This post is an elaboration of #2 from a list of things I learned early in life.
The porous social membranes of Tokyo have allowed me to wander in and out of many sub-cultures, each with their own set of values. One value that seems to dominate many of these sub-cultures is career advancement and remuneration.
Presumably, a successful career is considered by those who value it to be a major contributor to happiness. So is there a high correlation to a successful career and happiness? To a large degree, I can speak only from my own street-level perspective. I have to conclude that a high percentage of those with careers that most would define as successful are quite dissatisfied with their lives. I’d like to examine some of the possible reasons.
It may be simply that those with successful careers are more commonly prone to dissatisfaction with the status quo. They have aggressive personalities that make them both good at what they are doing, and continually dissatisfied with the results of their efforts. Nothing short of a personality change could make them happy in any situation.
There is also the problem of burnout. The years spent accumulating the degree of knowledge necessary for success in a given career often leads to this burnout. Focusing on acquiring the specified skill set that will lead to a particular successful career necessarily requires that one make sacrifices. These sacrifices can be psychological, social and academic. The most dangerous of these to neglect is the psychological. Unless you have sufficient time to continually reassess self, and to explore new modes of being, some degree of existential angst is soon to come. This ties in to one’s social life. Once you’ve assessed what your social needs are, if you then have no time to sufficiently cultivate the desired social relations, you’ll be quickly frustrated. Perhaps the last aspect of an academic life pertains only to those with my personality type. I need to constantly learn. I currently spend 4 hours a day listening to science and philosophy podcasts. I have no idea what material value this will lead to, but that is the point. I am happy simply immersing myself in the process. Any future return on investment is wholly incidental.
Another hindrance to happiness for those with successful careers is their focus on image. In our youth, the terms “lawyer” and “journalist” are presented like plug-and-play identities that, should we commit ourselves to “becoming” the referent of the term, will guarantee the glamor and joys that the media connotes on the term. However, having once arrived, many find that the actual identity feels like a wool shirt on a summer day. It may be that the itch of the wool was unexpected, or that the season of one’s current personality is not very well suited for the unneeded warmth of a wool shirt. Or worse, it could be that, during the pursuit of a successful career, the pursuer did not sufficiently tend to personal development, leading to complete dependency on the image.
Related to this is the possible discovery that one’s social relations are uncomfortably dependent upon the success of one’s career. Knowing or suspecting that your romantic interests would not be quite so amorous or committed were it not for your status or wealth is devastating to one’s self-esteem.
In addition, as one grows older, career success seems evermore trivial in contrast to other accomplishments in life such as true love, children, global adventures and the creation of a happy internal self impervious to unexpected changes in image. Career seems more and more like some video game you learned well and played for years while life passed you by.
It is for these reasons that I place no value on the concept of career. I cannot imagine myself smiling on my deathbed over the fact that I “became” a successful such-and-such. I do, however, imagine myself dying with a grin on my face while all of life’s adventures pass through my mind that one last time. Very few of those adventures will be even remotely related to “career”.
Plugging yourself into a pre-fab identity is usually not a very wise way to approach a life of several decades. I want to be remembered as “Phil”, not as “the professor” or any other identity I temporarily wore. On my gravestone I’d prefer “He lived!” to “He was a Nobel Laureate”.
So, I just live my passions. Whenever I am not happy, I move on to a refreshing and stimulating something else without the slightest sense of guilt. I am currently working less than 15 hours a week teaching English, something I enjoy, but it, at the same time, gives me a whole lot of free time to pursue whatever else I desire.
I admit that my own personality requires more change than do most, so I don’t want to project my mode of living on others. However, it makes me sad to see so many intelligent individuals who are unhappily trapped within “successful” careers by the notion that the image that they and others attach to their career is everything.