Sunday, March 20, 2016


I have thought a lot about the nature of work, perhaps because I never fully adapted to the workforce. It is difficult to say exactly why that was the case, and my theory is that I have an innate preference for natural relations with others, i.e. the same kinds of relationships that our distant ancestors used to have, perhaps as far back as the hunter-gatherers. Whenever I had a job, I distinctly felt that my relationships with my supervisor and coworkers were contrived. After observing forced collegiality for over thirty years, I still think that my work relationships were based on false behavior. That partially had to do with my immediate recognition that I was not the same as the others, that we were not really a cohesive group, and that I didn't care in the slightest about career or organizational goals. Beyond the income provided, I didn't think it would matter in the least if any of the companies for which I worked ceased to exist. Actually, most of them have since shut down, and I doubt that anyone is mourning their loss. The crux of the matter probably relates to the fact that my work environments existed exclusively within the context of free markets and that the primary objective of the companies for which I worked was to make a profit. From my point of view it seemed as if other important factors such as whether the employees liked working there or whether the goods and services provided by the companies were desirable beyond narrow economic parameters were never examined or discussed at all, making the enterprises seem mindless and potentially foolhardy to me.

If you are critiquing this post as you read it, you may be thinking at this point that I just happen to have worked in a commercial environment that didn't suit me, and that perhaps I would have been happier doing something else. I've thought about that too, but haven't been able to come up with a solution, because the free-market economy directly or indirectly affects how nearly everyone makes a living. For example, I liked science in high school, so perhaps I ought to have had a scientific job. If you look closely at that, the jobs of most scientifically-trained workers are little different from those of others: they work at for-profit companies. If they are doing research they may have to jump through hoops to get funding; much of that funding comes from corporations or corporate-influenced government agencies. Engineers and medical doctors also work in environments with economic constraints and competitive infrastructures.

What if I had been an artist or writer? We recently watched a documentary on the painter David Hockney. For a modern painter, he isn't bad in my opinion. He worked hard for many years, was competitive and persistent, and he prevailed. However, to succeed at his level, you also have to be an entrepreneur, which instantly associates you with ordinary capitalists. Although I like some of his paintings, he is no Vermeer or Bruegel, and with comparable effort I could probably paint just as well as he does. Or perhaps I could have been a writer. As a writer I would never have been able to produce work fast enough, would not have fit in well in a writing program, would immediately have detested the literary establishment, and, with no entrepreneurial spirit, may well have ended up writing for pleasure without remuneration.

When I look back on my working years, I can't honestly say that I found them enjoyable, but they provided me with enough wear and tear to know something of the world. If I had to do it over again, rather than take the approach of finding a field that would be satisfying or in which I would be more likely to make important contributions, I would most likely take a vocational approach and try to find a path in which the least amount of stress and annoyance would result in the earliest possible retirement.

As an independent thinker I am immune to most of the mythologizing that accompanies those who have successful careers in any field. I know enough not to get carried away with hero-worship, and it is even difficult for me to identify people whom I might count as role models. Different people have different drives, over which they have little control, and admirers who seek to emulate the successful may not realize that success may require compromises that they would be unwilling or unable to make. Moreover, success often has unintended consequences for both individuals and society. I'll use Henry Ford as an example. Though he is revered as one of the greatest industrialists in history, his relationship with his only son, Edsel, was irreparably damaged by his drive for success, and he did not foresee the destructive effects that automobile manufacturing would have on the agrarian Michigan that he cherished; global warming is also in part his legacy. Regarding successful artists and writers, many have led uninteresting lives that wouldn't warrant a biography, and some have had psychiatric conditions with which I'd prefer not to be afflicted. In my experience, whenever I have looked closely at any highly successful person there is usually a prominent caveat that others seem to overlook. Finally, another aspect of work is its relationship to social status; in this society, one's job almost defines one's social standing. As I've said, social climbing is not in my blood.

Don't construe my views on work to be entirely negative. I think we all need to work at something, but whenever possible that work is best separated from the models imposed on us by the economic structure that we happen to inhabit and the pressures that we encounter daily from prevailing social norms. The psychological needs met by work can be satisfied by something as simple as painting a shed, installing a new mailbox or posting on your personal blog. Working without compensation has been a liberating experience for me.

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