I can think of a few people who would rather be somewhere other than the job they’re in. They wake up too early to get to a building of an indistinct shade, are obliged to meet “Good morning! How are you?” with half lies of “Good thanks! And you?” They are surrounded by friends of convenience and proximity rather than of deliberate choice, and they count down the minutes they’re contractually obligated to be in the office even though they could have completed all their work by lunchtime. When the opportunity arises to potentially turn to something else, life happens: friends and relatives have milestones to celebrate, that household task that’s been put off still needs doing, bills need paying, babies are born and loved ones pass on. A whole lifetime can unfold with the alternate working path not taken, the one that has been daydreamed about while otherwise occupied. The reasoning for staying where one is often goes something like: “I have benefits, holiday time, a mortgage, and I might get a promotion soon. I can’t afford to quit and do something else.” In the viral article Regrets of the Dying, a palliative care nurse shares her older patients’ most common regrets. The first centred around having not been true to themselves and instead living to other’s expectations. The second regret was having worked ‘too much’, thus missing quality time with loved ones. I imagine there are also people who feel they didn’t work enough, because they were never given a vote of confidence.
How many of our desires are truly forbidden, and how many are limited by our own twisted reasoning?
Before starting my first full-time paid job, my mum reminded me that in work, no task is too big or too small. That’s how I’ve generally approached work – I’m above nothing, and nothing is above me. Yet when I’m not working, I admittedly spend more time thinking about creative projects than doing them. I can admire some of my closest friends and my sister for their creative pursuits, but rarely afford myself the space for my own. Outside of paid and voluntary work, I still feel somehow indulgent when I’m doing anything artistic and am not completely sure why.
The School of Life book, How to Find Fulfilling Work (check out a video here) opens with three stories of people’s mental and emotional relationships with their careers. The first tells the tale of Rob Archer. He grew up in social housing in Liverpool, and despite the social outcomes of many of his peers – a 50 per cent unemployment rate and heroin sales as a main industry – he managed to complete higher education, secure employment in an IT company, earn high wages and give his family peace of mind in the process. Yet it all felt a bit off, as if something was missing. He assumed he should be grateful just to have a job, “let alone a good one.” Eventually, he began living for the weekend, and within ten years developed chronic stress and anxiety, ultimately resulting in a panic attack at work. He worried about changing course, fearing that he may lose the progress he’d made. “Would my grandfather have complained at such fortune? Life appeared to offer an awful choice: money or meaning.”
In the pages that follow, we see that Rob is not alone in his doubts, and that nor is the reader. I can certainly relate to the guilt aspect. Rationalising what is most appropriate for me to do is informed both by social expectations and by my own search for meaning. But in part, I’ve acted to satisfy family members, each with their own unique histories and biases.
As the eldest of my siblings and cousins, I usually let confusion be my guide. In my last year of high school it felt like all my friends had an idea of which universities to apply for based on their parents’ or older siblings’ opinions. My pleas for direction were often met with my mum telling me that she had me so I could live my own life, not so that she could live it for me. My dad only dropped subtle hints about his hopes and fears for me having a financially stable future: “Oh, but if you go to law school, don’t tell me, you’re going to do pro bono.” One of the last things my maternal grandma told me before she passed away when I was a high school student, was to “be a lawyer.” With limited English, this is all she could tell me. While I was certainly interested in the justice system, I carried the weight of this request for a long time. Eventually I did end up studying law. In the middle of those studies, my other grandma left me with only one dying wish: to pursue music, so that I could share widely the joy that my violin playing had brought her. Both of my grandmas lived through war. One had lost loved ones to malnourishment and wanted to ensure that none of her own would ever have to face similar hardships. A career in law would mean security. The other had a grandmotherly bias towards my violin playing, and presumably had her own reasons for cherishing live music. Though I was touched by the latter request, I immediately dismissed it as wishful thinking.
