Does work give meaning to your life? I sure hope not. Careers, on close examination, are an extremely useless vehicle for delivering a holistic life purpose. If you’re extremely busy you may not have had time to consider this. But it’s healthy to take the idea for a test drive.
Your Career Does Not Define You
This summer I was at the staff BBQ, to which everyone’s family were invited. The husband of one of the senior leaders, whom I had not yet met, was free for conversation. Here’s the hard part. In my late twenties, I read Miss Manners to learn those mainstream social skills not instilled in me by my hippie parents. One obscure item of tact is that it’s not always proper to ask what someone does for a living. People can choose to divulge, but it’s sometimes rude to demand that a first impression is built around one’s current career success. There is more to a person than their career, and demanding their career identity is limiting and possibly demeaning.
So, I asked this man how long he had known his wife. They met in their late teens in the same small town they had both grown up in, and they had been together ever since. Being who I am, I regurgitated the statistic that couples who meet before age 23 have a much higher divorce rate than everyone else. They tend to evolve into their true selves as they mature, usually in contradictory ways. Why were they doing so well?
“We each grew, but together. We made decisions as a couple about how we wanted to change, and we followed that path together, as a team.”
What would it mean if we could simply decide who to become? There are a lot of constraints put upon us by society, telling us that we must be this or that. What if instead of imposing constraints on each other we supported one another’s individual hopes and dreams? If this behaviour were normal, I can’t decide if I would think more about myself or what I could do for others. Is true success mostly about our conversations with friends and family and where we are going as a team?
What is Careerism?
Careers, by contrast, might not be all they’re chalked up to be. According to an article in Quartz by Andrew Taggart from July 2018 entitled The Case Against Careers:
“A career is a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences (internships, jobs, gigs…) as well as a staid identity (journalist, firefighter, accountant…) …The aim of the career, and therefore of the careerist’s life, is work success.” [Emphasis added]
This is a great definition of career because it spells out some presumptions that are worthy of dispute. For example, if you had a good self-definition would it be work-centric? If your whole life is your spouse and your spouse dies, you lose your identity. If your whole life is fitness and you become disabled, you lose your identity. And if your whole life is your career and it gets derailed, you can’t look to your healthy body and your robust personal relationship to carry you through hard times.
In order to be resilient in a world of constant change, you need several identities in place before adverse events occur. That way you can be four-fifths “complete” when hit by hard times. And real people are weird; they have sincere internal contradictions that make them uncomfortable at times. There are mumsy types sneaking off to roller-derby, health enthusiasts who love their chips, and happily married people who put a little too much effort into looking good at the office. But being weird also turns out to be universal, so it’s fine to get used to this kind of thing. More than anything, we need to value complex thought as the rest of the world becomes contradictory in its own right.
Developing a clear identity gives you resilience that is a solid base from which to be brave, take risks, and shrug off threats from toxic people and a world gone mad. By contrast, a singular focus on the careerist mindset is a path to personal ruin that exposes you to extremely reliable disappointments.
Your career tells your first-person story. But increasingly our workplace effectiveness is determined by how well we dovetail with our superiors, subordinates, and our peers, both inside and outside the organization. Do we help each other, have each other’s back, and speak to one another with a respectful and considerate voice? Your surrounding network is so influential, your existence at work cannot truthfully be a first-person story.
There’s a great TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan who cites research by a scientist named William Muir. Muir ran an experiment that attempted to breed chickens that were top performing in producing eggs. The surprise outcome was that after several generations these “super-chickens” had almost pecked each other to death. Super-chickens as individual performers become excellent by hoarding the best resources and belittling others.
Coops built around super-chickens under-performed the control group of chickens made of equals. Heffernan makes the case that real workplace productivity is increasingly about teams working together with a sense of helping and collaboration. By contrast, the egos and demands of star-performers can cause teams to fail. Back to the definition of career, the first-person story is less important than the story of the team. Careerism is sounding, increasingly, like it’s not so clever.
Why Do Careers Fail to Deliver Ultimate Fulfillment?
Taggart asserts that before the ascent of careerism, humanity was built around higher visions advanced by organized religion. When humanity mostly abandoned religion, this sense of purpose was thrown out as well. Taggart asserts that there is a “vital existential anxiety” in the human experience that cannot be remedied or brought to peace through our career journey.
In order to achieve life meaning, we must seek transcendent experiences, Taggart suggests. The main feature of spirituality (an individual experience) and religion (a group experience) is that they offer transcendence, taking us beyond the day-to-day. But, by its very nature, work is fundamentally mundane. As meager compensation for abandoning transcendent spiritual quests we are given tasks that give us a sense of meaningless work.
In the typical workplace, purpose is undefined and often kept a secret. If purpose gives us our place in the cosmos, organized religion, at least, puts in a good effort. However, work imposes upon us a secret cult of stuffy clothing, buzzwords, and parlour games where we mimic the views of the highest-paid person who has a relative absence of baby-face. If you were not religious, and you had a good plan to replace God, surely you would turn to something lofty and impressive such as science or art or philosophy. To turn up at your workplace on a Sunday when the air is turned off and your friends and family are absent has got to be the Worst. Religion. Ever.
Don’t Scare the Children
Taggart is most bothered that we always ask children what they want to do for a job when they grow up:
“Instead, we should ask our children how, in a fundamental sense, they wish to live; what and for whom they wish to care; … what, or for whom, they’d be willing to die; in what ways they can be open to what life brings them; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments and at peace with all that is. …To kill the career—call it the Death of the Career–is to begin to wake up to life.”
It’s been a good thought exercise, but I’ll have to draw the line right there. I won’t be starting any death-talk with children at the staff BBQ. You don’t need to read Miss Manners to know it’s a bad idea to make children cry. And there, but for the grace of God, go I.