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Stoic Meditation #6 - The Career Trap
"Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it." - John Steinbeck
[My thoughts here were originally part of a post on "retirement." But the section on careers blossomed into something larger than what I'd planned. Consider this, then, a preface to the next post on "retirement." Separating the two ideas expands the relevance for my readers. If you're in your late teens or early twenties, this post will help you begin to frame your thinking about the next 40-50 years. Or at least I hope so. If you are already far along your career path, my hope is this will help you make some adjustments.]
For most, perhaps all of our life we think of a career as just something we do for an income. But it's more than a job, it's something we work to develop, usually involving additional years of education and practice. We invest our time in a trade or profession that promises more opportunities to expand our lifestyle beyond basic needs. We "get" a job, but we "pursue" a career. With a career, we can get a job, especially one that pays better than unskilled work. But a job does not necessarily imply a career. A job is the gear that meshes with the machinery for generating an income. It's the activity by which we exchange our career expertise for money.
If I get a job as a dishwasher and for whatever reason lose that job, I'm no longer a dishwasher. Looking for work after losing my dishwasher job doesn't mean I have to find another dishwasher job. I could very well look for work sweeping floors or washing windows or mowing lawns. If I'm an accountant - someone with a career - and I'm no longer employed as an accountant, I'm still an accountant. I still have a career. It's just that the job gear has become disengaged from the income machine. Because of our interest and investment, we're far more likely to look for work that allows us to continue with our career.
As time passes, either by way of opportunity or choice, we may pursue several careers. This continues until, as the expression goes, "we get to the end of our career." For most people, after years of investing their time and money to establish and curate an identity around a narrow set of activities, it suddenly ends within the space of a two week notice. No more career. No more identity.
There is another meaning to career. Not as a noun, but as a verb: "To move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction." We may have planned our career in a way that looks orderly and predictable, but the activity of our career, the underlying process by which we managed life's most precious resource, may have been much less controlled and is most certainly moving swiftly. The vagaries of life nudge, push, and collide with our plans and we end up in unplanned places. If you're paying attention and are lucky, you may avoid or weather the serious hits to your career. But even the lucky retire. Or are retired.
"But when at last some illness has reminded them of their mortality, how terrified do they die, as if they were not just passing out of life but being dragged out of it." – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Perhaps the problem starts when we begin to equate "career" with "money." Most people don't have a clear understanding of what money is and how it works, even though they may very well earn a great deal of money at their job. Money causes us to misjudge the value of things, especially our time. The pursuit of money risks devolving our career into just another means for collecting ever more money. Unaware, we pass the thresholds of "enough" and "more than enough." That's the trap.
"To children who put their hand into a narrow necked earthen vessel and bring out figs and nuts, this happens: if they fill the hand, they cannot remove it, and then they cry. Drop a few of them and you will get it out." - Epictetus, Discourses 3.9.21
We are inundated with the message that satisfaction and happiness not only can be purchased, but can only be purchased. The Castle in the Sky, the marketing Sirens sing, can only be reached by a stairway built on sand. You could reach The Castle if you only had more sand!
"What tears and toil does avarice exact! How wretched it is in desiring, how wretched in what it has acquired! Add to this the daily worries that torment us in proportion to our possessions. To have money brings more anxiety than the effort to acquire it. How we grieve over our losses, which may be great and which seem even greater! And then even if fortune takes nothing away from us, we regard as a further loss whatever we cannot get." - Seneca, Epistles 115.16
Happiness cannot be purchased. Neither can peace of mind when it comes to how you feel about your self and the life you're living. But there is a price to be paid for overextending your reach into pursuits that are neither satisfying or rewarding. When all we have is a job, it's easier to jump ship for something else than it is when we've invested time and money in a career. But careers evolve and there are plenty of examples where entire careers have disappeared or become distasteful ventures and not worth pursuing. This is where intention and awareness become so important to long term success.
Does your career, on balance, leave you feeling satisfied and fill you with purpose? Which ever way you answer that question, is that likely to continue for the near- and long-term? Considering your answer to each of these questions will keep you tapped into the career process rather than captured by the career trap.
If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.
Photo credit: Unknown. From an unmarked snail-mail card I received ages ago.