Book 11: Work
Book XI. Work
1. Philosophies of life rarely concern themselves with something as mundane as the work that we do. But work is a huge affair in the lives of actual human beings. It takes up our time, it wears us out, it inhabits our mind, and it partially defines who we are.
2. What, for example, if the work that you do has no connection to your life purpose choices except that it meets the basic life purpose need of sheer survival? Aren’t you going to resent that work a lot and continually dream about doing something else?
3. Or, to take a different sort of example, say that you are doing work that holds meaning for you but the actual doing of it is an unpleasant experience. You desperately want to write a novel but the writing of it is torture. How difficult will that prove?
4. Or, as a third example, say that you are a stay-at-home parent raising children and running a household. Even though you work every moment of the day, will it feel like you have “real work”? And will the world credit you with doing “real work”?
5. A recent poll put the number of workers who hate their jobs at 85%. Other polls have put the number at “only” 70%. Are all of these workers malcontents? Or is work the problem? It looks like we have another epidemic, but what is the actual problem?
6. Work is indeed the problem. It is hard to tolerate even the work that we ourselves dream up. Kirists know that it has always been like this. They know that work is no innocuous, incidental, or smiley-faced thing. It is something else; and often brutal.
7. Work is something that steals away one-third or one-half of our life. It may pay the rent but it is also a thief. For some people, a lucky few, this is not the case. For most people, it is. For most people, work is a burden, an albatross, and even a killer.
8. Why should the work that most people do not suit their human needs? Let’s try to picture ideal work, work that fits us so well and pleases us so well that we don’t even think of it as work. What would work of that sort look like and feel like?
9. Ideal work would provoke the psychological experience of meaning. It would feel interesting. It would match our moral calculus. It would match our personality and identity. It would pay well enough. And it would not exhaust or overwhelm us.
10. It would also come with certain bonuses and benefits, like, for instance, a sense of community. These extras might actually matter a lot. Maybe we need our work to provide us with a sense of prestige. Maybe we need it to make us feel powerful.
11. Maybe we crave a rock-and-roll lifestyle and need our work to provide it. Maybe we crave respectability and need that from our work. Maybe we need our work to allow us to be our most creative self. We may need our work to do all of this and more.
12. Can any work match this ideal? A teacher may love her work but not be paid decently. A lawyer may love what she does, except for the ethics of it. A social worker may find her work valuable but burn out doing it. A poet may never earn a cent.
13. Let’s say that we did find ideal work. Then we would need the world not to change, the work not to change, and we ourselves not to change. How likely is that? How likely is it that a Starbucks wouldn’t open up right across from our sweet café?
14. Imagine the difference between delivering the mail when the mail consisted of letters from sweethearts, grandchildren and faraway friends, rather than what it now consists of, tons and tons of unwanted supermarket ads. Is such a change tolerable?
15. What are the odds of competitors never appearing? What are the odds of your work interesting you forever? What are the odds of cultural cataclysms not changing everything? What are the odds of you not being transferred or remaindered?
16. So, for work to feel tolerable, we need it to meet a great many criteria, too many really, and at the same time we need nothing to change, no new boss, no new technology, no creeping boredom. Where did we get the idea this could be possible?
17. After I got out of the Army and graduated from college, I briefly worked for the Veterans Administration as a veterans’ benefits counselor. Veterans would come into the office with their concerns and questions and we counselors tried to help them.
18. I saw one veteran after another. In my naiveté, I thought the idea was to help each veteran expeditiously and to get right on to the next needy veteran. I did this for about a day-and-a-half before I was summoned into my supervisor’s office.
19. He explained to me that I was seeing too many veterans and making everyone else look bad. I had to slow down. I had to slow down a lot. His message was perfectly clear. I would not survive my probationary period if I kept working this fast.
20. That didn’t sit so well with me. Soon I left. Next, I talked my way into a job as a proofreader at the American Meteorological Society. I had never previously done any proofreading but I crammed, learned a few symbols, passed a test, and got hired.
21. The challenge with this job was that it was stupendously mind-numbing. It wasn’t just dealing with paragraph after paragraph of jargon-drenched minutia. It was also that, as a double-check, we were to read each line backwards, to catch any last errors.
