Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On work and satisfaction

Today on our local NPR station's afternoon call-in show The Conversation, there was a featured discussion on some new sociological results which indicate that money does, in fact, make people happier - not just relative wealth, i.e. being the richest guy in town, but absolute wealth, your overall buying power. I had my own comments, though as always, being at work, I was unable to call in; I think that anyone who is really made happy by money is probably not all the way up Maslow's hierarchy, for one, and I also think that, humans being social creatures, people are likely to be made happy by money when they are told, point-blank, that money is a measure of success, as most people in our modern consumerist world are. That, however interesting it may be, is not what I'm writing about today.

No, what I'm writing about is a thought which came tangentially off of that topic: the intersection of work and satisfaction. What constitutes satisfying work? Sure, for some people, it might just be decent coworkers and the thought that the job is raking in the bucks... but not everyone feels the same. For some of us, I don't think money can buy happiness, or at least not in the kind of quantity that most people can realistically expect to see. With Bill Gates' money, I could probably effect some significant positive changes on the world - not that Bill isn't (I really like that man, believe it or not) - and I expect that would make me happy. Failing that, however, I just don't really see an ordinary occupation ever leaving me satisfied. I am both too radical and too cerebral. I feel quite strongly about certain ethical considerations, and I think about these feelings too much, to live day-to-day without these sorts of concerns affecting my mentality.

The conclusion that I have arrived at is that I will never be able to live as one of the many who work so that they can do something else. I don't think I can be content doing a job that I don't love or at least think is useful and productive. I suppose this may come off as elitist, and if it does, well, so what? "Elitist" has become a fashionable slur lately, but I don't necessarily think that meritocracy is a bad thing. I think that anyone who attained any real consciousness of the world and their role in it would be hard pressed to live their life day in and day out unconcerned about what they were doing.

Now, I do suffer from the infamous - or at least infamous in some circles - "upper-middle class white kid messiah complex." The name of this issue is a mouthful, but it's also fairly self-explanatory: upper-middle class white kids raised by fairly successful parents are taught that they have essentially infinite potential and are going to change the world, and as a result spend their young adulthood neurotic and depressed about how they are failing utterly to either be superheroes or win a Nobel Prize. Essentially, the syndrome is a failure of statistical understanding - not everyone can win a Nobel. Knowing that, however, doesn't make the damaging effects of normality on the sufferer's self-esteem any easier to bear, nor does it cure us of the drive to "make a real change" or - modestly enough - save mankind. It's a sort of involuntary hubris, and it's hard to know if it's even a bad thing, since it gives its albeit unhappy victims all the reason in the world to be good people.

In short, I think that there is a substantial segment of the population in the more recent generations - what is it that they're calling us now, the "millennials"? - who will never be content working ordinary jobs, and I think that I am among them. We few, we unhappy few, we band of saviors... we will always be seeking that research grant, or that term with Greenpeace, or that place in the State Legislature, because we can never be content with just being someone. We may never have any more positive effect on the world than your typical janitor, car salesman, or teacher (indeed, we're unlikely to have anywhere near the positive effect of a good teacher), but it won't be for lack of drive.

I encourage more people to take on at least part of this condition for themselves, however. I admonish you all to reevaluate the work you're doing. Are you just working for the money? Is that really worth it? Isn't there a cause you could be working for? Some part of society that you feel really needs your help? It may be something mundane or something minor - all it needs to be is something that you think is important, something that you think is more important than whatever comforts and widgets your current paycheck will buy. I'm sure you can think of something. If you're like me, there are altogether too many things you can think of.

So why not consider a career change? Why not put the skills you have to good use? Lawyers, look into EarthJustice. Code monkeys, look into having some of your time go to the Gates Foundation, or into getting into the Google Future project, wherein the world's most ambitious tech company will work to ensure the coming of the technological singularity under the benevolent eye of a loving strong AI. People like me, who have intellect but no drive or direction, well... hell, does anyone have any suggestions?

No comments: