these are thoughts on work

July 2010, South Africa

I decided to quit my job after I watched a TED talk.

The culprit was Ruth Chang’s TED talk, “How to Make Hard Choices,” a video whose summary I’ve recapitulated too many times to count. The basic gist is this: a decision is hard because there is no objectively “better” alternative. “In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall,” she says. A hard choice can be as ordinary as choosing what to have for breakfast or as momentous as moving from one city to another.

Usually, two choices have values that are incomparable. The world of value, she says, is different from the world of science, in that there’s no linear or hierarchical comparison between justice, beauty, and kindness. So if you have two choices, with different merits and consequences, with no clear categorical imperative or utilitarian benefits, you’re usually faced with two different values in which there’s no better or worse choice. Rather, the two choices are “on a par”—they are in the same league of value, despite “being very different in kind of value.”

Chang argues that when we make a hard decision, we exercise “the power to create reasons” for ourselves—we’re choosing what we value, what we stand for, and who we are. The choices we make are opportunities to act according to what we believe to be true about ourselves, rather than be drifters, tossed and turned by the wind.

Whether or not Chang’s talk is philosophically, ethically, or principally sound, she gave me a paradigm for making a decision about my job. The main questions I asked myself were: What are the values that my current job hold for me, and are those values in line with what I say are the highest values in my life?

I had to be honest with myself, and I’ve known this for at least a year. My job stood for financial stability, for security, for safety and certainty and a consistent paycheck that ensured I would be able to live comfortably in San Francisco. Absent from the job were values that I purportedly cared about: learning, growth, challenge, passion, the discovery and pursuit of a vocation … Even if I could have convinced myself that what I was doing benefited other people, the rationale would have been twisted, and I didn’t look forward to doing what I did everyday, staring into the black hole of a computer, clicking and moving and writing things I didn’t really care about.

After I watched Ruth Chang’s TED talk, I was frustrated and terrified because it compelled me to make a decision that I had been putting off for too long, one that I thought I wouldn’t have to make until much later. I decided that I would give myself two weeks—I would talk to friends, think and pray and journal, and if I still felt as strongly as I did after watching that video, I would put in my two-week notice.

Nothing changed in the way of certainty. In fact, by the next morning—having committed to a course of action—I felt excited and liberated. Some future frontier had opened up. All of a sudden, so many possibilities emerged. I felt clear-headed but also stimulated by new and crazy ideas. I let the two weeks go by, confiding in friends along the way, and then I did it—I went into my boss’ office on a Monday morning, teary-eyed, leg shaking, and told him I had to leave—it was time for me to go.

I had accepted the job two years ago, after a couple rounds of casual interviews. I really liked everyone I talked to. I was charmed by the people at the company, and I became close friends with several of my colleagues almost immediately. Sharing experiences with people in pursuit of enlightenment, goodness, and generosity was the best part of my job, and my gratitude and fondness for them made it hard to leave. But I also quickly discovered that I could not conjure up any enthusiasm for technology whose benefit of interconnectedness I did not find vital or significant enough (I do believe in the first world, technology has destroyed our quality of life in as many ways, if not more, than it has built it up). I say enough because it is possible to present a sturdy rationale of significance for any product or software. In the end, the question for me was whether I believed in that significance enough to give the hours of my days to it. In my hierarchy of good and true things, the answer was no.

There were many deliberations of course.

I was told by many people, especially those more than a decade older than me, that I was lucky to have a job that was stable, that did not require long hours, that gave me the time and space for a life outside of work. Roman Kznacic describes this very strain of thinking in his book How To Find Fulfilling Work, which he calls the “grin and bear it” approach to work: we “get our expectations under control” and resign ourselves to the inevitable drudgery of work—a fact for a majority of humans, both in present day and throughout history. As long as a job meets financial needs and provides the time and resources for a life outside of work, then we should “accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get.”

In other words, we give up searching for some kind of “meaning” in our work, or at least settle for less than we would like. “The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedaling fulfillment,” Kznacic writes, “is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.” I think most people, even those who are young and have the obvious luxury of changing careers, believe this, even if they won’t admit it. The primordial, post-Edenic curse is a labor that aches and burns; we have been cursed so that we will neither reap joy nor find meaning in our work, except that we are consigned to it for survival. “I find meaning and joy in what I do outside of my job, in my life that is not work,” so I’ve been told. In having suffered through several wearying and unfulfilling jobs, several of my friends have settled into this common posture of resignation.

But Kznacic himself does not advocate this approach. Neither do most people who have found some kind of meaning in the work they do, because they probably have weathered many jobs they didn’t like, and discovered, through the process of elimination, what they didn’t want to do, which also helped illuminate what they did want to do (unless they were lucky bastards who knew from the age of two what their life’s calling was. Warren Buffett, I’m looking at you).

Quitting my job was a rebuttal to the nihilistic malaise of work that affects so many of us—the first motion in a search to affirm the possibility that there is some work out there that is meaningful for me. Maybe there is a labor to which I give the hours of my day out of love, or at least a loving sacrifice. There is a small part of me that fears the idealism of my search. I already see the glaring doubt in some friends' eyes; they and I both see the naivete. Perhaps I am steeped in a blissful ignorance of quitting with low stakes. I am often terrified that my search may fail, but I know the searching will not be futile, because the searching, which takes courage, faith, and humility, is a kind of persistent, whirring consciousness that attends to the fundamental desires and questions of our existence: What am I doing here? Why am I here? What am I living for? These questions matter to me.

