everybody gets a car

Last weekend I watched a MrBeast video where he orders pizza and then tips the house to the delivery person. Nearly 50 million people have watched this on YouTube since December, which is incredible and by no means singular: he has built an audience of nearly 40 million subscribers, and all his videos from the past month have at least 20 million views.

I didn’t visit YouTube to watch a MrBeast video; I had never heard of him. This was Recommended to me, as far as I can tell, simply because it is popular and serves as a gateway to other MrBeast content. (I was using Safari, which attempts to stop cross-site tracking; I was not logged into YouTube; I believe my VPN was on.) YouTube is pushing this content to everyone because it tends to keep everyone watching YouTube.

MrBeast gives away an extravagant amount of money to random people for random reasons. Because I had also recently watched Too Big to Fail, the Hulu documentary about the Dana Carvey Show, these “philanthropic pranks” reminded me of those comedy sketches by Carvey and a then-unknown Steve Carrell where two pranksters benefit other people, which they find hilarious because the recipients are puzzled or surprised by the windfall. However, those two characters are not self-aware that their pranks ends up coming at their expense, and this elevates us viewers to a higher level of meta-humor, where we laugh at the laughers. 

(By the way, how is it I never heard of the Dana Carvey Show before? Edgy for its time, anchored by Carvey at the height of his career, introducing comedic geniuses such as Carrell, Stephen Colbert [who was Carrell’s understudy! at Second City around the time I lived in a Chicago apartment just a block away], Robert Smigel, and the now-sullied Louis CK. While much of the humor does not age well, this is only because it depends upon the politics and personalities from three decades ago, and you can still observe the daring and acerbic wit of these performers in their early days.)

In contrast to the Carvey and Carrell pranksters, MrBeast and his accomplices are aware of what they are doing, at least on a surface level. How are we meant to react when we watch MrBeast give away thousands of dollars of merchandise and cash to people who stand in a circle for ten minutes, or who are handed a credit card with an unknown limit, or who can keep everything from a store that fits into a circle on the floor? Fascination: watching the spectacle of an uncommon arbitrary event. Delight: reflecting the happiness of the recipients. Envy: wishing someone would give us gifts too. Admiration: wishing we had the means to be generous.

When I mentioned MrBeast to my twelve-year-old son, he said “of course” he knew about the channel and had watched in the past but no longer, because it “stopped giving him joy”. He didn’t specify why.

Maybe the issue is that when we watch others give and receive, we are not participating. We are not the givers or the recipients — we are interlopers, wolves outside the circle of generosity and gratitude. It does not matter that the YouTube economy and MrBeast business model actually depend upon our collective viewership, that the ads we watch (increasingly political in this election year) enable MrBeast to exist. Our lizard brains only register our own inability to hand thousands of dollars to strangers, as well as the unlikelihood for us to receive gifts from out of the blue. All we can do is watch. Watching MrBeast condemns us for our passivity, as well as our incapacity to act.

As audience members, it must be better for us to sip and savor such acts, rather than gorge on and be flooded by an endless stream. YouTube gives us the capacity to watch hours of MrBeast. In contrast, when Oprah Winfrey gave cars to everyone in her audience, the spectacle was special in its rarity.

We all want to give and receive. Indeed, I have taught classes on the lifelong importance of generosity and gratitude. When done mindfully, both giving and receiving are activities. Watching others give and receive: not so much.

Office Hours

The Interdisciplinary Initiative (Int-Init) is a group of students at Carnegie Mellon University who, in their own words, want to disrupt academic silos and support their peers in pursuing interests beyond traditional fields of inquiries. Before COVID-19 shuttered campus, they hosted two Not-A-Hackathon events. In addition, they created an Office Hours podcast to interview pairs of professors about interdisciplinary issues.

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Last April, Susan Finger and I had the honor to participate in an Office Hours conversation with Int-Init students Joyce Wang, Nihar Dalal, and Adhiti Chundur. We reflected on the magic of curiosity, the art of overcoming the “outsider” feeling in academic and social spheres, and the current challenges with online learning. You can listen in on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Spotify.

what we know vs. who we are

On Monday evening I delivered my presentation on long-term thinking and sense of gratitude to the first-year students in the Mellon College of Science. First I described some long-term scientific experiments, culminating in the Grant and Glueck studies. On that slide I highlighted a quote from Robert Waldinger, the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development:

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this:

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. 

After leading the students through an activity I created (Giving and Gratitude: An Exercise in Sweetness), we heard from a panel of four people who are significantly older than the students. The panel addressed the students’ questions they had written in response to the prompt

Imagine that you could send a message to your future self 50 years from now and receive a reply. What questions would you ask? That is, what life advice would you want to hear from your future self, about something you are going through right now or about anything you may need to decide over the next five decades?

