My Life and Work Philosophy (or lack thereof)

Ok, so I think we’ve come a long way on this blog since its inception nearly two months ago.  By now, you readers are way more hip for sure and your awesomeness has certainly increased simply by association.  In addition, you should now possess at least a rudimentary knowledge of a bizarre mix of interesting topics from Lady Gaga to Rwanda (On that note…did you catch the VMA’s last weekend? That is perhaps my favorite night on the calendar every year that does not involve a sporting event).

Considering how far we’ve come…I think it’s about time for me to explore, by way of a rambling blog post (my favorite form of exploration), my struggle in developing a life and work philosophy.  Because I have no doubt that all my little blogsters out there have been waiting for more spiritual guidance from yours truly.

First off, you might be asking yourself, “(A) why does he always think about such weighty topics and (B) more importantly…why would he believe that anyone cares what he thinks?”  The answer to both parts of this relatively valid question is simple.  (A) I’m kind of weird like that and prone to phases of deep (and sometimes morbid) contemplation. (B) It should be blatantly obvious if you’ve been reading my blog that I have a highly inflated image of my own importance.

Now that I’ve efficiently dismissed your hesitations…let’s get down to business.

As I’ve touched on before, the work/life dynamic is something that occupies an inordinate amount of my contemplation time.  Being an American, the importance we place on what one “does for a living” never ceases to fascinate me.  I must admit that, while I always try to resist group think mentality, these cultural influences have seeped into my very being.  Hence, I continually obsess over decisions relating to my career path…which sadly is still very much a work in progress after more than seven years of post-college life.

Of course, I think it’s pretty normal for young people (and yes, I’m including myself in the young category…even if just to make me feel better) to obsess over career plans and goals.  How I differ from many is that I’m not so much concerned with making the paper (aka coin, aka cheddar, aka Benjamins) or gaining status.  I’ve long held this idea that, because the world has so many problems, whatever it is I do for a living should help improve the human condition in some way.  In other words, I would love for my work to not just be a means to an end (i.e., a way to put food on the table), but an end in itself.  While this concept of work allows me to avoid common stressors such as the constant yearning to “climb the ladder,” it carries with it a unique set of pitfalls.

The first pitfall of a career aimed at serving the greater good derives from one’s motives for pursuing such an undertaking.  I often wonder…what is the source of my motivation?  The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is guilt.  The nagging and persistent guilt that comes from the knowledge that literally all of the tremendous opportunities, comforts, and privileges that I enjoy result from simple luck.  Luck that I was born in a certain place and into a certain family.  If not for this simple twist of fate I might not even be able to consider such philosophical issues and make “quality of life” decisions, but rather I could be one of the billions of people that struggle to eke out an existence from one day to the next.  So the essence of my motivation to give back is to assuage my guilt…to make me feel better about myself.  I find this to be a real problem because it makes me wonder…for me, when it comes to helping others…is it really about me or them?  I think this is a serious issue in service-related fields.  People in the international aid field (for example) seem to always rail against colleagues, volunteers, and celebrities (especially celebrities…it almost seems as if some prefer that their celebs stick to snorting coke and driving drunk or whatever rather than using their notoriety to back causes…kind of a weird stance really) that are in it for themselves…and sometimes rightfully so.  However, my guess is that a close examination would reveal that almost everyone in the international aid business is, at least in part, in it for themselves.  I don’t think there are enough completely selfless people out there to believe otherwise.  It seems to me that a problem only arises when selfish motives lead to big egos, arrogant attitudes, and other such counterproductive traits.  Otherwise, it shouldn’t matter whether a person chooses to work in a charitable field for personal fulfillment or selfless altruism…what truly matters is his or her skills, abilities, and overall approach to the task at hand.

That being said, why might this selfless versus selfish motive distinction matter in a more general sense?  Because, when push comes to shove will a person be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to his or her way of life that might be necessary to do good and make a truly meaningful impact?  That’s a question I haven’t been able to answer yet for myself…at least not clearly in the affirmative.  

