An article appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago analyzing the ratio of money American CEOs are paid when compared with their employees. It would take 275 years for the median employee to earn as much as the head honcho does in a year. Many of the article’s quotes suggest injustice, the widening economic divide that is the theme of 21st century economics and will only grow more pronounced. But there are arguments made from those at the top that they deserve every multiple of their employee. These individuals are asked to represent the entire company in ways that employees never do. Ultimately responsible for the movement of their company’s stock price, the attention of millions focus squarely on their actions. It’s an enormous pressure, clearly appreciated and rewarded by boards of directors or whoever is writing these giant checks. More simply, the person at the top is (arguably) best suited to shoulder the responsibilities of a large company. Years of training, thousands upon thousands of hours, have crafted them into a commodity in such sparse supply that they can squeeze their shareholders for exorbitant amounts of money. Do I believe that’s true to the tune of 275 times? No. That smart people do believe in that ratio is not a surprise though. Experience tells me there’s truth on both sides of the argument, so the real question is: how can some people be so much more valuable than others?
The impact of learning hit me most abruptly during my first differential equations lecture in college. Second semester of sophomore year, I had just decided to switch majors and this was a serious introduction to the world of engineering. (For those wondering, I also had zero idea what differential equations were when I sat down that day.) Between senioritis in high school and barely skating through my freshman year, I pretty much put high level math to the side for 18 months. This first day, alongside nearly all freshmen, I had immense appreciation for those who had never stopped learning. Every lecture, problem set, and book had built on top of one another in endless succession since their elementary school days. Each lesson wasn’t just a new fact, it was a fundamental improvement to their baseline knowledge, the framework used to judge problems and discover solutions. Learning made them more capable of learning. They took more from each lecture than I possibly could. Their toolset was sharper, better.
It’s worth noting that I’m not mentioning these points out of hyperbole or misguidance. I lived this reality during 50 minute lectures in college, fully engaged and absorbing in the first 10 or 15 minutes. Inevitably, there was a turn in the lecture, like a car running full speed at a cliff side and miraculously pulling a quick jerk to the left just before plunging into the canyon. When the lecturer would introduce an example to put a theoretical topic to the test, my steering wheel locked and into the canyon I fell. Looking back from my free fall, I envied fellow students who could find analogous concepts to bring about order and context. I spent the rest of my hour trying to rewind and understand, but we all know how that goes. The next two days would be a test in my ability to catch up, always under complete distress because a new topic was lurking in the distance.
And sure, this was MIT, taking some of the most “difficult” classes in the world. It’d be easy for me to say that I’ve learned, with hindsight, that someone’s natural gifts are not the best predictor of their success in this type of situation. Instead, I can see now that consistent attention and hard work separates students, ultimately leading to success on tests, interviews, and jobs. But that would be disingenuous. It didn’t take any hindsight, I learned it that day in college. Students I felt more intelligent than destroyed me in tests and embarrassed me when discussing problems. Telling myself that they may know a few facts but I was “smarter” was a cop out. They were smarter. They were on the top of the cliff, I was nursing my wounds and trying to catch up.
From this experience came an appreciation for thought and knowledge. It wasn’t about knowing a fact, but crafting a framework to improve one’s experience with the world. The smartest in the class didn’t only know the most, but saw problems where others couldn’t. They answered questions I didn’t know existed and never stopped sharpening their tools. Every lecture, every day, every conversation became richer and more vibrant, and I could see it. It was clear that gathering knowledge doesn’t provide intrinsic benefit (“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library”). But information colors and defines the filter through which we view the world.
When I think back to the CEOs and their outrageous pay, maybe they are 275 times more capable. We are all afforded vast amounts of time to improve ourselves in various dimensions, from technical skills to creative abilities. The CEO may have been at the company for decades, seeing the business from it’s most basic problems all the way to the high level difficulties that only managers ever face. Rushing to finish a presentation as an intern or thinking through potential reorganizations before bed. These thoughts grow upon one another, continually improving the ability to make future decisions. Each exercise builds on earlier thoughts. Improvement accelerates when enough time is spent in an industry or company.
The realization of compounding thought has had as big an influence on me as any idea. With as much time as we have to think, from jogging to folding laundry to commuting, it’s no wonder some have been able to separate themselves so clearly. As David Foster Wallace so perfectly describes in “This is Water”, if we’re taught anything in college, it’s how to think. Throughout our lives there are countless opportunities to activate this skill, possibly none greater than the checkout line at the grocery store. Anyone who has been in this situation prior to an important meeting knows just how much can be accomplished within the mind when we focus our thoughts. The possibilities at such a place are nearly endless. As a writer, I’m looking for the link between each person’s basket of food, the time of the day, and the expression on their face. A novelist might infer about a family’s home life. An entrepreneur about the new trends, a technologist about the possibilities to improve the checkout system. Opportunities to think are boundless. Each instance is another chance to improve and sharpen the tools. And each time I’m in such a situation, searching for a story or practicing my patience, enjoying the moment itself or planning for an important conversation, I’m brought back to one of the greatest works of all:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
– From “If” by Rudyard Kipling