I found Ariely’s TED Talk to be charming and affirming, but altogether rather unsurprising. The pursuit of passion and the nature of meaning have kept me up at night, and they are issues I grapple with frequently (certainly more so during quarantine). I have lofty aspirations: I want to change the world, inspire those around me, garner trust and respect, etc… But I also cannot see myself selecting a path based on impact alone. For example, I care deeply about climate change. I view it as the single most pressing and impactful issue facing our species. On a particularly gloomy day, I’ll see our ability to successfully combat it as a referendum on Homo Sapiens itself. But I do not particularly enjoy climatology or even biology. I will not devote my life to developing alternative fuel sources or promoting meat-free diets to Gen Z. My grandmother died from cancer, but I do not want to commit decades attempting to cure it.
I am, however, fascinated with systems–particularly sociopolitical ones. My favorite show is The West Wing and when I was ten I wanted to be President. While my aspirations have cooled somewhat sense, I still want to spend my life improving our economic, criminal justice, and democratic systems. I like to think my intended major of Political Science reflects my passion for learning about these systems and my desire to help people through policy. Similarly, I have always been interested in global development thanks in part to growing up abroad. That’s all well and good and appropriately selfless, but it hardly leaves me immune from bouts of self-doubt. What am I actually going to do with my life? How many years before I trade my job at the UN Development Programme or Equal Justice Initiative for an office on K or Wall Street?
So when I watched the Ariely’s talk I was optimistic that I might receive a fresh batch of insight. Instead, I was left unimpressed with statements like “There was a very nice correlation between the love of Legos and the amount of Legos people built” and “this manipulation of breaking things in front of people’s eyes, we basically crushed any joy that they could get out of this activity.” If someone loves Legos they will build more Legos. If you crush a persons’ creation in front of their eyes they will lose joy. While I appreciated his empiricy and lighthearted approach to analyzing his data, Ariely’s messages are just to simplistic to have any real value. His general point that if you acknowledge someone’s work they will derive more meaning from it is, to me at least, common sense. Likewise, it stands to reason that investing yourself in a creation or project will make affix meaning to it.
Even if the talk was nothing new, I am still excited about the upcoming weeks. I have already directly contributed to projects for my team and am starting to see progress towards our goals. I have not doubted once that the work we are doing is meaningful, mostly because it has the potential to impact millions.