Saturday, February 21, 2009

GIVE ME SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN AND I WILL WORK HARD FOR IT

OESTERHOUDT STRIKES

I resist traditional employment. From my youngest days, I knew that would not fit easily into conventional existence. Still, I was a diligent student because I loved to learn. I broadened my perspective with knowledge and foreign languages. Knowledge excited me because it covered such a broad field; no two questions were ever the same. But then I learned that I needed a “career.” Even in college, I had no idea what I would “do” after my studies. I remained fixated on learning for its own sake. I did not care what I would “do” with my knowledge afterward. I was content merely to learn.

But learning is not enough to survive in America. I soon saw that you need a “career” or a “craft” in order to pay the bills. I set about looking for a “career” and soon discovered—to my horror—that most “jobs” did not involve—or even require—the spirit of learning that sustained me through my childhood. Instead, I saw that “careers” involved narrow attention to a single company’s economic mission and ruthlessly attending to all the everyday challenges confronting that mission. Worse, as a young man, I did not even have an opportunity to participate in a company’s more cerebral undertakings. I could simply apply for “entry-level” positions performing petty office work. Neither knowledge nor intelligence was necessary; the employer simply needed a warm body to fetch things around the office.

“So this is what it’s all about?” I thought to myself. “I spend twenty years learning the virtues of knowledge and learning; and now they just want to know how fast I can type?” I felt hopelessly disillusioned. I could not really put my finger on why; it just all seemed so petty. And this was supposedly what life was all about: Finish school, then get a “career,” get rich, retire, collect pension money and shrug off. I said to myself: “If this is what ‘career’ is all about, I want no part in it.” I worked when I had to in order to survive. But I never stopped criticizing the American fixation on “career.” In my view, traditional career paths eschew knowledge and learning for shortsighted, private loyalty to an employer’s economic mission. All the things I learned to cultivate in school—intellectual curiosity; critical thinking; careful analysis; uninhibited theorizing; freedom to express my opinion—simply did not apply anymore. In a “career,” critical thinking and voicing your opinion can actually get you in trouble. That gravely disappointed me. That is why I determined to live my life without surrendering to the “career program.”

I studied law partially to escape career pressure. True to my natural inclination to learn, I wanted to spend three years soaking in meaningful knowledge rather than advancing an employer’s economic interests for poor pay. For many people, law school is simply a “career springboard.” It is a preparatory institution for economic “success” later in life. That attitude blinds most people to the tremendously valuable intellectual rewards that flow from studying law. In law school, I learned strict academic discipline. I learned how to tear arguments to pieces with methodical precision. I also learned how to commit myself to positions in speech and in writing, then substantiate those positions with rational support. I trained myself to read, organize and absorb complex information for hours on end. Beyond the technical skills, I also made philosophical discoveries. In the law’s substance, I saw American society’s deepest values. I saw what makes Americans “tick.” In the main, I saw that Americans live for money, property and bodily comfort. But I also detected a tension between the quest for private gain and larger, abstract principles. After all, our laws flow from our Constitution and founding ideals. Those sources voice support for ideas far more compelling than mere private enrichment. During my final year in law school, I began to feel that my new legal knowledge was actually leading to a better place. I was beginning to believe in things larger than my own needs. Specifically, I began to believe that our Constitution was a force for good in America because it stood for noble principles that acted to prevent tyranny. I loved reading judicial opinions in which individual right triumphed over government power, or cases in which the court criticized economically powerful people for tyrannizing the weak. In short, I began to admire principles because principles transcend mere economic expediency. I saw that government could be a force for good, even when it is not profitable to be good. That impressed me.

My new legal knowledge shed new light on my suspicions about careers. After all, a traditional “careerist” does not care how he advances. If the goal is company success, then a true careerist will adopt any means to achieve it. He will not adhere to larger principles if principles obstruct the path to success; he will “flexibly” adapt his behavior to reach his goal. In return, he receives accolades from his employer, encouraging him to be even more unscrupulous in the future. In short, traditional “career thinking” involves expediency. In commercial life, private businesses constantly compete for maximum gain. They have only one motivation: To make more money this year than they did last year. To reach that goal, they will shift policies and approaches to address new challenges. They do not adhere to a policy if it impacts profits, even if it is theoretically a “good” policy. In commerce and careers, no policy is “good” unless it gets results. This is what bothered me, for I saw that true principles endure because they do not change with the wind: They apply whether times are good or bad, results or no results. A principle would not be a principle if managers could discard it as soon as their quarterly balance sheets showed a small loss.

Without principles, what are we? We are simply commercial chameleons who change from hour to hour to maximize profit opportunities. Nothing guides us or sustains us. Nothing gives us deeper meaning or satisfaction in life. In short, without principles, we have no abiding belief. True, the commercial man says that he “believes” in business success, but when I say “belief,” I mean belief in something more substantial than expediency. Belief means an individual understanding that something is true. Belief does not make the believer “right;” it simply expresses his own, subjective understanding about events, ideas, thoughts and conditions. It is a question of conscience; no one can force another person to believe anything. When we believe in principles, we believe in ideas that transcend the crass expediencies of economic existence. When we adhere to principles, we do not yield to the “profit urge.” We hold to our beliefs, even if they cost us money.

I do not subscribe to the traditional “career path” because it does not give me anything in which to believe. If I can believe in something, I will work doggedly to advance it. If there is a job that stands for principle rather than profit, I can support it. But I cannot support an enterprise that has no goal other than petty private profit. How does profit transcend? When we die, who will remember how much money we had in the bank? This is the reason why I have such a hard time taking a “traditional job.” There is nothing to believe in. It is nothing but a compensated quest to make money for someone else. What larger principle does that serve? I can see none.

