The tyranny of career


Walking Fingers In high school they used to make you do these tests where you selected what you liked and what you didn’t like, for the purpose of helping you determine the difference between a sensible career path and one that is 100 per cent influenced by the models on CSI pretending to be scientists with a case to close.

‘School’, which is the precursor for ‘They’, made you take the test just in case you were like every other teenager and therefore had either zero ambition or way too much of it, but in either case a shadowy and uncertain future.

Well, they still have those tests, I discovered the other morning as I multiple-choiced my path to self-knowledge. With my life as it is right now, that is, grappling with a fear of failing the first milestone of my postgraduate research career, it seems the optimal time to find out if life still has other options for me.

I checked the box stating my age: 17 or over.

The results informed me that I might like to consider a culinary career, for example becoming a dietitian, or a chef, which is strange because I neither listened during science class nor own anything sharper than a steak knife for chopping things (it’s all in the serration).

I suppose my enthusiasm for food could have a professional application, as it does for some people, but I am more inclined to believe that my desire to eat food stems from being biologically alive. My desire to prepare and enjoy food perhaps comes from something else, something vague and warmly lit and in a similar register to happiness.

Which is to say that there is a will to live beyond the will to work for money, and that while it’s not unusual to expect what you spend a third of your life doing to be ‘rewarding’, careers can’t account for most of the things that drive a person in their life. Even while I am worming my way, uncertainly, towards one. Even when the concept of the career seems like the most reasonable option, or the only option.

Reason is carved out by culture, not what is best for us, even if reason, by its very definition, seems to imply it has our best interest at heart. The upward-moving onward-spinning trajectory lifestyle ideology is eating our planet alive. It is ideology, remember, the thin shell of reason. It is not inevitability.

The expectation to enjoy the labouring part of your life, or find it ‘rewarding’ (what a loaded word), is a relatively new one. Australia’s boon in tertiary education in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the post-industrial nature of postmodern work means that for many, labour is immaterial, and jobs are not necessarily protected or stable.

‘Career management’, therefore is a key concept that rules life decisions. How do you want to live? Chase a job that makes that possible, because nothing else will. Which is fine, which is realistic. But what if you want some purchase on everything? What if you would like to protect the things that are important to you from market transactions?

The poet Eileen Myles explains that her choice to become a poet was the 'everything' she imagined when she was young; 'that choice made me a poet because I could have some purchase on everything and do a little bit of it all the day.'

There’s the idea of a calling, a vocation, as opposed to the rigidly commercial career model, and this sits better with the vague and warmly lit life I’m advocating. But by now, even the logic of sculpting a useful, positive role for oneself in a society seems to have been wholly subsumed by an instrumentalist market. Being able to live in a way that can pay for the warmly lit vagueness involves maybe home ownership and, well, making human sacrifices in the shape of a career.

I came across something by author Annie Dillard the other day that has been haunting me every time I look at my phone (I know how to spook myself into living): 'How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.' Well, it’s obvious, but it’s also terrifying. Waking early and working well into the night is a fairly normal commitment for me and many of my colleagues, but that is also not really life, is it, even if the work is good. It’s work, and work is only rarely vague and warmly lit and in a similar register to happiness.

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is editor of The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.

Climbing finger image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, career, work, education, lifestyle



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Something vague and warmly lit. Yesterday I saw a teacher at a special school hold a shell to a young boy's ear. He has no speech but his smile said it all.
Pam | 21 May 2015

The Jesuit motto, AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM (tr, to the greater glory of God) is intended to apply to all we do in life including our work. We sadly live in a world of "to the greater glory of me".It is hardly surprising that when we work "to the greater glory of me", the motto of our modern world, life may become a little unfulfilled and unsatisfying. Perhaps there is indeed something deep within the human being that transcends our humanity and needs to be fulfilled not by human accolade and achievement for self but by investment in a cause outside ourselves. The Jesuit theme for the education of young boys is not directed towards job training but towards training of the heart so that their young charges may grow into men for others. Sadly some are distracted from that ideal by the selfishness that greets them in the modern world of work. It is a shame that not all our educational systems are directed towards the heart of humanity. Perhaps we would all live in a better world if they were.
john frawley | 22 May 2015

I was one of those boys who were educated in the war years before education went through a radical transformation. It seems that today young people either are directed into a career path where their natural talents can evolve or like myself end up just having a job
john ozanne | 22 May 2015


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