About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the Enjoyment of Accomplishments

Since completing my master’s degree in political science at Brooklyn College in May, I have most often been greeted with: “Congrats. What’s next?” My usual response has been: “Thank you. I have to consider a few options.” In short retrospect, however, I just realized that over the past couple of weeks, I have never once said: “Enjoy it.”

It may be my fault that I didn't react in such a way. But then, the message from others was never “Congrats. What are you doing to soak in your accomplishment?” Thus, I think it is relevant to wonder why society seems to want to keep us so focused on the future when the present is pretty good – in this case, when we have one of the grander accomplishments of our lives right in front of us. Surely, it is not like this for everyone, or in every sphere of human life. When New York Yankees’ star slugger Alex Rodriguez finally won a World Series title last fall, he was not asked “what’s next?” Reporters knew the obvious reply is that he will be back next year to try to do it again. But until then, Rodriguez is going to take some time off and enjoy the accomplishment he had been working at for so long. Rather, the question Rodriguez often received was, “how does it feel?” I did receive this question a couple times. It felt great, I said. But even so, the next question was invariably and quickly, “so, now what?”

Receiving a master’s degree from a respected university (I qualify this to rule out those pesky creationists) might not compare to winning a professional baseball title. But it doesn’t seem a shabby accomplishment. Graduate students take at least 30 credits in a given field of study. Many write master’s theses, which can range from 60 to 100 pages, or more. Others take comprehensive examinations. Upon completing a master’s degree, one joins a population that makes up only 9 percent of Americans, according to Census data (meanwhile, only 16 percent of Americans receive their bachelor’s degree, while just 9 percent receive graduate or similar degrees). Yet I don't think I need to make a case for getting a master’s degree. It seems a good idea for those who can and would like to achieve it. The question is about relishing the successes of one’s life.

Philosophers for thousands of years have argued that humans ought to maximize their enjoyment of life. Some might enjoy contemplating the future endlessly, and consistently brush aside accomplishments on the way toward some higher goal. That is fine, so long as there is room for others to bask in the moment every so often. Of course, there is a limit. When one begins to endlessly fret about every single decision and its potential outcomes, life quickly becomes less enjoyable for said person and everyone around him or her. As for living it up in the moment too often, consider the line of thought put forth by Peter Singer. Singer has argued that we ought to operate on a tight budget and donate nearly all of our non-necessary funds to helping the needy around the world. Other philosophers would counter that donating is great and should be done – but that humans need to enjoy their lives, too. We shouldn’t make our lives miserable to help others, so don’t fret that every Friday you head to the movies with your wife and fork over $24 for some enjoyment (yes, it's at least $12 per ticket to see a movie in New York City). On the topic of this essay, one might argue that enjoying the master’s degree accomplishment is good, but only for a certain period of time.

This leaves us without a sense of how long that period of time should be. In the case of Alex Rodriguez, clearly he has a deadline to meet: the next season opens on a specific date, and he better be ready to go when it does. But there is no clear cut date for one who just received his or her master’s degree, right? Or maybe there is. Perhaps the answer lies in being fully aware of the present and future. While I might enjoy my graduation right now, I know I have more essays to write for this blog, goals at my full-time job at the Center for Inquiry, and PhD application deadlines this fall. Right now, I might take a couple of weeks to decompress. But then it’s back to work.

Perhaps there is a desirable in-between: the relaxed, yet driven, lifestyle that many Europeans live. I recall a study I can no longer find on the Web. It found Europeans were happy in their current standing and were reasonably sure their level of happiness would remain the same in the future. In comparison, Americans were rather unhappy in their current standing but had high hopes for the future. Quality of life in America is not so much worse than in Europe to account for this difference. One must wonder if the best path would be a sort of interplay between critical reasoning about the future and enjoyment of the present – whether in the arms of a loved one, or reveling in some big accomplishment. In this view, one can have some idea of what he or she might wish to do in the future and also enjoy the stakes one plants in the ground as they make their way through life.

But, maybe I've missed a point somewhere. Perhaps, the usual reaction should be taken as an expression of confidence. The people who have asked me “what’s next?” must believe I have something else in mind – that is, that I will not feel sufficiently learned with a master’s degree or in the current position in my life, or that I am such a fine young man that one could only expect I will go on to greater things. This is one reason why my situation is unlike the one featuring Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s accomplishment was seen as the achievement of his career (though he’s still bound to take a shot at the home run record) whereas I am expected by most to continue on toward greater achievements. There is also the possibility that my options are a bit more wide open than his, and people might be interested in hearing what I am considering (Rodriguez was obviously coming back to the Yanks for another year). But -- so long as people allow me to do so -- this does not prevent me from taking some time to enjoy what I’ve accomplished so far. Indeed, that might be an important reason for wanting to accomplish more goals in the future, for if we do not enjoy our accomplishments, why should we want more of them?


  1. Past, present, and future. How long is the present? I think you're asking yourself how long the present of completing a Master's degree is. I think you're right that it's longer than the present of an evening meal, but how much longer exactly is hard to say.

  2. First of all, Michael, let me offer my congratulations on your academic success. I always regard that more highly than being feted for being able to kick/hit/run with a ball.
    As to Peter Singer's argument, I don't find it persuasive because I'm with Karl Marx on this one: the problem with charity is that it perpetuates an already unjust system. Why should some people be beholden to the largesse of others for their survival? As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, if the waiter in the restaurant where you dine cannot afford the rent, you aren't paying enough for your meal. When I am World President for Life, any corporation that chooses to relocate its manufacturing to SE Asia will still have to pay US-level wages and benefits, thus negating the motive to move. And all disinvestment will be taxed at 100%. It is the system that perpetuates the poverty of the underdog, and appealing to people's generosity does nothing to change the fundamentally unjust situation.
    But perhaps you disagree, and would like to make that the subject of your next post...?

  3. I have a different perspective - Life (and its chapters) is like music. The point is the enjoyment of it, not the end of it.

    For each degree / major milestone I've always had a sense of loss which makes me quickly find something else to do that's as enjoyable as what I was required to finish.

  4. The pursuit of a goal is often more "enjoyable" than reflecting on the attainment of it. People get satisfaction from exercising muscles - physical or mental. That's why nobody asks how it feels to be done. Its done: your friends know you will move on to another challenge, not just bask in the glory of having attained the last one. To paraphrase what Derek said, it often feels empty to achieve a goal because the struggle is over. To live in the moment means to percieve the enjoyment of having a goal, work, struggle, to which to apply yourself.

  5. Michael,

    The reason people ask you "what's next" is that Education is ultimately a tool. They want to know what you are going to do with this awesome tool you now have.

    As a kid I used to go to concerts at UCLA's Royce Hall; above the stage a quote reads: Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispensable. Not sure I 100% buy it 40 years hence, but still worth thinking about.


  6. Congrats Michael,

    This spirit of what's next is thoughtlessly nihilistic. Perhaps it's due in no small part to the role religion still plays in American's lives.

    It seems reasonable to think that the jump from the fear of a 'soon to be actual judgment' and a 'getting while the getting's good' mentality isn't far.

    Though it's obviously subsumed in economic and other cultural interests.

  7. Sometimes "what's next" is not an indicator that great, or greater, things are now expected, it's simply a conversation starter. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


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