Life Directions: Inner or Outer

Early in my last undergraduate year I had to decide “what to do with my life”. Clearly, this entailed graduate work, but in what? My inclination (and cognitive skills) was to go for either a law degree or a PhD, i.e. either practice law or teach political science (my B.A. field). As the title of this set of essays is “Prof. Sam”, you already know what I chose. But why? And what can one learn from my example?

Given that my decision was going to be truly a momentous one for the rest of my life, I decided to consult with a few of my professors. They tended not to convince me one way or the other, but rather to present me with the “bottom line” (literally and figuratively) of each choice. It was clear from my grades that I most probably would get into an elite university, e.g. Harvard Law School or Harvard University Graduate School. Their advice boiled down to this in a nutshell: if I chose the former, I would probably be making $500,000 after five years of practicing law (this in the mid-1970s!); if I went for a PhD, I’d be making $50,000 around the same time.

Why in the world, then, would I even consider graduate school? Because my professors’ advice came with another “prediction” or caveat: practicing law meant 12-hour work days, usually 6 days a week; academic life, while intensive in its own way (“publish or perish”), involved almost total freedom to decide when, what, and how much to work. So I decided to take a “pay cut” of $450,000 and become a teacher/scholar.

I never learned how to play any musical instrument well, but from the start of my life I marched to the beat of my own drum. Only decades later did I discover that there is a psychological term for this: “inner-directed”. This is one of the hardest things for most people to learn, if they were not so inclined from birth. The reason is simple, although the phenomenon itself is complex: humans are social animals. From the earliest era of homo sapiens (and even before with homo erectus), we lived in packs – what today would be called an “extended family” or as they say in the Middle East, a “hamula”. This ensured our personal survival back then, and since then we haven’t changed much in that regard despite huge advances in technology and social structure expansions.

Thus, as we go through life, we are constantly on the lookout for what others are doing, what is expected of us, how we can “fit in”. Not fitting in can be emotionally painful, something most people will avoid at almost all costs (see Asch’s classic “Conformity Experiment”: Over time, this becomes second nature – not only in our behavior, but in our values, beliefs and norms. To take my case as an example, there were two norms I had to overcome: America’s Protestant Ethic of “money = success” and the Jewish-American “my son the lawyer”.

Obviously, trying to shake off such “outer direction” comes with a price – sometimes economic, sometimes psychological, many times both. None of this is to say that being outer-directed (i.e. taking one’s cues from others) is in any way “wrong”. Indeed, if everyone did what popped into their head, or even thought carefully about doing the opposite of what society expects, just to be different, we would be living in the jungle (which might be unfair to jungle animals that mostly do cooperate with each other). Accepting most societal norms is healthy for the individual and certainly for society writ large. However, when this becomes mindless “follow-the-crowd” blindly, or when going against a social norm is not harmful to the group, then inner-directedness is called for.

One could even make the argument that inner direction of individuals is useful for the group as a whole. For instance – and to be clear, this is not me – many of humanity’s greatest social and scientific advances were made by highly inner directed thinkers and doers. Think Martin Luther who publicly railed against the greatest power in late medieval Europe, the Catholic Church; or his namesake Martin Luther King who stood up against deeply ingrained southern racism in America (perhaps his name provided him with the necessary inner directed gumption to take on the entire southern caste system?). We definitely need occasional “mavericks” to move society forward.

In our own small, personal way, though, each and every one of us has a niche area where something really counts for us, despite society’s looking askance. Doing what we really want to do might cost us money or even a friend or two, but that’s really a small price to pay for being able to smile when we look in the mirror every morning – not to mention the satisfaction of accomplishing something “abnormal” that we’ve always wanted to try. Sure, it takes some courage (the topic of next week’s post). But that word has an interesting etymology: its root is cor – Latin for “heart” (French speakers know it as coeur). In its early form it meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all that’s in one’s heart.” You don’t have to speak this to others. To get started, it’s simply enough to tell yourself what your real inner desires or needs are, and then act on them.

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