The Sorrows of Work
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Read between January 29 - February 04, 2018
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There is no more common emotion to feel around work than that we have failed.
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But the suggestion here is that the single greatest cause of our professional failure lies in an area that self-aware, moderate and modest people are instinctively loath to blame: the system we live within.
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‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ – by which he meant that there are many interesting, attractive and viable versions of oneself, many good ways one could potentially live and work,
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In some jobs, it is clear what you have to do to move forward and how promotion occurs (civil servant, lawyer, surgeon), a dynamic that lends calm and steadiness to the soul, and diminishes tendencies to plot and manoeuvre. In other jobs (television producer, politician), the rules are muddied and seem bound up with accidents of friendship and fortuitous alliances, inspiring tendencies to anxiety, distrust and shiftiness.
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However, we can allow ourselves to mourn that there will always be large aspects of our character that won’t be satisfied.
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We may with a certain melancholic pride remove the job search engine from our bookmarks and cancel our subscription to a dating site in due recognition of the fact that, whatever we do, parts of our potential will have to go undeveloped and die without ever having had the chance to come to full maturity
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In an interesting job, we won’t simply be following orders; we will have latitude about what path we select to meet an objective or what we think the right solution to a problem might be.
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So long as we only have the emotional resources to consume at the more narcotic and compromised end of the market, we will only generate employment that is itself challenged in meaning and compromised in dignity
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Capitalism does not place the longings and aspirations of the labour force at the heart of its operations (the clue to its essential concerns lies in its name).
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Labour has exactly the same status within capitalism as other production inputs, neither more nor less. Alongside rent, the price of fuel, plant, technology and taxes, labour (people) is just another cost.
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There is nothing less healthy for capitalism than an economy in which venerable firms, some perhaps very long established and with thousands of loyal workers within them, can’t regularly and cleanly go bust.
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Religion now seldom gets in the way. Its irritating, calming pieties have been replaced by far more robust and motivating narratives drawn from social Darwinism.
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We’ve been able to give people phones to make sure they are findable at all times and incentivised them to regard these devices as toys for their benefit rather than glorified tracking bracelets for their firms.
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But when we collaborate, we must laboriously turn the stream of consciousness that only we can follow into unwieldy, externally comprehensible messages.
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or clean out the stables thoroughly even if you felt the foreman hadn’t enquired deeply enough into the nature of your weekend.
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A wounding comment can destroy a person’s productivity for a whole day.
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But the reality is that, in many occupations, no verifiable measure of performance is available. Factors of success are numerous, opaque and shifting. What decides who is promoted is not talent per se, but success at a range of dark psychological arts best summed up by the term ‘politics’.
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Such grey, underhand strategies are not easy to pick up, and they may feel impossible for us to practise if we pride ourselves on being straightforward, direct or even just somewhat ethical. Yet we can be certain that every high-minded refusal of duplicity will carry a heavy, perhaps career-damaging, cost.
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American psychologist William James (1842–1910) recognised the anxiety created by societies that promise their inhabitants infinite opportunities for social transformation and career success – and then can’t always deliver.
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every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources.
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To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system has added the insult of humiliation.
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It is a symptom of our faith in meritocracy that it has largely become impossible to explain away professional failure as the result of ‘bad luck’.
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We need an extraordinary run of good fortune to make a success of our careers:
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clumsy enemies;
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The game is close to rigged so as to cause heartbreak on a mass scale, although the sadness rarely recognises itself as collective, and is experienced in each individual soul as a uniquely personal defeat.
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We are inherently ungrateful, and feel alive only when we have taken on a struggle that has a good chance of crushing us.
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It is no loser’s counsel to work with a vivid sense of how much worse it might, and will still, get.