Tuesday, 25 November 2008

in need of some pithy motivational speaking.

I've been putting off writing here for a while now - like so many things lately I just don't seem to be able to find the motivation. I lay everything out in baby steps ahead to make it easier for myself, but when you can't bring yourself to take step one, then it's a shaky ladder indeed you're building. In this case I've been planning to write a 'how I feel about being back' post to round off the travel writing, before writing anything else, and now it's been so long since I arrived I've forgotten my first impressions.

Let it suffice to say that I don't regret coming home. The orange blossom smells good, the coffee tastes good, and the sky is the right colour again. I have the strangest feeling here, like I'm the only one for whom this year has passed. It's as if the rest of the world works on Narnia time - 9 months living in Europe feels like I've missed a week here. I'm (mostly) glad for the time I spent overseas, and the things I did and saw, but it feels like I'm back where I'm meant to be, and it feels better.

This is not all I wanted to say on that, but now I am at least on rung one of my ladder.


I am giving a lot of thought at the moment to careers/directions/big-life-decisions etc. It's nice to be in a position to 'turn over a new leaf' so to speak, but I also wonder if this is the type of stuff better left to the subconscious, because all this time on my hands is doing my head in. (Clearly, otherwise I'd do something about the amount of cliches in this paragraph).

Meanwhile, I'm reading Michael Pollan 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' which is simultaneously a dry hard slog, and incredibly interesting and enlightening. I would recommend it, but probably with the proviso that you either have a lot of time on your hands or are happy to read it at the rate of a few pages a day. Or you have a more than passing interest in food and agriculture.

One of the things Pollan discusses is how (American) farming practices have changed to reflect the need for industrial efficiency over other criteria. Farms have changed from small affairs, cultivating a number of different crops and animals, to extremely large mono-cultures. The latter is more efficient at the most basic level - growing more per acre than the former and for less money. This is, until you factor in things like soil and animal health, nutrition, transport, subsidies, (oil-based) fertilisers, antibiotic resistance, environmental and public health, and global stability. The big-scale farmers themselves are less and less important or skilled, but on the other hand there are many more employment steps in the chain from production to plate. More diversified farms are arguably less 'efficient' as they require more initial manpower and cannot be replicated on a large scale, but because they require fewer inputs, and don't degrade the resources that they have (in fact quite the opposite) they are significantly more sustainable. In the sense that they're not doomed to collapse.

Traditional investment logic would tell you the same thing - diversify your investments and prosper in the long term. Stick to just one thing and you're in a precarious position.

It's a pretty universally applicable concept: 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket'.

So why is it that at an individual commercial level we feel the need to do exactly that? We go to work, we do something very specialised, most of us don't enjoy it very much, and we look forward to going home at the end of the day and doing something else. Industry decrees that, as a whole, the system is more efficient by assigning one task to one person, one cog for one job. In theory by becoming extremely good at that one thing, we are more efficient. But does it really work like that? Most people waste a lot of time at work distracting themselves in an attempt to force variety into their day. At a macro-level it's a well oiled machine but at a micro-level in reality we're checking our email 15 times an hour and playing typeracer. And how exactly does that translate to productivity on a macro level really? Or does it only work because of all of the things we can't or don't count?

We've come to believe that if we're dissatisfied with doing just one narrow task, it's simply because we have not found the right narrow task: our 'passion'. That once you find it you will be completely fulfilled doing nothing else for 80 hours a week. But is that really true? I don't know so many people who live like that. Most (educated, happy) people I know find their jobs satisfying-on-balance at best. Those who do love their jobs seem to do so because they have personalities inclined to focus on the good elements in their lives, or because they're fortunate enough to have a challenging and varied role, rather than because they are the lucky few who've found their calling. I've no doubt that there are some people who live the dream - they keep the myth alive after all - but I imagine that they are the minority. Most people seem to get by with a balance of liking elements of their job, and recognising it as a means to an end.

I spent at least ten years of my life working towards a career in one of the most highly trained and specialised fields around. If I hadn't changed direction, it probably would've taken me another five years of hard work before I actually had a chance at a stable job, if I ever got hired at all. And this in a field noted for its 'passion' but nevertheless ranked 2nd highest (after flight-traffic controllers) for stress, and lower than prison guards for job satisfaction. What was I thinking? And why do I still feel like a failure for walking away?

Okay, some jobs require specialisation simply because it takes a long time to become very skilled at something very necessary. I'm pretty happy that my anaesthetist took 12 years training to be really good at his craft, and it would be a bit of a waste having him spend 25% of his time sending patients off on the Good Ship Lollipop, and 75% of his time doing random other stuff. But not many jobs require such high levels of training, and nor, would it seem, do many people have the capacity to achieve them.

I don't think we were built to live like this. We've evolved the way we are because to our genetically-identical ancestors, being good at a number of tasks was an advantage. Those who had the ability and inclination to do a number of things (hunting, gathering, building fires, behaving socially, creating tools etc) had a distinct advantage over those who were really good at say, 'information architecture' (what even IS that?) but not much else. Oh hello Mr Sabre-Tooth Tiger, I'm just integrating your database with...*chomp*. Is it any wonder we don't enjoy working like this?

So why is it that we each accept the premise of industrial productivity over individual gumption, whereby faulty number-crunching translates to overall efficiency and high salaries at the expense of job satisfaction? Capitalism only measures currency, not happiness, and it delights in large-scale measurable systems. To get us on side, it sells us the dream of finding vocational bliss by marrying skill and passion. If you're doing it right your mistress will be a hefty salary. That's fine, and if you've managed to achieve it I applaud you, but what if you don't like your job? You'll think it's because you're in the wrong field, not because you're a rounded person being squished into a small square cubicle.

And where does that leave me on my job quest? Do I only feel like this because I'm Gen Why (or whatever the flip they're calling us these days) and my attention span has allegedly been ruined by computer games? I'd like to spend my working time enjoyably and efficiently - I don't want to waste my time any more than my employer does, and I think for me, like most people, that means doing a variety of meaningful tasks. And hey, I'd like to be paid a reasonable sum for doing my job well, because I've swallowed the rest of the dream at least; I'd like a house and a garden please, and I wouldn't mind an iPhone either, while you're at it.

But that's not the name of the game: it's employability vs balance, and as I read the job ads, I find myself continually berated for being well-rounded. 'A jack of all trades and master of none' - that's me. Except it's actually more like 'pretty good at many things, intelligent, reliable, helpful, practical, adaptible and with decent packaging, but not extremely specialised' which apparently is not so a much selling point for potential employees as it is for, say, Swiss army knives.

So here's my real question: what happened to the dream of the Renaissance (wo)man?