Figuring Out What We Value

Acknowledging our stories and doing what we can

Breaking Away

Sometimes, growth implies loss. While many first-generation college graduates like myself are taught to cherish higher education for the opportunity that it is, we often feel as if we're leaving behind a part of ourselves in the process. Take Lorena Aguillas, participant of a case study on first-generation college students, talking through what it felt like to be stuck choosing between her father and her future:

The thing that gets to me a lot when I go home is that my father continually, every day, tells me that he needs me to come home. He just tells me, "It's so silly for you to still be there. You should come home and go to [the local college]" ... It makes me feel kind of in the middle with what I want and what he wants, because I do respect a lot at times what he wants and I would like to help him. But I don't think it's really fair of him to ask this of me, for me to stop. Because this is really what I want to do with my life now. It's awfully hard because it makes me feel like I've been a bad daughter.

Like Lorena, I've felt that same frustration — what some call breakaway guilt — of wanting to help my family, but at the expense of my own ambitions and desires; of being told to "fly" and "make the most of my American education" but still having to explain to my parents why I'd want to move out of my childhood home, or take a lower-paying job.

Yet, I still believe our stories are a source of strength. At one point they empowered us to take a leap of faith towards higher education and can now act as a guiding light on this untravelled path as we graduate into the "real world". While Second Generation aims to document my journey and give practical advice on money, I think our stories are what actually help us answer some of the underlying questions that we sometimes forget to ask: what does wealth even mean? what do I value?

The way I see it, our stories are our superpower. Our lived experiences give us an intimate understanding of multiple cultures, value systems and perspectives on what constitutes a "good life". They allow us to take a step back from our pre-existing beliefs, question the underlying assumptions, and ultimately empower us to make the hard choice of breaking away and standing our ground for what we believe is right.

Cutting Through The Noise

As a starting point, I think we develop our existing values from two places — ourselves (our ideas, personal goals, and reflections on the past) and the people around us (family, friends, social media, or some random guy on the internet who writes newsletters).

The problem nowadays is that there's just too much information. The people around us and notifications on our phones all actively try to tell us what we should care about, why we should care about it, and that we should care about it right now. As a result, I imagine our brains are just big, tangled messes most of the time — trying to learn as much as we can, incorporate everything we hear into our lives and expecting others to do the same.

I think, it's also especially difficult to cut through the noise as first-generation college graduates. In many ways, we internalize the voices of our families through our stories, sometimes mistaking them for our own, and choose to navigate our lives as delegates of the American dream. While honorable, the “long leash of loyalty” oftentimes doesn’t give us the opportunity to distinguish our voice from those of our parents’ and we find ourselves perpetually conflicted.

To untangle ourselves a bit, and accurately judge what it is we value, you have to decide who you think is worth listening to. In the words of international religious leader and moral philosopher, Jonathan Sacks:

Win the respect of people you respect, and you can forget the rest.

Though having what feels like an infinite number of resources seems great, looking closer into the paradox of choice urges us to question that assumption. We all-too-often find ourselves needing ways to simplify our lives after the technology-induced decision fatigue and then (ironically) paying tech companies for convenience we now feel we need.

And while some may argue that not staying informed about everything is irresponsible, that we’re burying our heads in the sand, I’d argue that it’s better to care deeply about a few things than trying to play catch-up as new important issues in the world inevitably become known. Instead, we should focus our efforts on thoroughly understanding the nuances of issues we’re willing to fight for and eventually humbling ourselves to those that care more about issues we’re unaware of, know something we don’t, or offer a perspective we’re blind to.

There’s no need for us to expect ourselves and others to care about every issue, every fact and every opinion searchable on Google; doing so will just leave us paralyzed and powerless without the energy or expertise we need to actually listen.

Aligning Ourselves

Once we’ve untangled what we listen to a bit — picked a handful of YouTubers, bloggers, close friends and family members — we can actually start defining our values, right? Realistically, there are tons of different ways we can go about achieving this: drafting ourselves a personal mission statement, trying to find our Ikigai, starting with “why”; but I think at the heart of all of these, and the hardest part, is actually committing to the decision.

While I could sell you on those existing frameworks or tangentially add onto them claiming I’ve unveiled a “novel” or profound idea, I’m not. I think no matter which framework makes the most sense to you, it ultimately comes down to what you do when the time comes to make a choice: do you say to yourself “I value my physical health”, but choose to put in an extra hour or two of work instead of exercising? Do you say to others “mental health and homelessness are serious issues we should all care about”, but refuse to make eye contact with that homeless woman you’ve seen every so often on the subway?

I’ll be honest, I’ve definitely done those things myself and recognize that nobody’s consistent 100% of the time. I’m not trying to be one of those guys on the internet that tries to hypocritically judge others for doing what we all do, or neatly package nuanced issues into easy-to-digest headlines:

But I am going to be one of those guys that says even though learning about the issues and framing our values is great, I think following through on those promises to ourselves, especially when it would make us uncomfortable is crucial for actual change. Underrated-philosopher Mike Tyson said it best:

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Part of the reason its taken me so long to write up this first issue is that I found myself searching for the answer ✨, like some all-encompassing diagram or insight that sort of explains all of it: the paradoxical nature of breaking away and why it is so damn hard to define our own values. I think we just need to come to terms with the fact that there is no “answer”. That changing ourselves is more of a byproduct of the micro-decisions we make everyday and the stories we tell ourselves about what they mean as we look back.

Moving Forward

Because this issue is already getting pretty long, I'll leave anyone that's made it this far with one big idea about wealth that captures why I think it’s such an important thing to understand: wealth is an instrument of change.

For better or worse, money is deeply entrenched into the fabric of our society. Those that criticize wealth both underestimate the effects of the negative feedback loop and fail to realize that money is needed to do good things to begin with. While not the only avenue for change, wealth is what enables us to have our stories heard, not just told, and to have a lasting influence on the social systems we know could be better.

I’m by no means, anymore knowledgeable than the next guy willing to read a bunch of psychology papers and write a newsletter. That said, I hope some of the insight that I came across, shared and will continue to share over the coming weeks here will prove useful — with a more in-depth look into what motivates us to stick to our values, deep dives into the different pillars of wealth (debt, personal finance, investing), and a vision for re-defining how wealth is created.

— Jeff