On Being Original

Good Will Hunting is probably one of my top five favorite movies of all time. It’s one of those movies I purchased on iTunes but don’t feel bad about owning because I’ve probably watched it over 50 times by now. This post is about a specific part in the movie where Will has just stepped in to use his eidetic memory to stop a pony-tailed jerk from bullying his friend in front of a lady. If you’ve ever seen the movie, then you’ll know what I’m talking about, but if you haven’t, feel free to read the entire exchange here.

The key part I was thinking about today is this one:

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.
Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This is an excellent scene for a number of reasons. Mainly because our hero has just completely demolished some rich Harvard kid by finishing the sentence he’d memorized and then asking if he was going to continue plagiarizing. Priceless. But this scene isn’t just awesome for that reason, it’s because the playing field has been leveled. On one hand, you’ve got this rich kid who — and I’m just assuming here — has been handed his life on a silver platter. Then, on the other hand, you’ve got Will who was abused as a kid, lives in run-down house — in a low income area — which he pays for by working construction. Normally, there would be no question who was a success and who wasn’t.

But suddenly, perspective gets adjusted when social status is removed from the situation. Sure, Clark is smart, but it’s immediately clear that Will is right. Technically, we could all educate ourselves, more or less, on the information contained in books alone. Assuming, that is, that we could read at the super-human speed Will does while apparently photographically memorizing each page for perfect recall later on. But never mind that.

The absolute kicker is that things boil down to their most basic expectations here when Clark tries to throw his last right hook. “I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.” Ah, so stripped of all else, this is how Clark pictures success. He’s with his family on the way to a skiing trip while some poor jerk serves his family fast food. And there you have it, the reason we are all pressured into student loans and mortgages.

In that scenario, no one wants to be the guy asking if you’d like fries with your order.

And yes, I get it, it’s a movie. But this is something we experience on a daily basis in the form of social pressure and why? Well, for the longest time people had a great point. If you didn’t have a degree, you would end up with a much lower-paying job than your degree-holding counterpart. But the funny thing is, people like you and me have done something very interesting and it’s worth some consideration.

Suddenly, you’ve got a part of society living off the interest and they didn’t even need the degree to get there.

Oh, and that part of society could afford to go skiing if they wanted to, or sleep, or write all day, or whatever they may want to do. They could also choose to go back to school and get the degree if they wanted. Or maybe read book after book at the library. The point is that they have choice. Between Will and Clark, neither of them have the kinds of choice I’m talking about. They are limited to the framework in which they’ve placed themselves. My argument is that having choice is better. Being financially independent is the next step in evolution. It’s not a new idea by any stretch, but every day it’s catching on with more people. Each day, there are more of us trying to achieve it. Some of us even succeed.

And at that point, life stretches out before you like a grassy plain. Like the poem by Robert Frost, there are some paths and you could choose the less-traveled path*, but you would do just as well to use that power of choice to tread down your own path. And indeed, when given such freedom, you have little choice but to do so.

* Frost isn’t talking about an actual path that is less-traveled. He’s talking about a traveler who, after learning that both paths are equal and that he will only get to experience one in his lifetime, decides to choose one at random and then later tell people he took the one less-traveled. The dirty liar.

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