From the President’s Desk: SYMSSC — Your Job Is What You Make It
“Something (as memories or knowledge) that comes from the past or a person of the past.” That’s how Merriam-Webster defines “legacy.” On March 3, 1993, Jim Valvano ascended the steps of the ESPY Award (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award) show, an annual gala honoring athletes for their excellence in sports performance. Jim Valvano, known for his 1983 North Carolina State University basketball title, was a well-respected college basketball coach and a college basketball analyst. On that day in 1993, however, Valvano was honored not for his success or his coaching skills. Valvano instead was the recipient of the first ever Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. Battling the late stages of terminal cancer, Jim Valvano accepted his award without sentiments of thanks or honorary mentions, but rather with words of advice, encouragement, and life lessons. Passing away just eight weeks after receiving his award, Valvano left behind an interesting legacy. While prior to the ESPY’s Valvano would have left a legacy primarily as a great basketball coach and analyst, his speech made him better known for his tremendous inspiration and courage.
It was brought to my attention, in an interesting confrontation, that there are those who disapprove of Syms and the general pursuit of Jewish college graduates toward business degrees. This individual argued that those who pursue careers in medicine, education, or Rabbanut wind up changing lives. Those who pursue careers in medicine, education, or Rabbanut apparently impact, transform, and, most importantly, their lives are valuable. What about those that pursue business? Apparently their life ethos is purely fiscal, measured by net worth, dollar signs, and a lack in an established deeper connection to society. They don’t have the ability to change a life, they don’t have a meaningful reason to be alive, they have a less valuable motivation to wake up, and they go to sleep uninspired. These, he argued, are the discrepancies between those that pursue business and those that pursue a “valuable” career path.
Unnerved by the interaction, I started asking around, assembling my own form of market research to try and see what the Syms student body felt on the issue. Why do you want to graduate with a business degree? Is it for money? If so, do you feel satisfied with that? Or is your pursuit one of passion? If so, is that passion worth even half of what a doctor or a teacher can give to this world? Thus, I began to search for a deeper meaning behind the business industry, to find an ethic on which Syms students could lean in the future.
Where is business mentioned in the Torah? When it is, why is it mentioned? Bereishit (3:19) states how “with the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God, as a result of Adam’s sin, tells him that from now on, man must work for his bread. Although not directly about business, this verse does imply that working in order to survive (in this case by way of eating) is not only acceptable, but encouraged. Business. In Pesachim 113a and Bava Batra 110a, our sages describe how it is better to resort to public work, even if it is embarrassing, than to rely on gifts from other people. Let’s go further with another source. In Kiddushin 29a, Kiddushin 30b, and Makkot 8b, we are taught that a man must learn a trade and/or craft as well as teach his son a trade and/or craft in order to prevent his son (and himself) from thievery. It seems to be that there is an abundance of sources pointing to the potential acceptance within Judaism of a career in business.
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir (in a speech on ou.org) focuses on this issue of business and its deeper connection to our religious lives. He explains how there is a special importance and focus on business within the Torah. Jews always try to look for kedusha (holiness) in even the most mundane activities, to make each and every moment holy. Business may be mundane, but each day a modern businessman/woman has the potential and the opportunity to sanctify the name of Hashem and to establish the kedusha within the mundanity of business. How does one sanctify business? Through demonstrating honesty, integrity, modesty, and sensitivity. Life is not just about what we do - it is also about how we do it.
On my last day of a summer internship the marketing team gathered around my desk to say goodbye. They proceeded to tell me how impressive I was. They commended my attitude, how I carried myself with grace, and how it was obvious how great of a school Yeshiva University must be. They may not have outright commended Judaism, but I still felt that I definitely made a Kiddush Hashem. Did I save a life? No. Did I carry out a kiruv mission? No. But I co-existed, I impressed, and I brought kedusha into my day-to-day activities of business.
Business may be mundane, but so is teaching, parenting, and learning. Being a doctor is not in itself valuable. People don’t feel “fulfilled in life” simply by having a PhD. The reason that we look to the medical profession as one that is meaningful is not because of the title of being a doctor, but because of how a doctor acts while on the job. A doctor brings meaning into his mundane by taking his PhD, filling it with moments that matter, and helping to change or save the lives of those around him. The teachers that save lives, change lives, and create relationships are the teachers who take their degrees and give them meaning. Not every teacher and not every doctor does this, but the good ones do. And, conversely, not every businessman/woman wants only money out of their job.
In college, an activity may one day be marketing, another day schoolwork, and another day something as simple as sitting in your room and watching a movie. Does it matter? Is what you’re doing fulfilling? Maybe not. But I no longer look at a mundane activity as just a mundane activity - I now look at it as an opportunity. Whatever you might be doing, as crazy and absurd as marketing in corporate America, or as intense and extreme as plastic surgery, it’s not about what you do - it is about how you do it.
The fellow who confronted me was right: doctors and teachers do change lives. They do spark interest, passion, and development. But he was also extremely wrong: it isn’t only doctors, teachers, and rebbeim that can do this. Business may be mundane, but so is almost everything we do. Again, it’s not about what you do, but it’s rather about how you do it. Yes, there are businessmen that only want money, that cheat and lie, but there are corrupt doctors, teachers, and rebbeim too. No job is inherently holy, and no job is inherently corrupt. We ALL have a role in this world, and it is impossible to imagine that each and every one of us is set to be a doctor, teacher, or a rabbi.
While I don’t believe that I am experienced or smart enough to give advice, I would like to impart this message, that life is short and you must make it valuable. Life is short so do what you love, even if it seems mundane or “worthless” to those around you. Do what you love, but make sure that you actually love what you do, and do it with passion and with vigor. If you would like to pursue medicine - cool. If your passion is teaching - cool. If you love finance - cool. Do it. But don’t just do it, do it well, do it honestly, and do it with a purpose. Remember, a certificate is just a few fancy words signed by a dean, which doesn’t give your life meaning by itself.
What does give your life meaning? It is what you do with those words on the certificate, how you live your life, and how you insert the kedusha of Hashem into the most mundane of activities. A job is meaningless until you give it meaning - and that goes for every job. So to he who confronted me: doctors are important, and so are teachers and rebbeim. But I do not see them on an inherently higher or lower level than a businessman or businesswoman. I see a teacher as better than a businesswoman when they take their job and use it for the better. But a businesswoman can do the same, and then she too can achieve meaning. It’s not the degree, nor is it the career, but it’s rather the person and what he/she does with the degree and the career.
Jim Valvano held a position, and from that position he was awarded a moment to speak. With that small moment, Valvano established for himself a tremendous legacy. Valvano’s coaching position alone would have been enough for others to remember him, but, by taking his time and using his position to inspire others and imbue value to his otherwise mundane job, Valvano is remembered for more than just the numbers that he left behind. It isn’t about what we do, but how we do it. Whether that is being a coach, receiving an award in front of the nation, working in accounting, or saving a life, it’s not just about the job. If you want your time to be valuable, then make your time valuable - no matter what you do.
As I leave Syms, no, I do not intend to be saving lives or furthering the Jewish youth in education. But I do hope to inspire, to establish kedusha in business, and to insert value into my daily mundane activities. I do believe that being a doctor, a rabbi, or a teacher is valuable, but I promise you, I will never lose sleep over choosing my path in life - and neither should you. Your legacy will be what you make it, no matter who you are or what you are doing.