This book, another from the School of Life series, opens with the following quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, one at which the most fearsome murderer would tremble, shrinking from it in advance, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.
An article I read recently suggested that over 70% of people are not engaged by their present careers (in the book, Krznaric cites similar figures, indicating that most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy with their jobs, and that one other study suggested that 60 percent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again). It’s what we spend the majority of our waking hours doing, for the majority of our lives, and yet just less than three-fourths of us apparently can’t stand it. So what do we do?
Krznaric’s book has no magical solutions, but it does have some innovative insights. Sadly, it didn’t contain specific steps on how to get from miserable point A to intensely fulfilling point B (how awesome would it be if there was a chapter called “What to do, exactly, if you’re a 35-year-old lawyer, but you used to be an English major, and kind of wish you still were,” with a ten-part checklist to follow?)
There was a part about a lawyer, though. And talked about all the hard work and time and expense it got to get her where she was, and so how terrifying it was to leave that all behind. Of course that was interesting.
There was a part about the history of work, and how they very concept of “fulfilling” work is actually a quite new concept. I’m not really a history person, but even I found this particular history informative.
There was a look at different possible approaches to our feelings about unfulfilling work, one being to just “grin and bear it” (i.e. recognize that work is work, all work sucks, so if your work is meeting your basic financial needs, just suck it up), and others being more proactive.
Throughout the book, there were thought questions designed to get you thinking about what your attitude towards your current job is, why, and to get you thinking about what a different, more fulfilling career path could potentially look like.
He talked about the “paradox of choice” (which I have talked about here before) and how in the contemporary workforce, there are so many options, it’s almost completely impossible to feel 100% happy or satisfied with any one choice. Which seems antithetical, but it makes sense when you think about it in the context of ice cream. Seriously.
Correspondingly, he talks about the paralysis of choice, and how the fear of change or failure causes us to panic and freeze, staying exactly where we are, no matter how miserable or frustrated we might be. This section hit particularly close to home. “We get so worried about making a bad choice, we often end up making no choice at all, thus choosing by not choosing ” (I’m paraphrasing here). I didn’t used to be such a weenie!
He talks about the problem with the system as a whole, which sets us on a particular path from as early as 16 years old. What can we possibly know about ourselves and what we truly want to do for the rest of our lives at that age, when in many ways, because of pride or hormones or ignorance we are arguably at our very stupidest?
He talks about fears relating to “sunk costs” or opportunity cost we must address if making a major change mid-career. But he described it with a helpful analogy. He described it as being kind of like reaching the point in a romantic relationship where you realize it’s just over. You’ve had some good times, and you did have true and deep feelings for each other once, but it’s just not there any more, it never will be, and putting off the inevitable is just excruciating. I thought this was insightful and a helpful way to look at it (though I was never very good at breaking up either).
Then he transitions into more of what a dream job would look like. In summary, some of the points he highlights are as follows:
- He indicates that a “dream career” is often not something we find, but something we create. That is, rarely is something that fits us perfectly just out there, whole and waiting. We have to make it.
- The lines between work and play become blurry (I know, easier said than done)
- When we are working, we are “in the zone” or experience “flow” on a regular basis
- This one might seem obvious, but we are able to achieve a work/life balance
- It is something we can “customize” to our wants and needs
He also has some interesting insights on “idleness” and living cheaply. Too broad for this post, but pretty fascinating and certainly things I hadn’t previously considered. We’re all killing ourselves in pursuit of a success that isn’t going to feel any more fulfilling once we get there than it does endlessly pursuing it, basically. Oh, and P.S., you never actually “make it” anyway.
He doesn’t say that you’ll be happier living in abject poverty, either. But tightening the belt loops and figuring out what you can live without can provide the freedom to figure it out.
Talks just in passing about the “second shift” or “double burden” of working parents, especially for mothers. An interesting topic, but once again, beyond the scope of this post. Unless someone wants to talk about it…
Also talks about evolutionary biology, and how we are genetically engineered to fear bad over our desire for possible good…any takers.
One of the most interesting thought questions/sections was about imagining five different universes, and five different potential careers, and what those would entail, and why. He goes some pretty thought-provoking places from there.
Overall, it’s a feel-good book on what is usually a hopeless feeling topic. But I felt encouraged. Carpe diem. Seize the day. You only live once. And so on.
Oh, and if you need any further motivation, Alain de Botton is heavily involved with the whole School of Life movement. Just ask Dunce One how great he is.
Good book. Quick, easy, thoughtful, informative read.