirty oil money that came in quantities I didn’t need.

But, the truth is, I benefited from my experience in oil and gas tremendously.

First, I learned that as Brooks said, you can be a hero, even in the most demonic industries.  In school, and in my post-collegiate work I had definitely lionized non-profit employees, teachers, and those who took the “poor but noble” job route.  And while I still  respect those job choices immensely, I have come to realize that taking that route doesn’t give you a moral “get out of jail free” card.  Working on land issues for an oil and gas company, I took the brunt of criticism from people who have to endure the daily struggles of oil and gas development on their property.  I learned how to talk to a farmer riding a tractor in Oklahoma about why his checks were not coming, or to navigate the difficult territory of splitting up assets during serious family issues, divorce, or death.  It gave me a healthy dose of sensitivity and a bit of perspective. The people I worked with, and the people I dealt with in red states like Oklahoma, rural Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico were often good people who I respected.  Though I had co-workers give me copies of the Bible and proudly display posters that said “Earth first!  We’ll drill other planets later…” I got to know them and learn who they were.  I learned so much from some of these people, and gained perspective on life that I highly doubt would have come from a politically homogeneous non-profit office.  And while my co-workers and I often didn’t see eye to eye on political issues, I definitely got further making my points wearing kid gloves and speaking softly than I would have by carrying a poster outside the building in protest.

I can’t say that taking the business route is for everyone.  It was draining and difficult to work in an environment that was, in many ways, hostile to some of the beliefs and traits that I considered central to my person.  But, in braving that world I learned a lot more about what IS important to me and what is mostly fluff.  I also learned how to work in big business and do it without compromising who I am.  I left that job with some good friends, and some valuable knowledge of how to make my way in an increasingly polarized world.

I don’t know how I feel about Brooks’ ideas about the service patch.  In fact, there are many parts I don’t agree with.  But I do agree that young people should be evaluating how we live our day-to-day lives through a lens that forces us to think, regardless of the type of work we do, about doing it with dignity, grace, and respect for the people around us.  I think we should be looking to literature and critical evaluation to guide us.  I think it’s valuable to remember that you can read 800 books about shortening your workweek improving your business, or being more effective, but sometimes taking shortcuts and finding the easiest ways to schmooze around the rough spots in life, isn’t the best way.  I think sometimes it’s more valuable to set down roots, take in what the world has to show you, and as Brooks says, “Understand (that) heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.”

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