How could I have possibly pursued music? Yes, I grew up relatively well off compared to over half of the world’s population, but being slightly less well off than many of my peers, I ached for more comfort and capital. This, I believed, would offer me freedom and my family solace. Plus, was I good enough? Who was I anyway? What held meaning for me? I switched undergraduate degrees twice, looking for something, though I wasn’t sure what. In law and humanities courses, professors helped me to understand why and how high levels of all forms of inequality exist around the world. My focus began to shift towards seeing that as many people as possible could access choice in situations where choice seemingly didn’t exist.
To put such choice in perspective, over 20 million people are working in forced labour without the ability to exercise basic rights (eg. To take a work break, let alone a holiday). I recently reunited with an old friend who I met during an internship at an international women’s rights organisation in the Philippines. She continues to make a collective effort to uphold labour rights in her home country of Sri Lanka. Her organisation recently represented the family of a woman who died from food poisoning from food provided to her in her factory job. This type of work requires minimum 12-hour shifts on wages that aren’t sufficient to live on. Employees are not allowed to take bathroom breaks, drink water or eat food when they need to, resulting in high rates of anaemia. At least for those in circumstances like Rob Archer’s or mine, there is more of a choice.
Choice is not always easy to see. A candid essay by Marina Keegan that was later adapted for the New York Times attempts to get to the bottom of why so many of Marina’s creative peers are settling for decent paying, but otherwise meaningless jobs, offered to them by big consulting firms. A former Dean of Berkeley cautions her: “The question is: where do you need to be with yourself such that when the time comes to ‘cast your whole vote,’ you’re reasonably confident you’re not being either fear-based or ego-driven in your choice… that the journey you’re on is really yours, and not someone else’s. If you think of your first few jobs …in this way — holistically and in terms of your growth as a person rather than as ladder-rungs to a specific material outcome — you’re less likely to wake up at age 45 married to a stranger.” It may be risky and difficult to leave the comforts of a secure job contract, but continually repressing the misery of an unfulfilling job can take your “joie de vivre” by the time the weekend comes around. As the lonely, impersonal, star-owning businessman in The Little Prince tells the prince, “I manage them. I count them and then count them again. It’s difficult work. But I’m a serious person.” In the monotony of his work, he’s lost his ability to see just how fantastic the stars that he claims to own are.
During the last course of my undergraduate degree, I befriended a classmate who regularly tours as a musician. Chatting after class he found out I played violin. Since he was about to tour with his band around my hometown and I was about to move back there, he asked if I’d like to join them for a few weeks. The first few days on the road were therapeutic, and we were treated nicely wherever we went because we brought music with us. I imagined myself doing something like this on a longer term. I’d taken some time off work and had to stop by the office before we travelled any further. When I told a couple of co-workers what I had been up to, I was taken aback by one’s reaction. He was interested in music, was openminded and well humoured, highly capable and respected. He seemingly could have gone anywhere with his life. He told me, “that sounds cool but it’s not a feasible long term plan.” It made me feel silly for having enjoyed myself. He had said it so matter-of-factly, as if he was telling himself more than anyone else, what was sensible versus what was possible. I would bet that he’s still working in a very similar cubicle-divided office to the one we shared then.
Spending so much of your time doing something you feel you should do, rather than something you would do, benefits neither you nor anyone else. It doesn’t teach the people around you or your children to find their own path, interests, values or to act on them. Brenda Ueland proposed, “…if you want your children to be musicians, then work at music yourself, seriously and with all your intelligence. If you want them to be scholars, study hard yourself. If you want them to be honest, be honest yourself. And so it goes. …If you shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.”
Given the already-unstable nature of employment, it’s easier to stay in a job than to face the uncertainty of making life work doing something else. But listening to daydreams doesn’t have to mean giving up a job. Little changes in another direction might be taken right now: negotiating a more flexible working arrangement and using the commute time to work on a personal project, swapping an evening in front of the TV for volunteering or revisiting a hobby. The ‘Regrets of the Dying’ article suggests, “By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities…” Lifestyle-simplification can also benefit the earth, and reduce demand for products such as those manufactured through forced labour. Whatever the ‘other thing’, immersing ourselves in it makes life a little lighter for us and the people around us. I must remind myself that playing music certainly offers such relief.