Last month I enjoyed the company of Stuart Levine, my dear friend and former dean. At 87, Stuart said that he realized something new about teaching just in the past few years. The focus of education, he told me, is affection. When the students experience that among themselves, then you know the class is a success.

obsession with passion

I have worked at enough colleges and universities to discern distinctive cultures. Then again, anyone familiar with art schools would expect students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are primarily concerned with expressing themselves. Likewise, anyone acquainted with the Great Books Program at St. John’s College wouldn’t be surprised to learn how much students there revere dialogues on curated texts.

The contrast between those two institutions, where I taught successively from 1995 to 2003, is especially clear to me because the students approached their educations in entirely different ways. The students at the School were interested in history only when this information informed their own art. The students of the College were stellar at analyzing how the ideas of others relate to each other but sometimes struggle with their own independent identity after graduation.

When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon fourteen years ago, I quickly observed how students here want to work together, to make things, in order to share those products with the world. Spring Carnival is the most obvious sign of these characteristics. Whenever college students anywhere receive a four-day weekend towards the end of the academic year as the weather turns warm, you can see their true colors. Here at CMU, the students construct human-powered buggies to careen rapidly along the city streets, build two-story booths to entertain and educate themselves as well as local children, design robots to race each other, stage plays, sing a cappella, and otherwise practice for weeks and months before their long weekend in the spring. They do all of this, not for college credit or for pay, but rather because — when given free time — they like to work together, to make things, in order to share those products with the world.

This quality is in the bones of the place. The university started as a trade school to educate the children of factory workers; nowadays, the internships and entry positions are more likely with software companies and financial firms. Either way, the story is the same: CMU students, for all their wonderful virtues, are disinclined to care about knowledge unless it moves them towards employment, and tend not to consider the societal implications of the jobs they take, as long as those pay well. Furthermore, they seem to think of themselves as gears in some vast machinery (“good grades, enough sleep, social life: choose two”) and to overwork themselves to exhaustion.

“My heart is in the work” is the motto of the university, which is a beautiful sentiment on the face of it. Given a choice, who wouldn’t want a job they love? The problem comes when “my work is my heart” — when work is judged significant only if it also possesses your heart, or worse, when work becomes the measure of self-worth.

When I arrived at the university, one of my colleagues frequently advocated that we faculty should help students “find their passion”; she often invoked “passion” when meeting prospective students and advising current ones. She proselytized this gospel of passion because, she observed, students seemed happy and successful when they found a career path that deeply aligns with their interests.

But what does this unrelenting emphasis on passion convey to those who have not yet, or never will, find passion in work? Why should all of us expect to derive unending satisfaction from our employment? Work is not always fun, nor should we expect it to snap us out of our beds every morning. We don’t have to throw our hearts at the same job every day for decades. Let us decide for ourselves where our hearts belong.

Obsession with passion for work is pitiless. It smacks of privilege: few people have the luxury to choose a profession that aligns with passion. It reduces education to a mechanism towards employment, initially to identify passion for a certain line of work, then to receive vocational training. Food and rest exist only to enable further work, which becomes the one true reason for being. Leisure, once considered the basis of culture, is a word that simply ceases to have meaning.

I helped construct the new undergraduate Core Education in the Mellon College of Science, and have taught Eureka, the introductory course in this sequence, since we launched it five years ago. This week in Eureka we assigned students the task to consider goals for themselves.

The lead instructor for Eureka keeps the rest of us yoked together, so that students share a similar educational experience regardless of recitation section.I always question what we do. In particular, two years ago when we were instructed to show our students Scott Dinsmore’s TEDx talk “How To Find and Do Work You Love“, I chose two briefer portions. The first excerpt begins and ends:

Eight years ago I got the worst career advice of my life. I had a friend tell me, “Scott, don’t worry about how much you like the work you’re doing right now, it’s all about just building your resume.” … 

I wanted to find the work that I couldn’t not do.

The second Dinsmore excerpt concludes:

[T]he best way to do this [push yourself to believe what is possible] is to surround yourself with passionate people. The fastest way to do things you don’t think can be done is to surround yourself with people already doing them.

Even knowing that Dinsmore had died while pursuing one of his passions as a mountain climber, I could not let his message pass uncritically to my students. To provide counterpoint, I also showed another video, from the beginning of Terri Trespicio’s TEDx talk “Stop Searching for Your Passion“:

[T]here’s a dangerously limiting idea at the heart of everything we believe about success and life in general, and it’s that you have one singular passion and your job is to find it and to pursue it to the exclusion of all else. And if you do that, everything will fall into place. And if you don’t, you’ve failed … 

This passion vertical is unrealistic and, I’ll say it, elitist. You show me someone who washes windows for a living and I will bet you a million dollars it’s not because he has a passion for clean glass … 

[Scott] Adams says that in his life, success fueled passion more than passion fueled success.