22. Backwards! Yes, you might indeed discover that a “the” had been spelled “teh.” But what sort of salary would it take to sit there, straining your eyes and your nerves for forty hours a week, scanning lines backwards? More than they were paying.
23. Then I got an odd job “judging contests.” I’d travel around the country to radio stations and “officially” select the winner of the contest that the station was running. The prize was typically some up-and-coming band appearing at a local high school.
24. I’d cover my eyes and pluck a name out of a bowl. I’d show the deejay the putative “winning” entry and as often as not he’d shut our mikes and whisper something like, “It can’t be a junior high school kid. Pick again!”
25. So, I would pick again. And maybe pick again, until we got to the “perfect” winner. I’m sure that repeated picking wasn’t the worst sin the world has ever seen. You and I could both name graver ones. But I couldn’t do that job for very long, either.
26. Then I sold encyclopedias door-to-door. I memorized the pitch and went out with my trainer. It was instantly clear to me that the poor folks I was pestering shouldn’t buy the overpriced encyclopedia set I was hawking. One evening and done.
27. Then, through some fortunate connections, I got a writer’s dream job. I started ghostwriting. I loved writing and I loved being paid for writing. Indeed, it met a great many of the criteria for ideal work. Except, unfortunately, the ethical.
28. First, someone else’s name would appear on each of these books for hire. Did it matter that readers thought they were getting a book written by Joe or Jane? That probably wasn’t a giant fraud. But weren’t readers being duped just a little?
29. Then, was it really proper to, for example, write a book about “the best singles’ bars in America” without visiting any? (I used Chamber of Commerce handouts.) Well, who was I hurting by sending folks to some well-liked fern bar in Houston? But still.
30. More tellingly, was it okay to write an arthritis guide when I knew nothing about arthritis? This well-paid one I just couldn’t make myself do. Instead, I handed it off to a friend, who tackled it gleefully, creating a book’s worth of made-up arthritis cures.
31. Then there was the book about biorhythms. I was asked to confer the mantle of research on some very dubious ideas about human rhythms promulgated by Wilhelm Fliess, an eye-ear-nose-and-throat doctor and Freud’s cocaine connection.
32. I did the research, wrote the book, debunked Fliess, and said some sensible things about biorhythms. The book appeared, carrying the name of a well- known clinical psychologist and turning around everything that I had said about Fliess.
33. Well, that was it for ghostwriting. It was perfect work but dubious. I mourned the loss of that wonderful writer’s gig, one that was allowing me to write my novels, and faced once again the need to acquire that ravenous eater of life and time, a job.
34. I went into training to become a psychotherapist. I found it curious that after not so many classes, very few of which prepared us to do anything in particular, we were supposed to be able to “diagnose and treat mental disorders.” Amazing!
35. It was clear that my peers loved calling the folks they saw “patients,” as if they were surgeons. I knew that something fishy was afoot and I’ve spent the last thirty years writing about the serious shortcomings of psychiatry and psychotherapy.
36. I could go on. If I asked you, you could go on. It isn’t just that work is “hard.” It’s that so much of work doesn’t sit well. It is so solidly embedded in a world of tedium, bottom lines, difficult personalities, dubious ethics and contentious mini-dramas.
37. And work takes up so much time! Maybe we could survive terrible work that lasted just an hour a day. But eight full hours! Add in those lost hours before and after, commuting or brooding about the job. Should half a life be spent this way?
38. Given that work is exactly like this, what ought a kirist to do? Are there some better plans, better strategies, better options? Is there any way to move work from the albatross side of the ledger to the status of acceptable or even satisfying?
39. Unless we are independently wealthy or otherwise supported and provided for, we need to make money in order to survive. Kirists, like everyone, must factor in the matter of livelihood when they try to strategize handling the challenges of work.
40. And human beings need to feel occupied. In a core existential sense, we can’t not work. Yes, we can take vacations. Yes, we can spend stretches of time at sea, in transition, or otherwise not quite occupied. But for the most part, we need occupation.
41. Occupation and livelihood are bedrock needs. Then, we have our many wants: that the work interest us, that the work feels moral to us, that the work provides us with certain perks, like a sense of community, a chance to be creative, and so on.
42. Given these core needs and these many wants, how shall we approach work? Consider someone who is currently engaged in what he considers to be meaningless work and who is also learning about kirism. How might he approach the matter?
