Should I Get A Real Job? A “Thoreau” Examination of My Peculiar Existence
By David Metcalfe
April 4, 2018
There are only three things that exist in the world: paper, plastic, and cardboard. One’s relation to paper is a passive one, for paper is not to be intruded upon in its path. Plastic, however, is an active relation, as the absence of action in the sight of it is the greatest evil one can commit. Cardboard, another active relation, results in the second greatest evil should there be committed a crime of omission.
The state we find ourselves in is one of appropriation to a variety of senses, but most are unwelcome. The radio emits equal parts static and generic rock music, the smell of garbage is overpowering to the point where one’s hunger is only alleviated through the increasing disgust at the thought of eating at all, and the boredom of doing the same monotonous task for 9 hours is enough to drive any person insane. The trick is to be insane before you begin, because there will be less difficulty becoming accustomed to it.
In other words, I work part-time at a recycling plant. But when you read too much Henry David Thoreau, you end up philosophizing mundanity through over-complicated literary expression.
Last week, as I sat in the lunch room, my legs hurt from standing in one place for so long. The smell of garbage wafting in gave my lunch (a box of crackers I acquired for a dollar) a unique, and rather unwelcome, garbage flavor. And of course, I had to endure the insufferable presence of my colleagues. Out of the five of us, one was perusing a pornographic magazine he had found in the garbage, another was online betting on the score of hockey games, and the other two were talking about how wasted they got last night, and their plans to repeat the activity this night. And then there was me, reading in the corner and eating cheap, garbage flavored crackers.
In my reading I came across this passage from Bertrand Russell in his 1929 classic, “The Conquest of Happiness”. It states,
“It must, I think, be admitted that the most intelligent young people in Western countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes from finding no adequate employment for their best talents.”
Is sorting garbage my “best talent”? Being that I have completed all of the course requirements for medical school, have been published in several newspapers and magazines, and have spoken to thousands of people at universities, churches, and conferences on complex topics, I think there is a case to be made that my best talents exist elsewhere.
But the real question is: why don’t I get a real job? Many people would do anything to have the ability to practice medicine, law, journalism, or teach at a university. I have the ability, and yet, thus far, I do not wish to exercise it in any formal capacity.
Needless to say, people do not understand me, and I’ve stopped expecting them to. This article would be too likely futile if my only goal was to make people understand me. Instead, I wish to show that the reason people do not understand me is not because they have some kind of superior knowledge of life and career to which I am not aware. I actually don’t even intend to suggest that I have a superior knowledge of life and career to which others are not aware (although, some may be inclined to believe that). My goal is to suggest that the best thing for someone to do is what they want. Many people ask, “what career should I do?” and I think the answer should always be, “the career you want to do.” But more so, career is not simply long-term employment, as many have ascribed the term. I wish to suggest that career is the contributions that you give to society, and the personal fulfilment you gain, through the work that you do. Whether it involves money, social status, recognition, or formal acknowledgement is of no consequence.
Picking Berries as a Career Goal
I normally don’t like to include long excerpts in my articles, because a short summary usually suffices for any point I am trying to make based on a piece of literature. But this one is too good. It’s from Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant work, Walden (1854). About a quarter way through the book, he explains why he rejects materialism, primarily on the basis that it steals one’s time, energy, and effort for something that only creates more difficulty and unnecessary hindrance in life. He then goes on to talk about his unique approach to a work-life balance:
“For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure. I have tried trade; but I found that it would take ten years to get under way in that, and that then I should probably be on my way to the devil. I was actually afraid that I might by that time be doing what is called a good business. When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living, some sad experience in conforming to the wishes of friends being fresh in my mind to tax my ingenuity, I thought often and seriously about picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice, –for my greatest skill has been to want but little, -so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought. While my acquaintances went unhesitatingly into trade or the professions, I contemplated this occupation as most like theirs; ranging the hills all summer to pick the berries which came in my way, and thereafter carelessly dispose of them; so, to keep the flocks of Admetus. I also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city, by hay-cart loads. But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from Heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.
As I preferred some things to others, and especially valued my freedom, as I could fare hard and yet succeed well, I did not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or Gothic style just yet. If there are any to whom it is no interruption to acquire these things, and who know how to use them when acquired, I relinquish to them the pursuit. Some are “industrious,” and appear to love labor for its own sake, or perhaps because it keeps them out of worse mischief; to such I have at present nothing to say. Those who would not know what to do with more leisure than they now enjoy, I might advise to work as hard as they do, – work till they pay for themselves, and get their free papers. For myself I found that the occupation of a day-laborer was the most independent of any, especially as it required only thirty or forty days in a year to support one. The laborer’s day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor; but his employer, who speculates from month to month, has no respite from one end of the year to the other.
In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”
This is one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time. I could write a 500-page dissertation on this one excerpt alone. The portions I put in bold are some of the most impactful statements I have ever come across. They were things that I had thought for quite some time, but since no one else thought anything even close to that, I assumed I must be crazy. And I’m not saying that I am not crazy, because that is up to you to decide. However, I suppose that at the very least it is consoling to have some crazy congeniality with someone as intelligent as Thoreau.
