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Working to Work

Monday, August 13, 2007
I wrote last week about how I didn't want to be an academic, in part because I just couldn't see myself dedicating the amount of time it would require to become really good at it. In some senses this has been the story of my life. I can't tell you how many things I've gotten involved in, reaching a certain level of proficiency only to decide that pursuing it further wasn't worth the investment.

What I really enjoy is real life political activism - working on campaigns, arguing about policy, etc. I know that comes as a big shock, given the proportion of political content on this blog. For a long time I wanted to run for office. I decided against it not just because of my personal baggage (which is real but probably not insurmountable), or the fact that I hadn't lived anywhere long enough to really put down roots (that turned out not to be such a big deal), but for the very simple reason that I have seen up close what it's like to be an elected official.

Now being a city councilperson or the like is very time-consuming. It's like having a part-time job on top of whatever you actually do for a living. But what's shocking are the lives of those who serve in higher positions (like Congress). Those people literally do nothing but politics. Their families, their friends, their private interests - anything and everything is sacrificed to the public service (or if they're bad guys, to power-mongering). I like taking weekends off and having dinner with my spouse. I like reading books and watching Buffy re-runs. I'm not prepared to give everything else in my life for the sake of ambition, either of the public or personal variety.

So I thought about it awhile and decided that maybe being a professional political type would be fun. Not the guy whose name is on the ballot, but a campaign manager or something. But it turns out that those sorts of jobs have all the same kinds of time pressures, except on top of them you a) have all the problems with working for someone else, and b) have to travel constantly. Seriously, these people live like nomads.

These days I'm considering doing politics part-time. I'd like to get involved in local, grass-roots activism and help good people get elected. That kind of activity is much, much less strenuous than doing politics for a living, and I can still do some good. While I think I might be very good at higher-level politics, and that I might have a lot to offer, I'll never know. However much I enjoy waging political campaigns, or legislative maneuver, or public speaking, there's just not any way to live a whole life while doing politics professionally.

I'd say this is a very sad situation, except that I've discovered that it's in no way unique to politics. It's the same with every other profession too. From talking with Brazen Hussy about academia, watching my father in the corporate world, and simply paying attention to the world, I've realized that those of us who want to be the Best and Brightest (or even the Pretty Good) are asked to pay an intolerable price for our ambition. I could expect CEO's of Fortune 500 companies and Heads of State to have to devote every waking hour to their professions. But how is it we've created a world in which to even have a modicum of real professional success, we are expected to sacrifice everything else that makes life worth living? Why is it that we have to spend 60-80 hours a week to get tenure? Why are we surprised that celebrities of every stripe can't seem to have healthy relationships, or are afflicted with some sort of addiction or weird psychology? It's manic and destructive to ask human beings to turn themselves into professional automatons, creatures of work and work alone. Why in the world would any sane person of ability want to rise to the top of their profession? As far as I can tell, it looks like more of a curse than an achievement.

I don't have a great deal of exposure to the rest of the world, but it seems like Americans are simply work-obsessed. Perhaps it's the Protestant work ethic run amok, or the lack of strong labor unions. It might be some sort of collective action problem, in which every person has an incentive to work a little harder in order to get a leg up - which means that everybody is trapped in a very unhealthy spiral of overwork. This might make for a very productive economy (or it may not - I've seen evidence of real declines in productivity after a certain number of hours), but at what price? Americans at all levels take fewer vacations and work longer hours than anybody else in the industrialized world. Meanwhile we don't read books, we eat crap, we ignore our friends & family, we dy younger, and at night we're so physically exhausted and mentally drained we do nothing but dull our minds with TV. How is this the American dream again?

Maybe I'm just whining, or wrapped up in my own sense of frustration, but it seems to me that something is very wrong with the way we live. I fail to grasp any reason why anyone should have to spend more than half their waking hours working. It just sounds crazy to me.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:26 PM
  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger comebacknikki, at 9:36 PM  
  • This may sound really simple, but you have to do what makes you happy. Screw what other people think of you or expect from you. You're the only one who has to live your life and deal with the ramifications of doing something that you hate and/or depresses you.

    Unfortunately, I think too many people get caught up in what they should be doing (or in trying to accomplish their goals)and they forget to stand back and really evaluate if they're actually satisfied with what they're doing. Productivity doesn't always equate to happiness.

    By Blogger comebacknikki, at 9:37 PM  
  • Amen, Arbitrista!

    By Blogger Ursa, at 11:39 AM  
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