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Real Values, Nominal Values, Conditional values

The title of the post is an abuse of terminology from Economics – you are probably thinking about inflation – but in fact what comes below has nothing to do with money. After one whole week of (stressful) exams, burying myself deep under many levels of academics, I have finally had the time to sit down, sip my coffee slowly and finish the thoughts I’ve had for many weeks now. This post, is my attempt to answer the question “which achievements have real values, and which don’t?”

Just a few line to explain the contextual background of this question. Fact is, I have had a hard time for the past few weeks trying to figure out what values I have, or, if there is a market for human values, how much I am worth. Then, I tried to imagine a world without me, and there seemed to be no difference, at even the smallest scale. The Economics Department at Princeton would probably be that same department in Fisher Hall, with or without a kid who studies macro and knows a thing or two about Economics. Then I look at a few friends. There are friends back home who are actively helping poor communities with their projects. Then there are many UWC classmates who are traveling the world and doing their best to raise social awareness. Then there are many fellow Princetonians who have already established their start-ups, etc.

Then there is me, who, with my pen and paper, try to solve a differential equation or learn macroeconomics theory. So I got impatient, and probably I would get impatient many more times in the next 6 years in graduate school (provided I get into one). So I did myself a favor, and started to try to categorize the many things I did to see which one was of real value, and which one was not.

The first thing I considered was my getting into Princeton, and I concluded it only had conditional values. I will later define the term ‘conditional values,’ but let me explain. When I was in middle school, I tried my best to get into good high school. Then I tried my best to get into good university. Then I am trying my best to get into graduate school. Then I would probably try my best to look for a job, and then to get promotion. This perpetual stream of wants or desires is common to most people; many of us have done the same until we stop at a certain point. There is certainly no clear right and wrong in how early one chooses to leave this road, high school, university, or graduate school; since as we have observed, there are successes and failures in any case. What then, determines the value of getting into a good school, like Princeton, for instance? To answer that, assume after college, I will go back home and be a singer-songwriter. Then there is no difference between me getting into Princeton and me getting into a university in Vietnam. The value of me getting into Princeton, therefore, depends on the values of the thing I will do after college. Hence, getting into Princeton only have conditional values, for the values are being conditioned on other values. Conditional value is dangerous, since it may mislead people into thinking that it is the real deal itself. For that reason, I didn’t like it when people call each other “name + institution name,” such as when some Vietnamese people called me “Vu Princeton,” as if the institution is the face value of me. It is not.

Then I realized 21 years old is a stage of life where most of the values we carry are conditional, and it is our choice to make that value either real or nominal. By real values, I mean things that leave an impact for oneself, his/her family and acquaintances, or the community. By nominal values, I mean things that only sound good by name, but everyone’s life, including the value-bearer, would be unaltered without it. For instance, the GPA I have tried so hard and spent so much time to achieve would mean nothing if I do not get into graduate school (which is another conditional value). My knowledge about dynamic optimization and other macroeconomic theory would have real value if I use it to write a paper that contributes an important insight; otherwise it turns into nominal, since me not knowing dynamic optimization wouldn’t change my life, my family’s or anyone else’s lives for the worse.

Naturally, real values are preferable to nominal ones for any rational person who aims at a ‘happy life,’ a life of virtues (slight reference to Aristotle). So everyone aims for real values. The problem is that sometimes we only do so subconsciously, and forget what real values we are aiming at (so-called “being lost”); or, get confused between conditional values and real values, as mentioned above. Getting lost temporarily is okay, but getting confused between different types of values is utterly dangerous. The most important thing is to be very clear about which category each of your values belongs to – nominal, conditional, or real.

Well – just random thoughts when my time constraint slacks.


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