Reading a book by Richard Foster recently, I was reflecting on the heroes of our contemporary age. The author pointed out that the modern hero, especially in the United States, is “a poor boy who voluntarily becomes rich instead of a rich boy who voluntarily becomes poor.” In other words, the life of sacrifice and simplicity for a great cause is rarely pointed out or elevated in our culture unless it leads to fame, fortune or success. Consider the following challenge. Take 60 seconds to write down as many people as you can think of who went from little or an ordinary life to great fame and fortune. Think of both historical and contemporary characters. Now take 60 seconds to write down as many people as you can think of who voluntarily went from fame and/or fortune to a life of poverty or intense sacrifice for the sake of others. Which list is longer? Try this out with a group of young people as well.
Of course, there are many reasons why one list is longer than the other, but most of us do not know much about those people who passed on a great deal of material and financial trappings for the sake of a worthwhile cause or calling. Few of us dream of our children passing on a solid financial situation (even if it is just a solid middle class fortune) for a good cause that is likely to put one in a humble position. In the media, we see parents and children brought to tears when they see their dream of fame and fortune drawing near. And, of course, the media doesn’t capture much about those who elect to live a different way. Most of us probably had Mother Theresa and a few religious people on our list of those who opted for poverty or simplicity, but my guess is that our collective list from the 60 second challenge would have the wealthy outnumbering the other by quite a bit.
I’ve written many articles about self-directed learning on this blog, and I often argue that it is important because it promotes human agency, a growing capacity to act and have a measure of control over one’s path in life. However, this should not be confused with advocacy for the path to wealth and comfort. I contend that agency must also be combined with a clear sense of purpose and calling, and those may lead each of us in wildly different life journeys. Some callings may well result in significant recognition and financial benefits, but I contend that the calling and purpose should be in the driver’s seat.
Media outlets are likely to elevate those who are recognized and wealthy, but learning organizations have an opportunity to invite young people into discovering a wider spectrum of life paths, ones that include those that lead people to humble circumstances with along the rags to riches stories that often get the spotlight.