“I want to be a politician,” a 17-year-old responded to the question I often ask of high schoolers. My interest was piqued. I then asked, “Do you plan to pursue a history degree or study law?” Without missing a beat, the young man responded, “Oh, no. I’ll probably get a degree in political science.” Fair enough, I thought, but I immediately wondered how deeply this high school junior studied the profession to which he aspired, so I questioned further.
“What is it that motivates you toward a political career?”
“I want to get to a point where I can leverage my influence, take a lot of money, and then quit.”
I was crestfallen. Surely, this kid was joking, I hoped. I then chuckled and said, “No, really, what do you want to do? Local politics? State legislature? D.C.?
“I don’t know. Probably D.C. That’s where I can make the most money.”
He was serious, but despite his age, I could not simply chalk off this conversation to immaturity. Someone or some system failed this kid, and I thought I would be a part of that system if I did not challenge him. For all I knew, he thought his plan for acquiring wealth was honorable.
“So, you want to be a grifter?”
Maybe he did not understand the term. I took a different approach.
“Let’s say you successfully make it to congress. A representative. Some large global company lobbies you to push legislation that would favor a product they are about to launch. There are tens of millions of dollars in it for you if you persuade enough of your colleagues to pass this bill in the House. Would you do it?”
“Maybe. I’d have to know exactly how many millions. I would want to make enough money to retire.”
“Okay, let’s say hundreds of millions, or maybe even a billion. This piece of legislation, if passed, will guarantee the company makes untold money and you would get a significant slice.” He was all ears. “But here’s the caveat. Just before you pull the trigger, you learn on solid authority that to produce this product, the company ravaged villages of people in the poorest regions of central Africa. Throngs of people may die as a result. What do you do?”
“Well, no, I couldn’t be part of that,” he sheepishly said.
“Here’s the thing. You may never get that solid piece of information, but you can bet that selling out for money, any amount, has implications that need to be investigated thoroughly.”
I often pose hypothetical situations to gauge reactions. It is fascinating to see the different ways in which people approach situations and solve problems. This young man tried to justify the merits of his career scheme, and our conversation waned. I can only hope I planted a seed.
For days, I thought about that conversation, and I recognized the savviness of this student. While his skewed aspiration is concerning, of greater concern is that there exists plenty of examples that make grifting seem like a logical and acceptable career path. It is a reminder of the impact influencers have on impressionable youth. It is a reminder that actions speak louder than words.
Here’s another hypothetical I once posed:
“Imagine walking down the street on a windy day and spotting a few bills of various denominations on the sidewalk. You bend down to scoop them up. Finding money gives you a little adrenaline rush. When you straighten up, you notice a small group of people gathered about a block ahead. They appear to be jumping, or dancing, or exercising. It’s hard to tell, so you pick up your pace to see what the commotion is all about. On your way, you spot another dollar, and then another. You grab these and wonder if someone is handing out cash. As you get closer, you realize that’s exactly what is going on. A grey-haired man in his 70s wearing a sport coat, jeans, and sneakers is literally throwing bills into the air so the wind can carry them away. The crowd is trying to grab as many as possible. What do you do?”
Most would discuss their strategy for snatching the flying paper out of the air. Maybe they’d follow the direction of the wind or work in tandem with a friend to increase their odds. Some would scoff at the hypothetical, saying it would never happen because no one just gives away money.
A pensive student, however, blurted out a comment that took me by surprise, “It’s not worth it.” After a long pause he continued. “Whatever amount of money is being given away is finite. I’d want to meet the person giving away his money and find out how he earned it, so that I can do the same.”
Whoa! Now there’s a student who thinks critically. My own hypothetical made me wonder whether the man on a street corner throwing his money aimlessly into the wind, ostensibly in the name of philanthropy, left a greater legacy than any grifter amplified by the media.
Many professionals think about their legacy. Some spend their careers trying to “make a name for themselves.” Perhaps the best legacy has no name attached. Perhaps the best legacy makes the greatest overall impression on society and culture by setting one example at a time.