My notes from the School of Life conference continued. Previous posts: Life is Hard, Conversations are Hard, and Love is Hard.

What are we working for?

Unlike previous generations, we no longer look at work simply as a source of income. We want our work to expand our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. And yet, once we graduate with our diplomas and idealism, Capitalism seems to force us to choose between money and meaning, between a decent return and higher goals. Sometimes it feels so stark as to choose between a wealthy path toward mindless consumerism or an impoverished path toward high minded intellectualism and art.

The modern world demands one thing above all: that we succeed. Snobbery used to be reserved for class and title. Those born into the royal court would look down upon the humble peasant born to poor parents. It was a snobbery based on the birth lottery. Today we base our snobbery on business cards. We perceive it with a pang of anxiety every time we’re asked the ultimate American question: “So, what do you do?” Though seemingly meritocratic, job snobbery is just as superficial. It judges someone’s value from their profession.

As our careers develop, we soon realize that professional success depends as much on our confidence as the abilities we acquire through years of expensive education. We believe that we are stuck with the confidence levels we were born with. In fact, confidence is an acquirable talent that is disregarded by formal education. It is a skill founded on a set of ideas about the world and our natural place within it. Put simply, our self-esteem is the amount of success we’ve experienced in our careers divided by our expectations. Paradoxically, we increase our confidence when we lower our expectations, admit our ignorance, and embrace our failures. By embracing our true selves, we overcome the impostor syndrome and overcome shyness about earnestly advancing our own plans.

Can we find a middle path between wealthy, mindless consumerism and impoverished creativity and intellectualism? Can we rebel against or reform Capitalism?

  • First we must rebel against the tyranny of our parents’ expectations. We owe our families respect and (probably) kindness. We do not owe them our whole lives.
  • Second, we can rediscover the values and pleasures we seek in our work by remembering what brought us joy as children. Most of us have a hunch about a job that would make us happier. We lack the courage and confidence to try to succeed on our own terms.
  • Third, we can choose to value time over consumer products. Advertising is simply a reminder of what we really want in life with the false promise that spending money on a product will serve as a substitute. We see it in every magazine advertisement for an overpriced watch. What we really want are good family relationships, connections with others, freedom and joy, and to be loved. All those things take time and attention, not money.
  • Finally, we can reform Capitalism by operating within it. We can build products and services that truly enhance meaning and purpose. Most corporations cater to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Capitalism has been unimaginative in addressing the top of Maslow’s pyramid, our personal growth and self-actualization. But there is no shortage of opportunities. We need help finding partners and friends based on who we really are. We all need a therapist and life coach who can guide us based on our true selves. We need help to become more intuitive in reading the moods and emotional currents of those around us. We need help finding a sense of community and authentic connection with those around us. Why do we have so many choices of headphones and so little help in connecting with our neighbors?

We are much more than our jobs. The antidote to job snobbery is authentic friendship. But too often we lose our authentic friendships in the pursuit of professional success.