Yes, opportunity. And, obligation.
Our sense of entitlement is stealing our joy and our ability to make a difference.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but… I don’t love school. In fact, on many days of the week, I quite dislike it.
You can only imagine, then, what I do when presented with a worthwhile alternative to sitting in classes. I answer with a resounding “yes, please.” Recently, I had just such an opportunity; I attended a land investment conference instead of attending class. I expected to enjoy it, and I did, but I didn’t expect to encounter an idea which would make me rethink my negativity towards school.
As he emphasized the importance of values in building trust, a main stage speaker that day pulled up a list of Apple’s company values from 1981. Out of the list of 12 statements, I found myself suddenly drawn to one in particular.
“Each person is important; each has the opportunity and the obligation to make a difference.”
As I sat there in the low light of a conference ballroom, eyes on the over-sized screens on either side of the stage, it was as though the words “opportunity” and “obligation” were underlined in red. I immediately scribbled down the idea in my notebook, finishing just as the speaker moved on to the next slide, oblivious to the way his brief example of Apple’s values had impacted me. At the time, those words spoke to me as a connection to an idea often advanced by Jordan B. Peterson: if we expect to have rights, we must also expect to have responsibilities. I think it’s particularly easy for me and my generation to feel entitled to rights and privileges without recognizing the need to contribute effort back into society or to work for our own privileges. As I’ve continued to ponder on this value, it’s begun to convict me as I realize my own lack of appreciation for being a student comes from an imbalance of how I think about opportunity and obligation.
You see, I often justify my dislike of formal education with statements like “I learn better outside of the classroom” and “classes aren’t the most efficient places to learn” and “school just isn’t made for me.” To some degree, these things can be true for me and many others. There are many valuable arenas in which to learn, especially past high school, and college is not the only path to success, especially in some fields. To say there is no value whatsoever in formal education, though, is a stretch often made by someone who is easily bored by too much structure and lack of room for creativity and who doesn’t feel like putting in the effort to make those spaces more worthwhile with their own initiative. (It’s me. I’m someone.) For me to complain about going to college is to take an opportunity without shouldering the obligation to make the most of said opportunity. It’s happily claiming my rights as a student and then immediately turning around and forgetting I have the responsibility to make my education what I need it to be.
We see this flaw in many areas of our lives. Have you ever talked to a peer who isn’t very involved in clubs at school because “the clubs are all boring and never actually do anything”? Have you ever been that person? I sure have. But, have you ever stopped to think about how successful, active student organizations become that way? It’s almost entirely a result of students choosing to make something happen, taking on the obligation to improve a group provided by the opportunity to join it. Across just about every age group and background we see complaints about how our country is falling apart and no one can get along and our form of government, established over 200 years ago as “The Great American Experiment,” doesn’t seem to be working out too well. But, how many of us take responsibility to make our democratic republic work, utilizing the rights it grants to us? Do we engage in more meaningful conversations, or do we just complain about how everyone else isn’t doing it right? We are fortunate to have a wealth of opportunities; are we willing to embrace the subsequent obligation to be productive and generous with those opportunities?
It’s easy to complain about things we don’t like; it’s harder to do something to make those things better. Yet, it’s what we must do if we seek to live meaningful lives. When Hamilton, Madison, and Jay penned The Federalist Papers in defense of adopting the Constitution, they admitted it was an experiment, but one which would hold up if the citizens of the nation worked with diligence and integrity to maintain it. When the National FFA Organization was founded in 1928, it was on the premise that student members would continue to believe in the future of agriculture and do their part to work efficiently and think clearly to better the organization, the agriculture industry, and the world. Nothing is free, none of us are entitled to anything, and no system with people in it works unless the people in it choose to make it work.
All of this brings me back to my relationship with school. For too long, I’ve selfishly expected to reap the benefits of the opportunity without taking on any obligation for myself. I’d like to change that. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. I have a mentor in the Honors office here on campus who challenged me to do an additional project in one of my classes this semester; I’m already more excited about the class because I’m excited about the project. It will be more work, yes, but it will make my time more worthwhile because I’m leveraging the structure of the class to bring more creative freedom to the work I do for the class. Wherever you’re struggling to find the balance of opportunity and obligation, find a friend, teacher, or mentor who will challenge you to make the most of your opportunity. Let them hold you accountable. We’re going to have to put in more conscious effort to the area of our life where we’re feeling entitled or under-appreciative—for me right now, it’s school—but through the lens of both “the opportunity and obligation to make a difference,” I think we’ll find it more worthwhile.
Where do you need to shoulder more obligation to make the most of an opportunity? What small thing will you do about it this week? Drop your thoughts in the comments below or tag @miriamrosah on Twitter or Instagram. I’d love to learn from you.