I align with Trespicio more than with Densmore: passion and profession need not be chained together. She and I are not alone in our concerns about this unhealthy obsession with finding your passion, an attitude that corresponds with a fixed mindset, rather than a growth mindset that encourages development.

When I reported the changes I had made to the lesson plan, other professors revealed that they and their sections had also been uncomfortable with the overemphasis on passion. Since then, everyone has modified the exercise to include a hard interrogation of the passion narrative.

My work here is done.

the most important job

First-year college students long for certainty, which is understandable because academic coursework is challenging, the opportunity cost is high, and adjusting to new social circumstances can be difficult. Students reach out for an anchor, they want a clear vision for how their studies directly apply to a career. The problem is that their experiences in high school are more narrow than the possibilities that open up for them during college. 

Certainly college should prepare students for future employment; this is one important reason to pursue higher education. The trouble begins when students fail to give themselves enough breathing room to investigate why they are pursuing a particular major. They see other students who seem to know exactly what they want to study and how it will lead to a job at a particular company and they think: Why can’t I be like that too? What is wrong with me?

The most important job for a student starting college is to explore a broad enough array of possible majors. This is true not just for the undecided. New students who believe they are certain about their fields of study should affirm those choices; it is tragic for an upperclass student is to realize that she is pursuing the wrong field. 

Being an explorer is not easy work: it is emotionally and intellectually exhausting. And while this is the most important job for new college students, in the sense that this is what they need to do at the start of their development as professionals, it is not the only reason for college. But that is a topic for another time.

sleeping through classes

Dear Alby,

Today I missed my morning classes, sleeping through several alarms. I’m going to get notes from my friends and talk to my professors about the work I missed, but this isn’t the first time it’s happened. I’m tired all the time and stressed out. What should I do? <Sleeping Through Classes>

Dear STC,

Congratulations on recognizing you have a problem. Some college students believe there’s no harm in skipping classes. However, there is a strong correlation between class attendance and earned grades. Quite simply, if you want to be in college, go to your college classes.

While the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, their study also shows wide variations in how much sleep an individual may need. Some of your peers may be fine with only 6 hours, while you find yourself craving nearly twice as much (11 hours)! Or your roommate may be sleep-deprived, needing much more than you do at this particular moment. The person who needs less may experience peer pressure to stay awake longer, compounding the problem. It’s hard to pay attention when your mind is drifting into dreamland.

If you can’t wake up when you’re supposed to, go to sleep earlier. While obvious, this solution requires examining and arranging your life accordingly. Schedule an appointment for the time you will stop looking at glowing screens. Set an alarm for when you’re going to bed. After a while, you will find yourself naturally waking up early enough. During the quiet hours of the morning, you may find that you can get more done.

My second piece of advice is also simple. Be consistent in your sleep habits. Even if you have a Mon/Wed/Fri class at 8:00am and a Tue/Thu class at 10:30am, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. You’ll throw yourself off balance if you deprive yourself of sleep some nights and try to catch up later.

You would be foolish not to drink water when you’re thirsty, or if you alternated starving and binging on food. So sleep when you’re tired, and keep a steady schedule.

As you become more attuned to your body’s needs for sleep, you might find yourself able to get by with less, either regularly or occasionally. Maybe you can even train yourself to do this. But you need to establish a firm baseline first.

Take care of yourself. <Alby>

first summer in college

Dear Alby,

I just finished my first year in college as a science major and I’m wondering what to do this summer. Many of my friends say it’s important to land an internship or do research, but it’s been hard to find that kind of job because places want upperclass students with more experience. What can I do? <Fear of Missing Out on Summer>


I agree with your friends that it’s important to get work experience while you are an undergraduate to complement your classroom knowledge, whether working at a company or in a research lab or (ideally) both. While it would be fine to do this after your first summer of college, it’s also perfectly fine to begin later. Your greater knowledge will prepare you better to land those types of jobs in future summers.

As for this summer, it can be a magical one in your life, because you have a great deal of freedom. You are young enough that many families would be glad to see you come home and stay indefinitely. (This won’t necessarily be the case for you or them in just a few years.) But you have also reached the age of majority, when you can strike out on your own. You can be anywhere.

Yes, you’re limited by finances. For most students it’s necessary to earn money, and the habit of work is an important discipline. But if you can afford some time during the summer, set aside resources to travel: alone, or with a friend, sibling, or cousin. One of life’s great pleasures is puzzling out how to get from Point A to Point B while staying close to the ground. Expensive hotels are all the same, because they insulate you from the very places you’re visiting. Living cheaply allows you to appreciate the unique aspects of your locale. And traveling can refresh your body, mind, and spirit.

Whatever you decide to do this summer, make sure you do at least one thing that you will anticipate, you will enjoy, and you will remember. <Alby>