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Letter to the Editor: Betting your future on ‘impact’ neglects inherent uncertainty

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

To the Editor: 

I read Rohit Narayanan ’24’s column, “The case against following your passion,” and there are a few thoughts I'd like to share. I am a prospective student in the comparative literature department. Literature is something that means a lot to me. I am very passionate about it, and I do believe that it has the potential to make the world a better place. Comparative literature is also, presumably, one of the departments with discoveries that Narayanan refers to as “interesting, but lacking in impact.”

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For me, it's all a matter of uncertainty. I don't think impact is as straightforward of a concept as it might initially seem. I would contend that impact, especially future impact, is something that is next to impossible to gauge or predict. If someone is deciding between a politics concentration and a history concentration, how do they know that as a politics concentrator they would have more future opportunities to help people? Perhaps as a politics concentrator they would get drawn into the wrong crowd and begin to make bad decisions, or as a history major they could find a program that specifically emphasizes outcomes. But even this level of speculation is far too much for me; there are too many quantities that we just cannot know.

Narayanan raises the question of probability: would a politics major have a higher chance, or more opportunities, to enact change than a history major? Are revolutionary historians more or less common than mediocre but effective politicians? I would contend that one cannot rely on simple probabilities to determine one’s life direction for several reasons. First, probabilities are speculative, overly simplistic, and cannot take into account complications. Second, probabilities only take the past into account. We cannot know what could or would present itself in the future as an opportunity to put good into the world — what is over that next ridge.

Finally, and most importantly, probabilities do not function on an individual scale. They measure and generalize based on large groups. Choosing a direction in life is something that happens only once for each person. At the end of the day, there will only be one outcome, or one string of them. What could have happened, is, at the end of the day, not part of the picture. Making a decision based on a higher chance to do good is based on a misconception.

There’s also a larger uncertainty to consider: that of doing good itself. How does this politician, “after a career of distasteful schmoozing” (and presumably unhappiness) know that their bill has actually made peoples' lives better? What if the app developer actually wasted hundreds of hours instead of saving them, regardless of their good intentions? What if someone, unbeknownst to them, actually made peoples' lives significantly worse, only thinking they were making a positive impact? In that case, do they still pat themselves on the back for ditching a passion for an imagined ethical good? Are they doing it because they want to make an impact, or because they want the feeling of having done something good?

If the latter, I think it would be simpler — and more straightforward — to try to be happy, because you cannot know how your actions will affect other people. You cannot know if something you put into the world will be positive or negative. You can try, you can do your best, but you can never know for sure.

How many “theoretical” discoveries, way down the line, have been used for good? Soft discoveries give us new ways to think: mRNA for the COVID-19 vaccine. But there's a flip side: how many for bad? To use an obvious and extreme example: the atomic bomb.

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My mother, attending university in New Mexico, switched from an electrical engineering major to something she was more passionate about: biology. This led to a string of decisions to follow this passion away from home to grad school, and to another continent for a postdoc, where she met my father. Eventually, she found her way back home where she spent years studying breast cancer and now helps New Mexico solve its doctor shortage. She also, along with my father, gave me as happy a childhood as I can imagine. None of this could have been predicted, and none of it would have been possible without that initial leap towards spending her life doing something she cared about. 

Along with my mother, I defer to two teachers on this: Ursula K. Le Guin and Voltaire. The first tells us that when we act, or we speak, we attach ourselves to the consequences of that act, whether good or bad. Acting is dangerous. Sometimes better than to act is to “be.” The world is an uncertain place. There are very few things we have any control over; one of these is our lives. We can, to some small extent, decide whether or not we can be happy, and if that means spending our lives doing something we are passionate about, so be it: even that is changing the world for the better. And if doing so gives us the opportunity, within or outside of our career, to put good into our immediate surroundings and strengthen those close to us, then we should. In the end of Voltaire's “Candide,” he tells us this: to not fixate what we cannot know or control, to be happy, to “tend our garden.” And that's what I intend to do.

Daniel Viorica is a first-year concentrating in comparative literature and an Associate Satire Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at viorica@princeton.edu.

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