I think the highest calling for humanity—long-term—is to become artists, builders, inventors, scientists, and other types of creator and explorer.
Let’s define wealthy as Top 10% income.
But wealthy parents around the world seem stuck in what I call the Climbing Trap. This is where, despite being successful enough to promote creativity in their children, they instead raise their kids with a single goal in mind: financial success. And specifically—more financial success than their parents.
This is the gift that such parents feel the obligation to pass onto their children. It’s called many things, but “creating a better life for our children” is the usual capture.
Our sources of meaning are in transition.
The reason for this shouldn’t be disrespected. This made sense for hundreds or thousands of generations of humans. Life has generally been hard for us, and financial security has always been the most dependable defense against war, disease, and famine.
So the problem isn’t that we took this approach to raising kids for so long. The problem is that we haven’t asked ourselves if or when it was time to stop.
I talk a lot about meaning, and I believe it primarily comes from struggle towards a worthy and distant goal. Surviving war, disease, and famine most certainly qualifies, but at some point that driver diminishes or disappears for societies and families that are successful.
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.
John Adams writing to his wife Abigail — May 12, 1780
That is the precise moment of transition. It’s where the old model of climbing the generational financial ladder stops making successive generations happier, and when the need arises for a new source of meaning.
This has already happened for countless people and families in the last couple of generations. I believe this is why so many successful people in their 30’s and 40’s—who did everything right—are asking themselves why they’re not happy.
Traditional religion is a great source as well, but suffers from no longer being believable.
In my opinion, this is because the old source of meaning (more education, better job) has stopped producing milk, and it’s time for another source. And again—in my opinion—the only logical source outside of religion is the exploration of the boundaries of human experience and knowledge.
That means art, music, science, exploration.
While a family or society is dealing with terrestrial life challenges like previous generations, these pursuits are soft and theoretical. But once threats to security and health are relieved through peace and technology, our struggles should move to higher planes as well.
I am a soldier so my son can be a shopkeeper and so his son can be an artist.
Possibly George Washington
The problem is that success-driven people aren’t particularly self-aware. They’re too busy grinding, which is what makes them successful. And that’s fine…until it isn’t.
Again, say top 10% of U.S. income, which is currently around $200,000 for the household.
We’re at that point now. If your family makes a really good living, it may be time to transition from teaching the next generation how to go to a higher-tier university, to get a higher-paying job, to make even more money—to thinking about a deeper source of meaning altogether.
In short, how are you going to avoid having your kids call you up in their 30’s or 40’s and say, “Why are we even doing this? What’s the point of it all?” Or even worse, have them be so lost with depression, seeking, and relationship problems that they can’t even form the question.
It’s frustrating to have done everything perfectly and end up feeling hollow in your 30’s and 40’s.
Every time we raise a new generation to focus on better school, better job we not only lose a generation of artists, scientists, and explorers, but we also expose that generation to a high risk of existential collapse at midlife.
We have to stop doing this.
Of course, financial security is still important. I wouldn’t advocate abandoning that message and swinging too far towards the bohemian end of the spectrum. Doing that gives the next generation the opposite problem, which is having the right goals but being unable to act upon them for lack of time and resources.
As with most things, the answer is balance.
We should strive to give the next generation the ability to be financially secure without teaching them that it’s a goal in itself. So yes—the right education and a good career—but all within the context of focus on bigger, deeper goals that provide true meaning.
Successful people are successful largely because they are relentless and single-minded. But in the case of pursuing meaning we need to look up for a second.
We have to stop this train of empty climbing before we load yet another generation onto it.
- Apr 10, 2021 — Tim Leonard also makes an interesting point about not enough people being willing to serve others in roles like parenting, teaching, etc. I think this is a fantastic point, but one that’s orthogonal to this one. They support each other.
- Apr 10, 2021 — I’d put parents and teachers at another super-high tier of essential as well, but on a separate axis of value from creators. But both are absolutely essential for a healthy society. Thanks to Tim Leonard in the UL Community for making the point.
- Apr 10, 2021 — I adjusted the set of ideal creative endeavors based on input from Paul in the UL Community. He called out that inventing and building should be included, which I agree with.
- Recent immigrants from difficulty get a full pass on this in my book. They’re not stuck in a perpetuated illusion of fake progress, but rather have direct living memory of true struggle. So it makes more sense that they propagate this to their N-1.