It is a privilege to consider these existential questions about work and meaning. It is a privilege to be able to quit without vital or dire consequences. I didn’t bear this fact lightly. At times, I felt ungrateful, petulant, and finicky for wanting to quit. As start-up techies in the Valley expect free lunch and coffee, we too feel entitled to these first-world freedoms: to choose work, to dislike work, to switch work, to quit work. I try not to forget that the liberty and choice I exercised in quitting is not the norm for millions of people around the world, especially millions of women. Kznacic says that “the desire for fulfilling work—a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality,” is a modern phenomenon, the consequence of material prosperity that has “freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.” It is a privilege of our wealth to worry about whether our talents are being used or our well-being is being nurtured, says Kznacic.

This I know and have considered, and no matter how noble it is to be a good and dutiful steward of a job that I don’t like, I also think, given the opportunity to make a choice, to keep searching, to actively move towards something that is meaningful, to impact others in significant and weighty ways, that I should take it—and if it’s not presented to me, that I should find it. I’m robbing not only myself, but others, of a gift—for where I can give of myself the most, with the greatest intensity and effort and heart, is also where I can make the most impact, somewhere, in a tiny corner of this world. There are outlines of a uniquely shaped passion, deep and powerful, in each of us. Maybe only the silhouette of a feeling, a shiny, translucent flutter of an image. A negative space felt most palpably as an absence. A whisper or a nudge or a tickle. I do believe Frederick Buechner’s now oft-quoted remark: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I don’t believe in earthly perfection, and that particular disbelief precludes finding ultimate and unwavering satisfaction in work. There will always be a God I serve that is greater than the work I do, and so, even the most indelible feelings of significance will wax and wane, even the most reliable wells of passion will rise and fall—this I know.

But if you are, by God’s grace, given the freedom to choose how you spend your days on this earth, which are limited and precious blessings, will you spend your minutes merely getting by? Passing the minutes to make the money that will support the life you are too scared to lose? Tethered to a paradigm of success that requires a certain title and salary? This is as much a question of consciousness as it is of freedom, a question of identity as it is of survival. In letting go of a job that provided some definition of my role in this city, and gave me some semblance of credibility to tout around like a blow-up doll employed as an imaginary friend, I’ve had no choice but to define myself by what I value and care about, with no regards to money, prestige, or status. I’ve realized how much of my security I put into money and financial stability, how much of my self-confidence I had given over to the tenuous reinforcements of a a filled-out résumé steady job in the tech industry. Without all that buttressing, I feel like a thick layer of bubble wrap has just been popped and peeled off of me. I’ve noticed how much easier it is to slow down and be present. I’m trying to live by my highest values and priorities: community, sentience, kindness, and creativity. Will these values be embedded in the work that pays me money? I have yet to find out. I’ll report back.

Where do I go from here? I do not know. I don't yet feel frantic or worried, but I don't expect unending ease. Most of my days are busy, though I feel protected by a sense of stillness and peace that is rarely intruded upon. There is still anxiety about places that I need to be and who I am not, or not yet. I pray for resilience, strength, and discernment. I don't expect clarity, certainty, or definitive answers. The ideas and desires I have are more outrageous than ever. Sometimes I let all the little fears roll into a gigantic snowball that flattens me breathlessly, and I remind myself that nature requires cycles of movement and stasis. Fallow fields are necessary for a reawakening of the earth; still waters breed bacteria and germ. Things cannot stay too still for too long, but require stasis, God-given rest, the space of a Sabbath, and oxygen to ignite again. A pause. Not knowing isn’t a bad thing. God created mystery, and humility, in all the knowledge and wisdom we lack, is necessary to recognize that mystery.

It was Henry Thoreau who wrote in Walden (a must-read for the unemployed): “We must learn to reawaken ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in the soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor … Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

There are so many forgotten corners of the world. There are monks lighting candles in the vespertine hours, thanking God for the darkness and its night. They are whispering prayers for the rest of this world. There are bus drivers maneuvering on asphalt from the bay to the breakers, eyes fixed ahead. They sit still, yet are constantly in motion. There are nurses tending to the sick when everyone else is asleep, and airplane stewardesses ushering us back to our seats, tending to our crisis-prone, mid-air selves. Some will spend their whole lives in the clouds. There are old men playing chess in front of a decrepit, old bakery. They have forgotten about human chronologies and know not time beyond the sun and the moon. There are museum guards waiting for their shifts to end, in half-asleep stupor. Children in school uniforms are waiting for the bus; half-naked men push shopping carts full of trash; wrinkly, white hands burned from steam make morning buns before dawn everyday. There are so many ways to live, so many forms of existence. Don’t you forget that there is more than one way to survive.

Perhaps you will always be searching; perhaps everyone is. Each woman settles these questions of survival herself, finding a transcendent peace wherever she can, not resolving, but coming to terms with, over and over again, as she will do for the rest of her life. If she has the courage to look outside herself, she might see that the corner from which she emerged was in fact, only a corner of the world, a cave closed off from the vast expanse, only shadows of some realer place. She reaches out her arms, and there is mud in her eyes, and when she finally opens her eyes again, and she does, she finds that she can see, like she never had before. And she moves forth, into the world, placing one foot in front of another.

Ars viviendi as ars moriendi :: The art of living is the art of dying.

1 comment:

  1. This is AMAZING, Nat. I seriously feel inspired. Can't wait to chat more about what this experience has been like for you and to witness what the future holds (undoubtedly, copious amounts of wonder and goodness). Aghhh- SO EXCITED!!!