A couple of years ago I wrote about a hypothetical NYU Shanghai student named Jonathan. A lot has happened since then.
In 2016, Jonathan was suffering from Impostor Syndrome, the idea that none of his accomplishments were valid and one day he’d be exposed as the fraud that he is and everything would be terrible and he would have to go and live in a box with a cat named Herbert. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that didn’t happen. After reading a particularly zingy OCA piece on the matter, Jonathan decided that it wouldn’t be so bad to accept that he might be good at something. He still has the occasional wobbly of course, but who doesn’t.
Yet, being a college student is never simple. Jonathan may be free from the fear of impostoring, but he is grappling with something else: What the fuck does he do after graduation?
He’s 22. He switched from Economics to a double major in Social Science and IMA and he learned Java. Jonathan’s dream is to do something artistic for a living. He likes design. He likes social justice. He likes a caramel macchiato on a Thursday morning. He likes the thought of a job, but is terrified to start looking.
Jonathan has a choice to make. Should he try and indulge in his creative side and go for a career that is fun and fulfilling, or should he find work that pays the bills and lets him live comfortably (with the view of getting even more comfortable)? The pursuit of stability feels a bit like a pay-off. Jonathan wants an income so that he can pay for rent and food and transport and Netflix, but he can’t deny the allure of a project that gets his heart racing and blood pumping. This isn’t new. This is “The Sex & Cash Theory.”
The Sex & Cash Theory is built around the idea that “the creative person basically has two jobs.” One is sexy. It’s exciting. It’s fresh. The other gets you cash. It’s repetitive. Boring. Corporate. Feels a bit like you are selling your soul. Of course, occupations exist that combine the two, and it’s not unheard of to find the pursuit of $$$ pretty enchanting. But, for most, there is a bit of a balancing act to be dealt with. In the simplest terms, we need “cash,” and we want “sex.”
This can be cliche. But, there’s something in it. The filmmaker who creates indie movies in between ads for detergent and yoghurt. The poet who writes for cool literary magazines whilst copy-editing a blog for a juice bar. The coder who makes crappy programs during the day and open source software at night. Scientists. Accountants. Journalists. Doctors. Researchers. There’s some sexiness in almost every vocation if that’s what gets you going. Jonathan is not the only one experiencing a pull and push. It seems to be the state of earning a living. Especially, but not exclusively, a “creative” one.
So, is this theory saying “Jonathan, the path to enlightenment is a combination of cash and sex?” Not likely. Life isn’t that fun. It’s just saying that the whole “do what you love and the money will follow” mumbo-jumbo is impractical and a little misguided. And it doesn’t stop there.
Never the stranger to a bit of self-reflection, Jonathan knows that he is incredibly lucky. He got to go to liberal arts college and learn liberal arts things. He got to move to China. He got to make the world his motherfucking major.
The diverse, progressive college environment of NYU Shanghai taught Jonathan who he is. He is mightily privileged. He got funding to be taught amongst ambitious students from around the globe, with resources, and academic freedom. Jonathan got to grow up, make some mistakes, and foster a huge respect for the people around him and the place where he got to be.
Part of the vision of NYU Shanghai is to guide students to “academic and moral excellence” and to contribute to “the endless quest for new insights into the human condition and natural world.” Allegedly, the school operates with the values of “curiosity, rigor, integrity, respect, harmony, responsibility, and deep engagement with all humanity.”
Blah blah blah, but without knowing it, Jonathan absorbed the idea that he had a responsibility to give back to his communities, and to address social, environmental, and global problems. He was a little bit of a leftie before (this is NYU), but now he has learned about social inequality and wants justice. He wants peace and human rights. He knows what it is like to be given an education and serve the people around you. He knows critical thinking.
The Gazelle’s article Corporate or Compassionate talks about the additional dimension of graduating from NYU, especially from a small campus with a big heart. They’re right, there’s a certain something that directs us towards trying to make a social impact. Maybe it’s not Sex & Cash, it’s Kindness & Cash. Would, (knowing what Jonathan knows, with the skills that he learned, and lovely life that he has lived), opting out of contributing to social good make him a monster? Would choosing a career that optimises his own situation make him an out-for-himself demon child? He’s guzzling an avocado right now.
So we have Jonathan and all Jonathan’s senior buddies facing a crossroads. Choosing whether to try and make money or make cool stuff sure is a conundrum, but it is also a tremendous privilege. What we do and what career paths we take have an impact on other people, as well as ourselves. There’s a lot to consider. People tend to spend a lot of time working.
Jonathan doesn’t have to have it all sussed out now (neither do we – thank the heavens). But, it doesn’t help us from wanting it all; sex, cash, and kindness included. Hello instant gratification complex. Whilst things often come in threes, these three are more likely to come over a lifetime. Expecting to graduate from college with a dazzling job lined up that is creatively fulfilling, pays for a luxury serviced apartment and trips to Versace, and saves the environment from terrible Trump might be a bit of a stretch. But, that’s ok.
This article was written by Stephanie Bailey. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Maya Williams