An aspirational paradox

In general, contemporary society disparages people extremely focused on their careers, labelling them as “careerists.” No real objections are presented; instead there is simply a vague simmering contempt for “careerists.” When an anti-careerist manages to articulate an objection, it is usually couched as a social justice problem: careerists cause unfair societies by being ahead of everyone else. When practiced appropriately, i.e. looking after one’s own best interests, “careerist” mentalities and behaviors, such as discipline, planning, and diligence, are necessary for prosperity, both personal and societal.

During the early stages, the opposite of careerism isn’t drifting: it’s aspirational behavior. An illustrative anecdote: a pre-med major in my year failed part of her science requirements repeatedly, mostly due to partying. Despite her inadequate academic record in her major field area, she applied to Harvard Medical in her final year. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t accepted. As a mutual acquaintance said: “one’s going up against people who’ve been working to get into Harvard Medical since middle school; they [Harvard] don’t need someone like her.” Although the result was only to be expected, it came as a complete shock to the girl and her parents since they had all believed that she was destined to attend Harvard Med. To listen to the former pre-med student talk today, she didn’t get to go to Harvard Med. It is as if some external force denied her a chance.

As a quick explanation to non-American readers, because the US system requires that students take courses outside of their major field, there is a high tolerance for poor marks in general education requirements; the trade-off is that one is expected to earn reasonably high marks in one’s own field in order to advance to the next level. For an institution such as Harvard Med, that a pre-med student earned anything below average marks in a science course would be unacceptable, unless there was a very good reason clarified in the application statement. A good reason would be a family tragedy or some life event beyond one’s control, but not partying.

The sheer reality is that my friend was right: Harvard Med receives applications from candidates who shown single-minded focus in pursuit of a goal since age twelve. In comparison to that, a twenty-three-year-old woman whose transcript screams “unfocused” is not a prize. Even the act of applying to Harvard would count against her since assessors would conclude that she hadn’t bothered to read the guidance and fit sections, i.e. the pages where expected grades and MCAT scores are listed, on Harvard Med’s website.

The case of Fisher vs. University of Texas 2013 and 2016 (the Supreme Court heard the case twice) is an example of the dichotomy between aspiration and careerism. Abigail Fisher applied to University of Texas – Austin but was turned away as her grades, though above average for her public school, were below the university’s automatic admission standards. The crux of her suit was that UT – Austin both didn’t take into account her extracurriculars and replaced her with an affirmative action candidate. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled – both times – that although UT – Austin ought to have been more transparent in their admissions process, there was no evidence that the university had discriminated against Fisher.

The aspirational part of this story was that Fisher’s extracurriculars, Habitat for Humanity, local youth orchestra without holding a principle position, and miscellaneous charitable activities, were not genuine distinctions in a candidate pool such as that commanded by UT – Austin. Based on my own experience as someone who was in youth orchestras from middle school until college – if one counts my first training ensembles, then I’ve been in orchestras from the age of six up – should an applicant wish to use music involvement as proof of merit, then youth ensemble participation is a simple expectation. Unless one was a section leader, youth orchestra membership is not a sign of exceptionality. According to Habitat for Humanity’s North America page, the annual number of volunteers is around two million. Volunteering with the charity is generous and worthy, but doing so does not make the volunteer stand out in a candidate pool.

While society can discuss endlessly the merits and demerits of affirmative action, the Fisher case indicates that the policy has taken on a role no one could have predicted: scapegoat. The policy has become an escape hatch for aspirationalists seeking to avoid facing their own inadequacies and lack of proper preparation or career focus. Instead of blunt conversations about the real reasons a person didn’t qualify for a desirable professional school or first-choice university, aspirational individuals can offload blame onto the policy. While one can hardly blame the policy for being a scapegoat, one must acknowledge that such use has potential to be very damaging to the social fabric.


  1. The importance of understanding causal pathways (Affirmative Action) Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
  2. Legal silences Ethan Blevins, NOL
  3. Party politics and foreign policy in Brazil’s early history Bruno Gonçalves Rosi, NOL
  4. Immigration and states’ rights Rick Weber, NOL

The importance of understanding causal pathways: the case of affirmative action.

Let us put aside the question of whether affirmative action is a desirable goal. Instead I wish to ponder how to implement affirmative action, given that it will be implemented in some form regardless.

The logic of most affirmative action programs is that X vulnerable community’s outcomes (Y) are significantly below the average. For the sake of example let us say that X is Cherokees and Y is the number of professional baseball players from that ethno-racial group.

Y = f(X) 

A public policy analyst who simply noted the under representation of Cherokees in the MLB, without digging deeper into the causal pathway, may propose that quotas be implemented requiring teams to have a certain share of Cherokee players. Such a proposal would be a bad one. It would be bad because it could lead to privileged Cherokees gaining spots in the MLB at the expense of less privileged individuals from other ethno-racial groups.

A better public policy analysis would note that Cherokees are less likely to enter professional baseball because they are malnourished (Z). This analyst, recognizing the causal pathway, may instead propose a program be implemented to deal with malnourished individuals regardless of their ethno-racial identity.

Y = f(X); X = f(Z) 

Most affirmative action programs that I have come across are of the former type. They recognize that X ethno-racial group is performing poorly in Y outcome, and propose action without acknowledging Z. We need more programs that are designed with Z in mind.

I do not say any of this because I am an upper class white male who resents others receiving affirmative action. To the contrary. I have benefited from this type of affirmative action several times in my life. On paper I am a gold mine for a human resources worker looking to fulfill diversity quotas: I am a undocumented Hispanic of Black-Jewish descent who was raised in a low income household. I am not however vulnerable. I come from a low income household, but my Z is not low. Not really.

Despite my demographic group, I am not malnourished. I could stand to lose weight, but I am not unhealthy. I attended a state university, but my undergraduate education is comparable to that of someone who attended a public ivy. My intelligence is on the right side of the bell curve. Absent affirmative action I am confident I would achieve entry into the middle class.

Nor am I a rarity among beneficiaries. My observation is that many beneficiaries of affirmative action programs are not low on Z and left alone would achieve success on their own. Affirmative action programs are often constructed in such a way that someone low on Z could not navigate their application process. It may seem egalitarian to require applicants to submit course transcripts, to write essays, or present letters of recommendations. However these seemingly simple tasks require a level of Z that the truly under privileged do not have.

Good public policy analysis requires us to understand causal pathway of why X groups do not achieve success at similar rates as other groups. We must design programs that target undernourishment instead of simply targeting Cherokees. If we fail to do so we may have more Cherokees playing for the Dodgers, but will have failed to solve the deeper program.

Note that I say vulnerable as opposed to ‘minority’ in the above passage. This is to acknowledge that many so-called minority groups are nothing of the sort. Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians form majorities in various parts of southwest, south, and the pacific (e.g. Hawaii). Women likewise are not a minority, but are often covered by affirmative action programs. Jews are in many instances minorities, but in contemporary life are far from under represented in society’s top professions. This distinction may seem too obvious to be worth making, but it is not. Both sides of the political spectrum forget that the ultimate goal of affirmative action is to aid vulnerable individuals.  Double emphasize on individuals.