43. Consider Harry, who finds his corporate job both taxing and meaningless. When a person says, “My job is meaningless,” we don’t imagine that spending a month on an ashram will do much to change his experience of work when he returns to it.
44. That month away may help him see that he ought to quit his job. It may help him talk himself into feeling more positive about his job. It may have some other useful consequences. But work will again begin to eat him alive the moment he returns to it.
45. The long and the short of it is that Harry hates his job. He’s certain he’s obliged to do something that he’s characterizing as “something radical.” But what exactly? He takes his kirist learning to heart and decides to do all of the following.
46. First, he creates his list of life purposes. He finds this task grueling but, as luck would have it, an item on the list sparks his interest. His diabetic sister living in South America has always had trouble procuring her insulin. This gets him thinking.
47. Next, he mulls over the matter of individuality. He considers his need for it, the challenges associated with it, and who he might want to be from now on in. He hears himself say, “I need to be the individual that I really am.” This gets him thinking.
48. Next, he takes to heart the idea of absurd rebellion. Harry is aware that he has been a “go along to get along” person. The idea of rebellion ties his stomach in knots. But he finds himself nodding to himself: is it time to take some necessary risks?
49. He thinks about the phrase “from personality to personhood.” In considering it, he senses how his formed personality has aimed him at safe, reliable work that he detests. Can he now make use of his remaining freedom to achieve personhood?
50. He begins to take to heart the kirist demand that what he does be moral, worthy, and aligned with the multiple meanings of the phrase “Do the next right thing.” His current job is morally neutral at best. His next work really must be higher-minded.
51. He enters the “room that is his mind” and takes notice of his indwelling style. He makes a mental note of some needed improvements, like adding windows and installing a safety valve to reduce the constant pressure he feels.
52. He comes to realize that he has not been authoring his own life. Maybe he’s been doing a decent job of accepting his lot. But a life of headaches and stomachaches from attending boring meetings about sales projections really must stop.
53. First, he makes a decision. He will start his own business. He does some research and discovers that no one is devoted to providing low-cost insulin internationally. Of course, this may prove fantastically hard to do. But he embraces the challenge.
54. He starts his day earlier, and with a new orientation. His orientation is no longer toward his miserable work day. Now when he wakes up he spends a full hour on his new business. Sometimes he spends two hours, even if that makes him late.
55. Building his business is even harder than he imagined it would be. And, so far, it feels less meaningful than he had hoped it would feel. But he knows to align his thoughts with his intentions and to repeat to himself, “I’m building my business.”
56. He attends to the needs of his budding business for that hour with as little drama as possible. He doesn’t always love that hour but he knows that it is the exact right thing for him to be doing from five a.m. to six a.m. each day.
57. At work, he manifests his chosen personality upgrades. He practices calmness and detachment, he reminds himself not to evaluate life negatively just because he is obliged to work, and he regulates his energy, avoiding gearing up into speediness.
58. At lunch, which he now takes every day, he invests meaning in “just being” and goes for a walk to a certain park a quarter mile from his office, where he eats his sandwich. He uses this time to breathe and to relax; and he doesn’t rush himself back.
59. In the afternoon, he gets his salaried work done and at the same time makes use of his breaks to do some work on the insulin business, sending out an email, writing website copy, or seeing how nonprofits similar to his have designed themselves.
60. When he leaves work, he really leaves it behind him. Rather than joining colleagues and stopping for a few too many drinks, he leisurely strolls to a bus stop a full mile away, enjoying the afternoon bustle, the city sights, and the light of dusk.
61. When he gets home, he takes a shower and then makes a mindful choice as to whether he will relax by watching a few episodes of the television show he is currently following or whether he will invest an hour in his insulin business.
62. Was that a splendid day or a perfect day? Perhaps not. But it was certainly an intentional day and a better day than those that he’d been experiencing before deciding to organize his life around his life purposes. It was a day to make Harry proud.
63. Some evenings, Harry attends to another of his newly-identified life purpose choices: relationships. Harry has come to realize that he has always been too much of a loner, a bit too shy, a bit too alienated, a bit too disinterested. Now he works on that.
