I have a clear memory of my father's thesis which earned him his PhD in accounting. The big red leather book sat on a table in our entrance hall and it was one of the first things you saw when you walked in. I also, just as clearly, remember my older brother's bedroom wall covered with certificates and awards for his ridiculously high academic grades in math, science, geography, biology, computer science and so on. And me? Well, I was pretty good with words and pictures but in the context of my older brother and father that didn't seem to count for much. Not that they were ever mean to me or purposefully made me feel inadequate. On the contrary, my father was the kindest, gentlest person I've ever met. And I love my brother, as much now as I did then.
But regardless of the loving environment I grew up in, I was sure that it didn't actually matter how good I was with words or pictures because of how bad I was at math and science, the things they were good at. Because what I was good at was so different from the examples I had of successful behavior and skills, I was sure I was destined for failure. And to be clear, by failure I mean destitution: Living in a cardboard box on the street without a penny to my name. I still wake up at night, absolutely sure that everything I've done will be taken away, that someone will tap someone else on the shoulder and say, "We really shouldn't be buying this guy's books, clearly he's an idiot." More than 100 000 books sold later, I still need to talk to my therapist about it often.
After I finished high school I gave serious consideration to a career in the military (it was impressed upon me at an early age by my school that I lacked discipline and I felt that a career in the military might fix at least one of the clearly broken parts inside me). I eventually settled on an advertising college because I thought, hey, maybe there's some kind of safety in advertising. Surely, I thought, it's a way to make enough money to pay the rent and guarantee I don't live in a cardboard box.
I never considered taking a few years to study something I truly loved or was passionately interested in. I never paused for a moment and reflected on the idea of doing something purely for the good of my community or the people around me. And not for one single solitary minute did I consider a career as an artist or an author because I was petrified of not being able to support myself. I chose a career based almost entirely on fear. I know this says a lot about me but I would suggest it also says a lot about the world.
Several countries are testing out Universal Basic Income programs, which guarantee a basic income that'll ensure a simple roof over your head and enough food on the table and I can't help asking: What would it mean for society if we all knew we'd never live in a cardboard box?
If we've strived for anything over the millennia, hasn't it been for this? Shouldn't our number one priority be ensuring that all of us, regardless of our pick in the genetic lottery, get a roof over our head and food in our stomach? If we're not taking care of each other, and making sure that our children (all our children) grow up in an environment where they feel safe, secure and don't want for the essentials of life, then why are we here?
I have the benefit of coming from a privileged background. And If the world waved a magic wand and took everything away we could probably move back in with my mother or my wife's salary could support us for a while. My fear of living in a cardboard box is entirely irrational. So I have no idea how someone confronted by real, actual poverty, the real, "if you do not make a certain amount of money by a certain date, you will be out on the street," could even begin to consider something as ridiculously impractical as a career in the arts, philosophy, furthering their studies or anything that didn't guarantee a certain regular amount of income to provide for themselves and their family.
"I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."- Stephen Jay Gould
The first driverless truck is being tested on the roads in Nevada, machines shift your order around the Amazon warehouses and robots will start making your coffee soon. And who needs as many motels and rest stops when the trucks are driving themselves? How many doctors and EMTS will we need when there are less car accidents? What about the industries that supply those industries?
There are going to be less jobs in the future and we have to work out a way in which our society functions within that reality or accept that most of us and our children are going to be destitute while an incredibly small elite enjoy the wealth and benefits of our technological utopia.
I don't have a PhD in accounting, but I know that there are pilot programs and researchers working out how we can do better, by all of us. Those programs, ideas and the people testing them, who are much smarter than me and my pretty words and pictures, need our support because there are writers, artists, humanitarians and philosophers on par with Aristotle, Picasso and Hemingway flipping burgers somewhere next to a highway because that's what they have to do to survive.
What if the question "What would you do if you could do anything?" wasn't a question we asked once as a thought experiment but an everyday expectation for all of us?
A robot can flip burgers. Let's let Hemingway write books.