Interestingly, when I say sacrifice, for me it’s not about sacrificing earning potential or even everyday luxuries (I mean, doctors, nurses, and many other professions can serve the greater good and make good money)…it’s more about how far I’m willing to push my own personal limits and comfort zones.  Case in point, as you probably know, I’m not what anyone would call an extrovert or “people person.”  A lot of interpersonal interaction doesn’t energize me…but rather tends to drain me of energy.  I most enjoy my own company and the company of my family and closest friends.  Thus, as Green Day would say…I’m a Walking Contradiction.  While I tell myself that I want nothing more than to help others, I prefer the idea of people and humanity and our collective potential, rather than the often messy details of personality and individual interaction.  My personality certainly lends itself to being an accountant or computer programmer or some other similarly insular profession…yet my conscience and my empathy strongly compel me to choose another path.  That being said, I often wonder if my personality…along with my lack of firsthand experience of the serious tribulations and challenges that life can present…will greatly hinder my ability to help.  No matter how much I read or learn…it seems completely pretentious for me to believe that I can help a mother in Rwanda feed her children or a child in an American inner city, who doesn’t know his father and passes by drug dealers everyday on his way to a dilapidated school, rise above his circumstances.  What do I possibly have to offer other than compassion?  Is book learning, intelligence, and empathy enough to help others improve their lives?  I certainly hope the answer to these questions is yes…but I can’t say for sure.

The second pitfall of pursuing a career aimed at improving the greater good is the overwhelming nature of the world’s problems.  All it takes is a glance through the internet headlines on a given day to appreciate the magnitude of the world’s problems.  In light of everything, how much can any one person really accomplish?  And even more, with all the problems out there…how do you know where to start?  To me, the weight of these questions can become almost paralyzing.  It would be so easy for me (or anyone) to say…forget it.  Whatever good I might do in a 25 or 30 year career is completely insignificant.  So I might as well throw up my hands, find a decent paying job that doesn’t require any extra effort, workout at the gym after work, watch football and play golf and tennis at night and on the weekends, watch my favorite TV shows, and enjoy my family, friends, and dogs whenever I want.  It is very tempting…and more or less what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years.  Yet there remains this little nagging voice inside me…urging me on and reminding me that if everyone took the path of least resistance, no important progress would ever be made.  

However, even as I try to stay positive and hopeful…many things I read and learn can at least temporarily silence that little voice.  I believe Amy Ernst (author of the king effect blog) says it well with this description of her experiences in the DRC…

 “I want, more than anything, for this problem to stop growing.  Every time I think I understand the bigger picture, that I've reached the bottom of the stairs, the last step drops out from under me and everything just keeps falling.  I help a few women who were raped, and I feel their hope and happiness flow through me; then on the way home I speak to someone like Kambale, who joined the army when he was ten years old, because CNDP soldiers started cutting off his arms.”

Given my current profession…I have never personally experienced such devastating reality.  I have no doubt that teachers, doctors, nurses, aid workers, etc. must experience such moments of hopelessness, to a lesser or greater extent, every day.  Seeing all the children they’ll never be able to reach…the patients and people they won’t be able to help.  This is certainly a burden that would test even the most optimistic and positive person’s mettle.

The third pitfall isn’t specific to any particular career, but is more related to the nature of life and death.  I fully believe that the biggest burden that we humans have to bear is the full knowledge and understanding of our impending demise.  I’m actually amazed that we are often able to live so happily and do productive things when we full well know…no matter what we do…it’s going to end the same way for all of us.  The inevitability of death and the finite nature of life make me feel even more pressure to use the time I have in the best way possible.  However, making such value judgments is far from easy.  Who’s to really say whether spending extra hours in the office, field, or classroom in the pursuit of idealistic goals rather than spending those hours with friends and family is time well spent?  And what’s more…how willing am I to dedicate what little time (in the larger scheme of things) I have to achieving progress that I will in large part not live to see?  To me this is a particularly vexing problem, but one that is somewhat easier to develop an answer for.  What I remind myself is that you have to do some kind of work to live…so you might as well do something that you find meaningful.  That being said…there has to be balance.  Just as I believe an obsessive devotion to making money is unhealthy and wasteful…an obsessive devotion to doing good is equally unhealthy.  I think it is important to realize that self-castigation won’t make anyone else’s life better.  In other words, by completely denying myself the blessings and opportunities fortune has bestowed on me, I would only be hurting myself and helping no one.  In essence, being good to one’s self and good to others should not be mutually exclusive.

Ok, so now after all that analysis (or whatever you want to call it)…what’s the neat conclusion?  As the title of the post suggests (“…or lack thereof”) I haven’t been able to come up with one.  Few things are more ambiguous than life and work.  Both life and work can have many different meanings to different people.  For me, my journey can best be described by the John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  (As an aside…for some reason I thought this was a Mark Twain quote…so I’m glad I looked it up before posting!)  That’s certainly been true for me to this point and maybe will remain true forever.  Perhaps all we can do is muddle along and try our best to balance both our selfish and selfless needs and desires…and keep making plans to do better…until we finally run out of time.