64. Employing a dating site, Harry meets Mary, a teacher. They go out two nights a week and talk often. Something lovely is blooming between them and effortlessly, without them having to say much about it, they begin seeing each other exclusively.
65. Harry is making use of his available personality to reclaim himself. He has consciously reduced his defensiveness so as to begin dating and he continues to work on maintaining a positive evaluation of life, even as his day job drags him down.
66. Let’s follow Harry for a little longer. It turns out that he and Mary fall in love, which makes his life lighter and lovelier. It also turns out that she enjoys her job and makes enough for the two of them to live on. This allows Harry to think about quitting.
67. He doesn’t yet quit, but he does further distance himself from his day job. At the same time, he squeezes in more hours on his insulin business. That business, which he started with modest aims, keeps growing in his mind, in his heart, and in actuality.
68. The phrase “Do the next right thing” continues to resonate. Harry thinks about what might help people live slightly less hard lives, begins to do things that help people live slightly less hard lives, and gets real satisfaction from doing these things.
69. Not only does he feel pride in his choices, he experiences meaning from his choices. Life feels much more meaningful now that he has the insulin business to invest in and Mary in his life. Indeed, he doesn’t “think about meaning” much at all.
70. With real trepidation, because it scares him not to receive a paycheck and because it scares him to rely on himself, Harry quits his corporate job. Life doesn’t suddenly become carefree or easy but he is wise enough not to expect such outcomes.
71. Harry is of course still a human being. He has his sour days and his misadventures. Sometimes he can’t help brooding about world events; sometimes he can’t help brooding about his weight; sometimes he can’t help brooding about his demise.
72. But his life is altogether better. Work that matters and a loving relationship have changed everything. He rarely pines for meaning; he rarely pines for life to be different. Maybe with just a hint of irony in the gesture, he gives life a thumb’s up.
73. Harry can now make use of his abundant energy in ways that serve him, that serve others, and that feel meaningful to him. He wears a smile of satisfaction even as he deals with the red tape that comes with trying to distribute insulin across borders.
74. Harry’s saga underscores why so many kirists find themselves becoming solo entrepreneurs. By creating their own work, they better meet their self-obligations and more fully engage in self-authorship. There’s a kirist logic to solo entrepreneurship.
75. There are reasons why so many people today are attempting some version of the one-person business. That possibility exists in ways that never existed before the Internet. Kirism, as a contemporary philosophy, factors in this new, exciting reality.
76. Having to work at something isn’t the issue, since human beings need to feel occupied, invested, tested, and alive. Our life purpose needs aren’t met by the complete absence of work. The issue is how occupations play themselves out in reality.
77. Kirists understand that every line of work is likely to prove challenging. Even the cushioned, protected life of the college professor may come with boredom, disinterested undergrads, failed lines of research, and the dramas of department politics.
78. Other-created work is taxing. Self-created work is taxing. Harry may be thrilled to leave his corporate job behind but does anyone imagine that his insulin business won’t come with a really staggering number of challenges and disappointments?
79. We step to one side and examine work as clearly and as calmly as we can. Do I want to live as a writer? As a yoga teacher? As a life coach? As a lawyer? As a baker? As a painter? Well, what exactly does that entail, today and not in some bygone time?
80. We make our choices and then we learn the truth about our choices by living. We start a business and discover what running a business means. We become a teacher and learn what teaching means. We do the work and then understand.
81. How could it be otherwise? Maybe when you were a child you watched your father run his general store. How much can that teach you about running a store in the cyber age? You will have to try out your contemporary version and learn by trying.
82. Children are asked “What do you want to be?”, as if they were choosing candy from a candy store. Oh, look at all these lovely professions! Firefighter or astronaut! Ski instructor or brain surgeon! Work is romanticized right from the beginning.
83. Or maybe it’s presented in the opposite way, as your human lot, as necessary drudgery, as something that pays the bills, as something not to question, as something to be thankful for. It may be presented as a heavy load all human beings must lug.
84. Either way, we aren’t adequately educated about the nature of work and the realities of work. So, we must learn the truth about work for ourselves. Any sensible philosophy of life should underscore the need for this grown-up understanding.
85. A living philosophy acknowledges every difficult human reality. Kirists say, “We are obliged to occupy ourselves and we know just how hard work can be.” Then they roll up their sleeves and strive to find or invent the work that will serve them best.