Recently, I thought about words that describe my feelings on this issue. For years, I knew that I could not live a life dedicated to private profit. But only in recent months have I really tailored my language to match my thoughts. When I write, I often criticize commerce because it prizes expediency over principle. I often saw that there is “nothing noble” about such pursuits, and that commercial activity is “not memorable.” I extend these ideas to criticize “traditional career paths” because they, too, are hardly noble or memorable. What does this all mean? What words truly express these sentiments? Is it a fruitless enterprise?

No. Two words sum up how I feel about careers, commerce and principle: “Honor” and “noble.” These are common words; we hear them in numerous contexts. When we first hear them, they conjure up anachronistic images from the Middle Ages: We see “honorable,” chivalrous “noblemen” on horseback who occupy a lofty station above the petty masses. “Noble” has an especially condescending ring, since “nobles” occupied a higher social class than mere “commoners.” And we hear “honor” in extremely varied contexts, muddling its true meaning. We have a sense that “honor” is a catchall phrase for “good.” That is why we call judges “Your Honor;” we do not know exactly why they deserve that epithet. We give it to them because we want to show respect. They are supposed to be “good,” even if they are fools.

I am not satisfied with linguistic generalities. By investigating the meanings and etymologies embedded within these words, a much clearer picture emerges. According to Webster’s New College Dictionary (4th Ed.), “honor” means: “2. a keen sense of right and wrong; adherence to action or principles considered right; integrity; 4. high rank or position; distinction; dignity; 7. a person or thing that brings respect or fame to a country.” These are all strongly positive descriptions. Interestingly, we see that “honor” involves “adherence to principles;” later, we see that “honor” means “integrity” and “dignity.” It even brings “respect and fame” to those who have it. Does this mean that “adherence to principles” gives us “integrity,” “fame,” “dignity,” “high rank,” “distinction” and “respect?” I would say yes. In other words, adhering to principles despite changing circumstances makes us “honorable,” and that in turn entitles us to the richly positive connotations enshrined in the concept.

But this begs a question: If we do not adhere to principle, are we then “dishonorable?” If we constantly shift our beliefs and policies to meet business expediency, do we have “honor?” In my view, it appears that commercial men can scarcely claim honor. I reject the idea that “private profit” is a “principle” to which a person can adhere for honor’s sake. It is not honorable to dedicate oneself to personal wealth. It may be prevalent, but that does not make it honorable. Rather, honor requires adherence to larger principles. Still, to be successful in commerce, one cannot truly adhere to larger principles, because profit must take precedence over other considerations. In these circumstances, I would venture that dedication to private profit makes it impossible to have honor. After all, honor requires adherence to transcendent principles such as human dignity, justice, fairness, equality, charity, goodness and caring. If a commercial man commits himself to these principles, he will not be successful. In that light, he cannot have honor. He may have honor in his personal life, but his professional life is about profit, not honor. Put simply, the two concepts do not mix. One involves unswerving commitment to principle. The other involves unabashed, expedient flexibility.

“Noble” complements “honor.” Webster tells us that “noble” means: “1. having eminence, renown, fame; illustrious; 2. having or showing high moral qualities or ideals or greatness of character; lofty; 3. having excellent qualities; superior; 4. grand, stately, splendid, magnificent.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). Although this definition does not explicitly mention “adherence to principle,” it comes close. “Noble” describes character. Specifically, a “noble action” implies “high moral qualities or ideals.” Much like principles, ideals are individual beliefs that transcend everyday expediency. In that sense, “noble” pairs well with “honor.” “Greatness of character” and “high ideals” bespeak “noble,” just as “adherence to principle” animates “honor.” As with “honor,” “noble” is a strongly positive concept. It implies “greatness,” “splendor” and “magnificence” because the actor follows “high ideals.” His conduct sets him apart; it makes him “lofty.”

Again I ask the question: Is shortsighted dedication to private profit a “high ideal” that entitles us to claim “nobility?” Again, I venture that crass commercialism does not constitute a “high ideal,” just as it does not constitute a “principle” for honor’s sake. There is nothing noble about running a business for profit, nor is there anything noble about pressing forward a career to enrich yourself.

Yet this is precisely the goal in a “traditional career:” Get a high-paying job, make loads of money and enjoy all the earthly pleasures that flow from it. This may satisfy the vast majority in America, but it does not satisfy me. I do not believe in it because I do not see the honor in it. I do not see how it is noble to show up to work and toil all day for a private business that profits from my labor. I recognize that this is an unpopular—and at times, untenable—position. For when the bill collector knocks, we do not have the luxury to think about honor. Or do we? It all depends on what we seek from life. Do we want to take a stand for our beliefs? Or do we just want to “get with the program” and be comfortable? Dedicating ourselves to honorable purposes is never profitable; at best we can hope to be honorable while serving ourselves. But I think it is possible to live for honor. After all, if we “adhere to principle” all the time, we give force to our own beliefs. We decide which ideas are important and we form our lives around them. Our own personality dictates the path, not the pressure of expediency. If we live for honor, no economic power can constrain our minds. This probably sounds like hopeless daydreaming. But I would much rather be remembered as a man who believed in something than a man who had a normal job.

When I believe in something, I work hard at it. I believe in principles beyond private profit. That makes me a bad fit in the American employment world because most employers eschew any principle inconsistent with private profit. There are exceptions to this rule. I am searching for them. When I find something in which I can truly believe, I will give it all my strength. I believe in learning and knowledge because they are transcendent. That is why I study hard.

I want to believe in something more than commerce. When I find it, I will never let it go.

1 comment:

angelshair said...

Me too!!
I was wondering what I didn't understood from the beginning that makes me not adapted to society. I guess it is either the education I received, either the fact that I do not "type fast enough". :))