To Achieve Or Not To Achieve

lemonade 2

We’ve been looking at how inspiration, motivation, and ambition contribute to career satisfaction — or not. High achievers have plenty of all three. They richly populate the professions, where career disillusionment also runs high. What’s that about?

“The paradox is that success can seem like failure,” writes MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. “Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment.”[1] He goes on:

“In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad.

“For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation(1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.

“Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

“When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

“Hence … the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life.”

Thus spake Schopenhauer — “but Schopenhauer was wrong,” says Professor Setiya. His solution? Give up on deriving meaning from completing projects and obtaining new milestones, and instead focus on goals that don’t have an end point, and therefore can’t be achieved.

“In order to see [Schopenhauer’s] mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

“Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

“If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfillment is always in the future or the past.

 “We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process.”

“Life is a journey, not a destination” — we’ve heard that before, right alongside “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Advice like that has always struck me as sour grapes. Can’t get what you want? No problem, just trick yourself into believing that’s really okay. But now, as I write this, I realize that these days my whole life is all about the process. I work out, write, read, research, study, learn. I do artwork. I cook and clean and stick to a budget. I’m there for my wife and kids. None of that has a goal. I’ll never achieve any of it.[2] But it’s rich in satisfaction.

It helps that I don’t have a job anymore.

Or maybe I’m just good at making lemonade.

Photo by Julia Zolotova on Unsplash

[1] “How Schopenhauer’s Thought Can Illuminate A Midlife Crisis,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 26, 2018).

[2] My workouts are full of metrics I try to meet, but that’s not the same thing. Maybe more on that another time.

Eternal Employment:  A Day Job Worth Keeping

what-would-you-like-to-do-if-money-were-no-object- alan-watts-quotes

“We will all be employed at Korsvägen.”

In a post on August 31, 2017, I pooh-poohed the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” “Baloney,” I said, “Money is always an object.” I take it all back. Now you have a real life opportunity to answer the question, and money truly is no object.

I first read about it in this Atlas Obscura article. Google “korsvägen train station job” for more. The job is whatever you want to do. That’s it. Your only duty is to clock in every day at the Korsvägen train station, currently under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden. Your salary is $2,320/month plus annual cost of living increases, benefits, vacations, a pension…. Why? To make an artistic and  political point about the economic and work issues we’ve been talking about in this blog.

“Titled ‘Eternal Employment,’ the project is both a social experiment and a serious political statement. In early 2017, Public Art Agency Sweden and the Swedish Transport Administration announced an international competition for artists interested in contributing to the new station’s design. The winner would get 7 million Swedish krona, the equivalent of around $750,000. Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, a pair of Swedish artists whose previous work was inspired by offshore banking, entered and suggested eschewing the typical murals and sculptures that adorn most transit hubs.

“Instead, they wrote, they would use the prize money to pay one worker’s salary and give them absolutely nothing to do all day.

“‘In the face of mass automation and artificial intelligence, the impending threat/promise is that we will all become productively superfluous,’ their proposal said. ‘We will all be employed at Korsvägen, as it were.’

“The pair also cited French economist Thomas Piketty’s theory that accumulated wealth has typically grown at a rate that outpaces increases in workers’ wages. The result, Piketty argues, is an ever-widening gap between the extremely rich and everyone else. Using that same calculation, Goldin and Senneby predicted that by creating a foundation to prevent the prize money from being taxed, then investing it in the market, they would be able to keep paying that employee’s salary for ‘eternity’ — which they defined as 120 years.

“A 2017 financial analysis conducted by Sweden’s Erik Penser Bank, which the artists submitted as part of their application, concurred. The artists had proposed paying the worker 21,600 Swedish krona a month, the equivalent of roughly $2,312, or $27,744 a year. Factoring in annual salary increases of 3.2 percent, consistent with what Sweden’s public sector employees receive, the bankers concluded that there was a 75 percent chance that the prize money would earn enough interest from being invested in an equity fund to last for 120 years or more.

“‘In this sense the artwork can function as a measure of our growing inequality,’ Goldin and Senneby wrote.

“Deeming the idea to be humorous, innovative and ‘an artistic expression of great quality,’ the jury that had been convened to judge the competition decided to award them the prize.” [1]

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”

Oscar Wilde

The politicians don’t appreciate either the irony or the economic analysis.

”There was an uproar in Sweden in October when officials announced that Goldin and Senneby’s proposal had won, Brian Kuan Wood, a board member for the Eternal Employment foundation, wrote in the art journal e-flux, with outrage coming from politicians on all sides.

“‘Old Social Democrats accused them of using financial realism to mock the transcendental accomplishments of the welfare state,’ he recalled. ‘Neoliberal progressives accused them of wasting taxpayers’ money to stage a nostalgic return to that same welfare state.’ Lars Hjälmered, a member of parliament from Gothenburg who belongs to Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party, decried the conceptual artwork as ‘stupidity’ in the news magazine Dagens Samhälle.

In their own writing, Goldin and Senneby fully acknowledge that paying someone to show up at a train station twice a day and punch a time clock is unproductive and thoroughly worthless. That’s the idea. Many people believe that art is supposed to be useless, they point out. They also suggest that the pointless job could lead to the creation of a new idiom expressing apathy, indolence and boredom: You’re working ‘as though you were at Korsvägen.’”[2]

I personally doubt the winner would be indifferent, lazy, or bored. I wouldn’t. Would you?

