How Do We Define Service in America?
Chris Hayes points out that the proportion of members of Congress who have served in the military is now lower than for the population at large, while the reverse had been true up to 1995. At the same time, we have shown a greater propensity to project military force than we did before.
I don’t recall a single person from my time at either Exeter or Brown who went into the armed forces. One woman the year below me at Columbia Law School joined the JAG Corps afterwards. I remember this in part because she was so unusual. For people who graduated from Brown or similar institutions, the notion of ‘service’ tends less to take the form of ‘join the army’ and more ‘go help some people.’
Although Harvard, Yale, and Columbia have recently reinstated ROTC, there are more prevalent non-military service options for students, including Teach for America, the Peace Corps, City Year, and similar programs and organizations. The message is that service means working with children, teaching the poor, working at a non-profit…
My journey to another kind of service
I’ll confess that I never realistically considered any of these options when I graduated from college in the mid-90s. I went directly to law school and became a corporate attorney. I did a few things such that I still felt somewhat pro-social (took on a pro bono asylum case for an indigent woman; volunteered for friends’ organizations when asked), but these activities were peripheral to the basic cause of succeeding professionally.
I’m far from unique. There are a ton of young people whose goal it is to get a good job at a good firm, pay some bills, get a date, get an apartment of their own, buy some furniture, and maybe volunteer on the side. These impulses are healthy and positive. Teddy Roosevelt remarked that a man’s first duty is to provide for himself and his family; only after this has been done can he be of service to the general public. Today, with women experiencing higher educational attainment than men, I’m sure the same applies across gender lines.
The human need to provide value
After arriving at the law firm, though, I found practicing corporate law to be a poor fit. It wasn’t because I wasn’t helping people or doing something noble. The problem for me was that my work felt fungible and pointless. I wasn’t creating any value. My reviewing documents was a transaction cost. Someone else could step in and take my place and the world would be exactly the same.
I left to co-found a startup, Stargiving.com, that used the Internet to help celebrities raise money more effectively for their favorite non-profits using sponsored clicks (think freerice.com but with celebrities offering to meet people who clicked on their cause). The company didn’t work out, I’m sure in part because I had little idea what I was doing. I went from there to a mobile software company and a health care software company, eventually becoming the CEO of Manhattan GMAT, a test prep company that was acquired by the Washington Post.
I could say that these roles were about helping people (raising money for charities, making hospitals more efficient, helping young people achieve their goals, etc.). But that wasn’t why I did any of them. The important factor was that I thought I was making a difference to the organization each day. I just wanted to feel that my work mattered and that I was developing in a direction I wanted to go. It was less about the activity itself and more about what I was accomplishing.
At least for me, the metric was less about, “Am I helping people?” It was more, am I creating value? Am I having an impact? Do I value the people around me? Am I becoming a better person or professional over time? If I stopped showing up, would it matter? I founded Venture for America in large part to drive our talented young people to environments where they could answer these questions in a positive way. Venture for America channels enterprising graduates to early-stage companies in Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis and other U.S. cities to promote job growth and train the next generation of entrepreneurs. Our goal is to help create 100,000 new U.S. jobs by 2025.
People who enlist for military service or devote their lives to the unfortunate are clearly worthy of praise and admiration. At the same time, military service isn’t a realistic option for everyone. I’ve seen tons of idealistic young people go work for large nonprofits and organizations, only to become frustrated with their roles or burnt out. In my view, if we broaden the notion of service to include ‘helping organizations succeed,’ ‘creating value,’ and ‘generating new opportunities for yourself and others,’ we’ll give many young people license to take on pursuits that are more sustainable for them and will drive society forward.
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