So I was having a brisk conversation with Jack Jeffries, and we were talking about our academic interests and it came up that I have zero interest in pursuing any career in the academy. This prompted her to ask, “ So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I thought my initial answer was unsatisfactory and I wanted to develop it more.
I think the anxiety most people get over their careers is just symptomatic of American culture, not necessarily a bad thing, but I think people get far too worked up over what their job is, and that merits some commentary and self reflection, after all, what is the first question we often ask people we first meet? “So…what do you do?”
Do what, exactly? Notice this type of question is aimed at discovering how someone earns their keep and pay their bills. I think it’s too easy to say this betrays some kind of obsession with money, but I think it’s just a little bit of an insult to assume that the most important or interesting thing we can learn about a person is how they earn money.
It’s funny how careers have become so wrapped up in the value of a person, and you can see this clearly as a college student. The various departments aggressively advertise the amount of money one can earn with the degrees they offer. Workshops and seminars abound in resume writing and networking via LinkedIn, and the walls covered in fliers advertising talks given by self made entrepreneurs, coupled with testimonies from passed students who’ve ‘made it’.
All this focus on the perceived utility of a degree has pushed many humanities departments into some small corner of the campus, where students like me get peppered with the age old question, “ Philosophy is your major? What are you going to do with that?” I hate that question, I really do. I’ve stopped answering it long ago and I have two stock answers that I like to give depending on the environment; “I plan on cooking meth in my basement” or “star in underground gay-for-pay porno films”.
I told Jack that I never do bother to think much about my future career anymore. I plan on distancing my self worth from what ever job I hold. A lesson I picked up on my last deployment to Iraq came from Voltaire’s Candide, towards the end of Candide’s long and strange journey, he asked the old Turkish farmer:
“You must have a vast and magnificent estate?” said Candide to the Turk. “I have only twenty acres,’ replied the Turk. “I cultivate them with my children; and work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice and need.”
Soon after, when Candide and company have returned to their own farm, Martin, Dr, Pangloss, and Candide enter into a discussion of the Turk’s words when Dr.Pangloss remarks:
“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was placed in the garden of Eden, he was placed there ut operaretur eum, to dress it and to keep it; which proves that man was not born for idleness.” “Let us work without theorizing,” said Martin; “’tis the only way to make life endurable.”
I don’t take such a bleak view as Candide and company above, but I think the Turk was on to something there. I think work (and thus, your job/career) should serve as a distraction to life. I think Alain de Botton in his charming little book said it better than the Turk:
Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done: it seems not so much taboo as unlikely. Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything other than take it too seriously. It must destroy our sense of perspective, and we should be grateful to it for precisely that reason, for allowing us to mingle ourselves promiscuously with events, for letting us wear thoughts of our own death and destruction of our enterprises with beautiful lightness, as mere intellectual propositions, while we travel to Paris to sell engine oil (p.324).
That is why I’m taking degrees in Philosophy and Religious Studies, when I need to take regular breaks from the daunting task of contemplating my own death, or trying to discover and implant meaning into my existence, questions far more important than the size of my bank account or 401K. My material needs come at simple costs, my intellectual needs come at a much steeper price.