Mark your calendar:  applications open in 2025. Here’s the original job description. And here’s a more condensed version.

[1]An Experimental Swedish Art Project Will Pay You To Do Nothing For The Rest Of Your Life,” Washington Post (March 7, 2019).

[2] Op. cit.

Working With Passion

work with passion steve jobs

Hmmm… love… passion… Happy Valentine’s Day!

Now back to work.

Is there really such a thing as loving your work/working with passion? Yes.

What does it mean, to work with passion? I don’t have a good definition, but you know when you’ve got it.

And it certainly isn’t what ManagementSpeak calls “engagement.”

work with passion

Google “work engagement,” and you get a truly stunning number and variety of results, many of which are monotonously unoriginal and insultingly obvious, and some of which are just plain scary. Consider this article from “OSH WIKI,” sponsored by the EU version of OSHA[1]:

“Work engagement is defined as positive behaviour or a positive state of mind at work that leads to positive work-related outcomes. Employees with high levels of work engagement are energetic and dedicated to their work and immersed to their work.”

We’ll ignore the redundancy and wayward preposition for a moment and notice all the strong adjectives:  positive, energetic, dedicated, immersed. No issues there. Wikipedia adds a few more:

“Work engagement is the ‘harnessing of organization member’s selves to their work roles: in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally during role performances. Three aspects of work motivation are cognitive, emotional and physical engagement.’”[2]

Okay, got it:  when you’re engaged at work, you’re “physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally” all there. Hard to argue with that. But then you also need to be “harnessed” to your “work role,” with the ultimate objectives of “role performance” and “work-related outcomes.”

Um, no thanks. I’m pretty sure I’m busy that night. The robots can handle it while I’m out.

Thus far, we only have descriptions of what it’s like when you are engaged.  But how do you get there in the first place? That would seem to be where “passion” comes in. But where does that come from? Maybe we’ll find some clues in an article with a catchy title:  Is Your Colleague A Zombie Worker?

“They walk among us, dead-eyed, with heavy tread. They are the colleague sagging at the coffee machine, the project manager staring out of the window. Meet the zombie workforce: an army of employees who’re failing to find inspiration at work.

“There are more of these ‘working dead’ than you might imagine. According to a recent study by Aon Hewitt, less than one-quarter of the world’s employees are classified as ‘highly’ engaged in their jobs, while only 39% admit to being ‘moderately’ so.

“This leaves an awful lot of the 5 million people Aon surveyed ‘unengaged’, which the more gruesome-minded of us might take to mean ‘haunting office corridors like reanimated corpses’ where once they might have been valuable staff members, full of life and great ideas.”

We all know people like that. We might be that ourselves:  according to the research, look left and look right, and two of you don’t have a pulse. The working dead can’t find the “inspiration at work” they need. Hence no passion.

How do we wake the dead?

I met the world of working dead lawyers right after the Great Recession of 2007-2008. In a stroke of exquisitely bad timing, I left my law practice to start a new venture at the start of 2007. The project bombed, and I was at loose ends. I attended a bar association career change/job search meeting where we did one of those speed-dating things where you meet everybody. It was an eye-opener. Here were all these amazing people — bright, personable, articulate, with wide interests and a desire to serve — but they didn’t see themselves that way. Instead, they saw themselves as victims, helpless, hopeless.

I raced home and sketched out a workshop to help them discover who they really were. I’d never done a workshop like that before, but the ideas poured in, and I wrote them down in a white heat. A couple hours later, I fired off a proposal to the bar association. Weeks later I got an email:  “How’d you like to do your program over lunch next Tuesday? We’ll provide the pizza.” They put a blurb in a monthly newsletter, and 40 people showed up. I’ll never forget standing in front and looking into 40 pairs of empty eyes. The lights were on but nobody was home — or in some cases, the lights weren’t even on, and apparently hadn’t been for a long time.

The workshop morphed into a travelling Continuing Legal Education road show. The promoter called it “Beyond Burnout:  Find Your Passion in the Law,” but then quickly added “Or Out of the Law.” Best intentions aside, most attendees wanted out. Of the hundreds of heartfelt evaluations I collected, the following was by far in the minority:

“I knew I was fairly happy in my career, but I took this CLE because it sounded more interesting than the traditional practice area CLE’s. In working through the exercises, I met some amazing people and realized just how truly blessed I am to be currently working in a job that I love. This workshop got me excited to build my business to an even bigger level – it reignited the passion!”

“Reignited” meant the writer had the passion, and knew it. I said earlier you know it if you’ve got it. Next time, we’ll talk about what that feels like — kinda like falling in love, actually.

[1] In its defense, OSH is in the business of making sure workers are engaged at leaqst enough not tyo hurt themselves or others — a pretty low standard when it comes to passion. Here’s its mission:  “OSHwiki has been developed by EU-OSHA, to enable the sharing of occupational safety and health (OSH) knowledge, information and best practices, in order to support government, industry and employee organisations in ensuring safety and health at the workplace.”

[2] Quoting a 1990 Academy of Management Journal article.

Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.