On doing lots of things and doing them well

The chief problem with thinking of work in terms of a career is that one gets in the habit of thinking that one can only do one thing well. But then at some point one gets stuck because that sort of thing is no longer desirable or because one can no longer stomach the idea of doing that thing every day for another 10 years. Whereas a creative, reflective, talented person, someone who’s thrown off the idea of a career, quickly realizes that he can do lots of things and do them well.

It wouldn’t take this kind of person long to recognize how much easier it is to get by in this freelancers’ world by doing lots of things and doing them well than it is to try to shoehorn oneself into doing one thing really well and doing that thing over and over again. Easier and interesting versus harder and boring…

What is more, apart from the interesting variety to be discovered in doing lots of things and doing them well, apart also from the daily learning involved, and apart finally from the recognition of one’s increasing capacities and greater self-worth, it may turn out that there is unity underlying doing lots of things and doing them well. Finding this underlying unity, which is a philosophical adventure, would help the inquirer to make sense of his work life so that he would no longer feel scattered about or pulled in multiple directions but would see himself coming together and made lighter by self-understanding.

Moderate risk/moderate gains model

Yesterday, I showed that the career, an all-or-nothing model, amounts to high-stakes gambling. Either you get and secure the $100,000-200,000/year position, or you do not. If you do secure the position, you fear losing it, fear being sick, fear being unable to pay off your debts, and so work yourself/are worked to the bone, thereby realizing many of your fears. If you don’t, then you’re not sure what you can do otherwise and you’re incentivized to up the ante (relocate, hustle, etc.) and gamble again. Either way, the house wins.

Continue reading “Moderate risk/moderate gains model”

The career as high-stakes gambling

If you conceived of a career as a certain kind of game and knew how the game worked, then you’d conclude before you even began playing that the house always wins. Consider how much you’d have to ante up simply to be able to come to the table:

  • Time: Somewhere between 4 years minimum and 15 years maximum (BS, MD, residency, post-doc fellowship) of your life;
  • Resources: Approximately $20,000 to $200,000, typically in loans;
  • Excellences: The acquisition of a highly specialized set of tools, skills, and a discrete body of knowledge that may or may not–after 4 to 15 years–have any, or as much, market value.

Now consider the risks:

  • Volatility: A job market which is highly variable and not, contrary to what some economists would have you believe, all that predictable;
  • Potential Earnings: These fluctuate. Sometimes, the payoff is quite high. Sometimes, due to a streak of bad luck or bad hands, the payoff doesn’t come.
  • Specialization: The claim that you can do this one thing very well does not entail that there are careers in which doing this one thing well yields material rewards.
  • Stuckness: You’re early 30s to mid-40s, you’ve done this one thing for 1 to 2 decades, it’s awful for any number of reasons, but because you’re in debt or because you’ve overspent or because you have dependents (etc.) or because you’ve no clue what you could do with your life, you’re stuck: you can’t roll back the clock, and you can’t go on this way for another 10 years.

The career is high-stakes gambling. First you’re encourage to bet high, then you lose. Then you notice that you keep losing, but you’re forced to stay in the game because you’re incentivized to believe that it’s the only way you can make up for your increasing loses. Walking away is too risky, but staying in the game is too costly. The House always wins, therefore, because even when on the rare occasion when you win, in the long run you lose.

Tomorrow, I’ll propose that there’s a good way out of all this.

On career respectability as a cover for shame

Perhaps the strongest reason why people speak so often, at such great length, and with such perturbations and agita about the desire to have a career is that they wish to appear respectable in the eyes of others. It is not as if they wanted their lives to be flourishing; it is rather the case that they want not to be ashamed, to lead a shameful life.

Respectability, let’s say, is the antithesis of shame for, by achieving higher social status, he cannot be charged with having something to be ashamed of. People look up at him out of something like awe and fear; they do not look down on him, now vulnerable and exposed, now denuded. It is not true that a career makes the lawyer, the doctor, or the CEO into a noble human being–surely not–because having a good career bears no relationship to being a morally upright person, and vice versa. What is true is that having a good career immunizes one from the possibility of feeling the downcast eyes of others, sheltering one from the fear of losing social standing, stilling questions about life’s meaning and one’s place in it all.

To have a career is to ‘count’ for something; to not have a career is to go uncounted.

Does it have to be this way? Why can’t one be a virtuous human being, perform good works, and spend one’s life meaningfully without ever thinking of having (or losing or switching) a career? Perhaps chasing a career or following a career path–which, let’s now conjecture, may be no more than a perpetuation of the status quo, an affirmation of the relations of power existing in market society–is making this well-nigh impossible.

A good social world would respect good human beings for being morally good beings. It would not esteem those who covet petty things, glorify minor accomplishments, and list prestigious affiliations.

Why a career has to founder: Hegel’s causality of fate

I’d like to tease out what is desirable about careers–that they are well-paid work, that they carry a sense of continuity, and that they are regarded as respectable–but first I’d like to consider how the conception of the career founders, leading many into strife. I’m keen to tell the story.

In order to have a career, one must commit oneself to undertaking formal training in a particular field or discipline. This decision comes early, is often expensive and time-consuming (my Ph.D. took about 7.5 years to finish), and has as its consequence that of locking one into a certain ‘career path.’

Supposing that the formal education goes well, then one must commit oneself further to career progression. Where one is is not so important as where one would like to be–to wit, higher up. It is at this point, somewhere over the course of 10 years, that careers can ‘stall,’ ‘get off track,’ or, in any case, not go according to plan. How our lives are ‘supposed to go’ is not how they are actually going.

At the same time that one is hoping to make progress in one’s career, one is also looking to start a family. Now we are counseled to seek work/life balance. The work, being onerous by its very nature, is done for the sake of raising a family yet gets in the way of raising one. The duties accruing to each parent are so pressing that it gets in the way of working all the time. To find ‘balance,’ one must work more in one’s career (on the grounds that one will make more money) but also must pay out more for alienated helpers: nannies, babysitters, dry cleaners, daycare, and so on. When one is at home, one is thinking of work; while at work, one is thinking of home.

It will then seem of the first importance to begin thinking of finding a second career or of career change in order to alleviate the pressures in the above framework. But a second or third career will, it turns out, present many of the same conceptual problems that are already built into the very concept of a career.

The case I am making is that career counseling is a red herring and this is because ‘having a career’ is a non-starter. My approach owes a great deal to Hegel’s ‘causality of fate’ doctrine, the thesis being a certain conceptual framework contains within itself a certain fatedness about the shape of one’s path, one’s future. The career as an organizing conception contains the seeds of strife. Then it appears that the desire for work-life balance is a late-stage fantasy arising out of a structure that is, as I say, fundamentally, constitutively unworkable.

Later on this week, I may consider one obvious fact: this being that, when you analyze how 20- and 30-somethings work today–that is to say, the kind of work they are really doing and the ways in which they actually work–few people can be said to have careers anyway. Aspiring to have them will lead to strife.