Those of us who study Labor Economics like to think that decisions about human capital investment are made in a logical manner, when people compare the cost of education to the benefits (often, but not always, financial) that arise from such education. However, in looking back over my own life and in seeing the often nonlinear paths taken through life by many people I know, I realize that the “marginal this equals marginal that” approach to such decisions does not always represent the process actually undertaken by people as they make decisions about where they will focus the efforts of their lives.
As we celebrate the birthday of our country, I stumbled across an article an article (well, to be honest, I was caught by “clip bait” when I logged onto my computer) about what the founding fathers did before they signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, an act that gives us all a very long “weekend” this year, due to the fact that its anniversary falls in the middle of the week. As I scrolled through the names and the stories of what they had done before becoming part of the revolution, I was struck by the fact that while some of them had very “successful” lives before their involvement in the revolution, many did not. In fact, some might have been called “failures” had it not been for their later involvement in one of the most successful projects in human history.
As I am someone whose life has taken many non-linear turns, I was amused to hear that these men did not live lives that led them directly to acts that would assure that their names would be read on a computer over 200 years later. And, yes, they were all men who actually signed the document, even though their wives were, I am sure, strong forces that made the document possible. It almost certainly would not have been possible for the men to gather together to write the Declaration of Independence had they not had the support and encouragement of wives. Perhaps some of those wives brought them food and drink during the long days spent composing it, and almost certainly those wives cared for any children at home and kept up with daily chores. As is seen often in history, the acts that are remembered are only made possible by the support and labor of many whose names are not remembered.
Indeed, it would have been very possible for some of the signers’ names to have also been lost to history. As someone whose life did not take the path I expected, learning of this reassures me that such detours are not always the end of the story. I am amused to learn of a signer who is now described as an “incompetent tax collector” and another who survived several shipwrecks while another had several businesses fail and another actually vanished at a young age. There was the cousin of traitor Benedict Arnold, a college dropout and an indentured servant, as well as a smuggler. Reading the stories of the lives of these people whose bravery allow me to write this so many years later, I am humbled and assured that my own failures do not have to be the final word in the story of my own life.
I would like to wish my readers a very happy Fourth of July, and encourage us to recall, in this divided time in our history, all that there is on which we can agree. I suspect that people of all political persuasions appreciate the warmth of sunshine, the smile of a tiny baby, the smell of a barbecue, the taste of cool water on a humid day, and the sound of a babbling brook as we pause to relax. As much as there is that separates us, there is so much that unites us. Let us all join with those we love to appreciate our shared freedoms and hope in the future on this important day.