Friday, September 16, 2016


When I was in my senior year of high school, I ran for a position on the executive board of our high school's National Honor Society chapter.  I ran against nine other people, and four of us would be elected; one for each of the societies four pillars.  We each had to prepare a speech and come up with a plan for how we wanted to lead the society.

A week after we prepared our speeches and plans, the honor society had a meeting to remind everyone to vote after school.  All the candidates re-hashed their speeches and asked everyone to consider voting for them.  Then, we all went through the school day, waiting until after school to submit votes.

This was our opportunity for campaigning; we weren’t specifically told to campaign; it didn’t really occur to me to do anything extra since the election was not school-wide - only National Honor Society members could weigh in.  One girl, I’ll call her Rachel, took it upon herself to make sure she won the election.  She showed up to school early that day in a nice dress and tall boots.  She brought enough posters to hang up in every classroom (even the ones she had never been in previously), all of which shouted “Vote Rachel Smith” in all-capital red white and blue.  She walked around the halls all day during passing periods and after school, bribing people with candy.  “I can only give you candy if you promise to vote for me” she said with a smile.

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, opportunism is “the art, policy, or practice of taking advantage of opportunities or circumstances, often with little regard for principles or consequences.”  The National Honor Society election was a circumstance for opportunism.  Rachel saw that (most) high school students like candy and that the more often her name was seen/heard, the more likely she was to get votes.  Rachel’s affinity for this form of political opportunism gave her a spot on the National Honors Society executive board.  Alas, I did not do any extra campaigning and spent the year as a normal member of the society.  

I wanted a spot on the executive board, so why didn’t I practice opportunism like Rachel did?  Like I mentioned earlier, it was partly because it did not even cross my mind to do so. Rachel always had an ambitious demeanor. She was ruthless in her quest to be a perfect college applicant, and one of our english teachers even called her the “Terminator.”  She never hesitated to assert her own opinions and she was almost always right.

We were both relatively smart: honors students with top grades and lots of passed AP tests under our belts.  Where we differed, however, was in our personalities and general ways of thinking.  I was shy and soft-spoken in high school.  I knew I would feel “slimy” advocating for myself as strongly as Rachel did - in my view, people should vote for those with the best speeches and leave it at that.  The way I saw it was that anyone who campaigned for themselves so strongly would be seen as superficial.  I thought that my strategy was superior because it was genuine and simple.

Even so, after I thought about it, I saw the merit in Rachel’s strategy.  The extra work she did showed dedication and drive.  To someone like her, the way I handled the election may have seemed lazy and uncommitted.  The two of us had different definitions of what was right, best, and ethical.

I did not win the election - so does that prove opportunism to be the better strategy?  This is a difficult question to answer.  Rachel is currently studying on the pre-law track at a top-notch university and spending summers in the nation’s capital.  Her personality traits will certainly serve her well in this kind of environment.  The field of politics seems to necessitate opportunism; if you don’t shamelessly advocate for yourself, you will get lost because there will always be someone else willing to do so for themselves.  Can success exist without opportunism?  Is it possible to to find survive in a capitalist society without it?


  1. That is a touching story. Things may be different now as compared to when I was in high school. (We called it Arista then.) I was under the impression then that being a leader in Arista was a popularity thing and in my head, at least, popularity among students and merit based on performance in the classroom were two quite different things. So I would ask the following

    1. Had she not campaigned this way might Rachel have won anyway, simply because she was an extrovert?
    2. As there were 9 people running for 4 positions but you only described Rachel, what about the other candidates? Did they behave like Rachel or not? If not, then the story seems incomplete here.
    3. Does this matter in a meaningful way that you can point to? Had you been on the board would you have gone to a different university or had a different major?

    So now a little change of context to consider your story. Back in 2004 I taught Econ 101 to Campus Honors Students. They were put in teams and had to make class presentations, where I informed them in advance that they'd be graded, in part, by how much class discussion they'd generate. After one or two of these a team presented where one of the kids was the child of school teachers, so he knew a variety of tricks. They brought candy to the class and gave out candy every time a student offered up an answer. There was a lot more discussion that day. Thereafter, all the other teams brought candy to the presentations.

    I am somewhat anti that sort of reward being set in an ongoing way. People learn the wrong lesson that way. We'll discuss that in class. But as a novelty, it is kind of fun and a change of pace.

    So was Rachel opportunistic in this? I am not sure.

    Now leet me turn to your more philosophical questions near the end of the post. There is an expression called "greasing the skids" which smart business people do to facilitate the transaction. The question then is when is that sensible business practice and when has it become inflated an corrupt? It is not an easy question to answer.

    Some years ago I wrote a very long post on these matters, while I was still a campus administrator and people in the profession (learning technology in higher education) did read what I had to say. It works through the issues, including the questions you raise. Alas, it doesn't offer easy answer.

  2. I enjoyed reading your story, and your reflection was really impressive.

    I am that kind of introvert shy of showing myself, and I have exactly the same opinions with you regarding the campaign. I used to believe that people should naturally discover your talents and personality through time, and therefore give you trust. I feel very uncomfortable to advocate for myself and sometimes lose opportunities because of this. A small example is that I’m good at art and drawing since I was very young, my art teacher always said that I had a talent. But I’ve never nominated myself when there is a position in school that is relevant with art, but I’m always willing to help if someone knows I’m good at it. It was not until I started to look for internships that I changed my view. It was very difficult for me to go through group interviews where you have to act aggressively to express your opinion and show yourself in a limited amount of time. I found that if I’m not good at showing myself, even if I have the right skills and ability, I won’t be able to get the position. So that became something I asked myself to work on and seek improvement. “being elegantly aggressive”, was one of the best advices I received during my time in college. But finding a balance between humble and aggressive, and making myself comfortable at that point was not easy at all.

    However, even if I do not prefer Rachel’s way of campaigning and never want myself to be like her, I would not see Rachel’s behavior as opportunism. Actually, she didn’t do anything wrong. I think she is just having a different kind of personality and value. But if Rachel is put into more complex situations with more personal interest involved, I would wonder how she will act, probably opportunistically without considering moral principles.

    At last, I have similar confusions as you do. A good personality, in other words, always doing the right thing, obeying the rules, not acting opportunistically, which are praiseworthy across cultures in the society, doesn’t seem to be a necessary factor for successful people, especially in politics. This is a sad truth, but I do believe success still exists without opportunism. By doing the right thing with a good personality, people could still find their way to success. Which way? That would be our choice.