Serve Somebody

Academics and other “smart” people regularly feel that they are drastically undervalued, and ought to be paid vastly more than they are. They are badly mistaken, but it’s a very common sentiment. Where does it come from?

It comes from their formative years. At a very early age, we immerse our children in a totally artificial environment in which the whole official incentive structure (grades, honor rolls, access to enrichment activities) hinges on academic performance. For the very formative thirteen years from kindergarten through high school, this is the case. All that time, incentives and advancement are tied to being smart, to academic performance. Although they are often socially penalized, the smart kids are on top of the academic heap. A child who performs well in that environment is likely to get a chance to spend more time in it — college, then often grad school, for a total of six to ten more years.

Some of them will even do so well in the academy that they will be offered an opportunity to never leave — they can stay and teach. If they continue to publish and ticket-punch their way up, they can work their way into a tenured research position where they don’t have to teach actual students; they just research and publish their work. Which is to say, they do school papers for the rest of their lives, and get paid for it. They work their way up by producing academic work that pleases a professor, and then join the ranks of the professors and produce more academic work that pleases their professorial peers. At no point in this process do they have to produce something of tangible benefit to the rest of the world. It’s easy to start thinking you don’t ever have to — and if they stay in academia, they really might not have to.

Those (un)lucky few aside, the rest at some point enter the workforce, where a very different set of rules and incentives is in play. Now in the corporate world, there’s sometimes a degree of unreality similar to academe, but set that aside for a moment and assume that our case study — a smart student with at least a college education — has been forced into productive work.

Being smart doesn’t get you anything in the economic mainstream. The trait most rewarded is your ability to serve. If you can provide a service that people need or want — scrubbing toilets, computing taxes, polishing widgets, keeping their vehicles DOT compliant, fixing cars, cooking food, setting bones, whatever — then they will give you money. The rarer the service, and the more they need it, the more money they will give you. Being smart helps to the extent that you can use your smarts to serve better, faster, more efficiently. But nobody pays you to just sit around and be smart. Mostly, nobody pays you for ideas. They pay for execution, which is the hard part.

Knowledge workers might seem like an exception, but they’re not. Knowledge workers are paid for delivering the relevant facts to the people who need to know them, when the body of possibly relevant information is so large and confusing that it’s very hard to learn it for yourself. A good knowledge worker is generally smart, with an encyclopedic knowledge of a hard-to-master field. But that’s not what he’s paid for – he’s paid for telling you what you need to know about that field, and saving you the trouble of having to master it yourself – in other words, he’s paid for turning his specialized knowledge into a service. 

This focus on service and performance is not some rude shortcoming of an imperfect world. It is absolutely as it should be. Like the song says, ya gotta serve somebody.


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