Basically, Thoreau wants only to be free to act and think as he wants. He sees employment as conforming the individual to a certain predisposed standard. Every job tells you what to believe, how to believe it, and how to act in accordance with that belief. If you don’t do that, you get fired.
Many people seek to escape this tyranny by becoming the manager or “rising up the ladder”. They think that being the employer somehow gives one increased autonomy. But that’s not true. It merely shifts the tyranny to a new form, and one that is less relenting: good business. The employer is under the tyranny of the consumer. Someone who works at Tim Hortons does the simple tasks asked of them for 8 hours, and goes home. Someone who owns the Tim Hortons goes home and frets about the new coffee store opening up next door, the falling real estate value, the franchise payments, etc.
The Philosophy of Potato Chips
But this is not to say that there are not people who enjoy this job system. Even as an employee at a plumbing warehouse in Alberta, I enjoyed being part of something, having somewhere to be each day, receiving a standard paycheck to cover my expenses, etc. And at times, I really did like that job. However, it took up a great deal of my time towards something that I did not care about at all in a larger sense. I suppose I am glad that there are plumbing warehouses, and people to work in them, but I don’t think it’s necessary for me to take part in that.
The most difficult thing for me about working at any job is the questions that randomly pop into my mind for which I so greatly desire an answer I cannot be content without discovering it. It begins to eat away at me, and I need to study to find it out. While I am going about my daily life, there are certain things I hear or remember and they get me thinking a lot.
For example, last week I was in the grocery store and I noticed that chips were on sale for $1.33 per bag. I remembered back to a time, about two and a half years ago, where I was eating a bag of chips around dinner time, and my friend said, “you can’t eat chips for supper.” I thought to myself, “what a peculiar thing for him to say. For one, he’s applying a sense of obligation towards specific requirements that must be met in order to fulfill his definition of what a ‘supper’ consists of. And more so, he’s applying this obligation towards me, as if there is an absolute definition of what ‘supper’ ought to consist of, and it would violate some kind of rule for me to deviate from it. But what if there was a culture that said eating chips was the only thing that one could eat for supper? Would they be any more right or wrong? It seems as though ascribing a specific definition of supper as excluding chips is culturally relative. Also, he’s using this word ‘can’t’. Does he mean to suggest that it is impossible to eat chips for dinner? But I know for a fact that I am able to do so. So, he ought to use the word ‘shouldn’t’ instead. He also ought to have a greater recognition of the culturally relative definition he has obtained of supper, and acknowledge that his is but one definition of many. Even in the event that he is correct about some transcendent, absolute definition of supper, why would it be necessary for me to follow it? Why would this definition obligate anyone to adhere to it? And in the event that all these things are the case (which at this point is near absurdity) what reason does he have to make me aware of this obligation? I suppose we would need to consider multiple components of supper as it relates to nutrition, social capital, ethnicity, and personal bias.”
And then I decided to buy the chips and eat them for supper.
It is these incessant questions that drive my life. This week I watched the film, “The Life of David Gale”. It’s a very intelligent film about a professor who is against the death penalty, and ironically, ends up on death row himself. It got me thinking, “is capital punishment a good thing to have?”. In my studies, I don’t like to assume anything, so I ask questions like, “why would capital punishment be considered more acceptable in response to murder as opposed to other crimes, like rape or theft?”, “is there a philosophical justification for the ‘eye for an eye’ concept?”, “what are the social and legal implications of capital punishment?”, and so on.
What I discovered is that my opinion on capital punishment will be at least a couple months in the making to arrive at even a slightly confident conclusion. I have to go through Kant’s lex talionis theory, read the relevant articles from the Harvard, Stanford, and Yale law reviews, acquire exhortative literature from a variety of media sources, find people to discuss it with, etc. And even then, suppose I arrive at an opinion that I think is best. I will then feel the need to educate everyone on the things I have come to know. And after doing so to at least temporarily subside my compulsion, I will have by that time acquired entirely new questions on a new variety of topics.
The Limits of Lawyers, Journalists, and Professors
It’s been often recommended to me that I should direct my interests within a conventional career. Since I enjoy researching, writing, and speaking on social and philosophical topics, people generally suggest that I would find a suitable vocation in the fields of law, journalism, and teaching at a university. However, I am not fully convinced that these careers would make use of my best talents.
If you think that lawyers are free to believe what they want, you need look no further than the case of Trinity Western University. They are a Christian university that seeks to uphold the Biblical definition of sexuality by only condoning sexual relations between one man and one woman in a marriage relationship. Although they have been successfully operating with that policy since their founding in 1962, and have graduated thousands of students with a variety of degrees in healthcare, business, cultural studies, education, etc., they are not allowed to operate a law school, according to the Ontario and BC law societies. This decision was recently upheld by the Supreme Court (Shelley, 2018).
Basically, lawyers are hired to follow the constitution in the way that our society tells them they are supposed to. So, if public opinion and certain people in power decide that the law against discrimination takes precedence over religious freedom, lawyers all have to abide by that. All a lawyer does is exist within the system, operating like a mindless work horse under the people who make the real decisions. Law students often have such high hopes that they are going to make “real change” in society. That is a sadly unachievable reality for most. A lawyer who works at a law firm in accordance with the rules given to them has no more effect on society than someone who flips burgers at McDonald’s. The main difference is that the lawyer receives more money.
But there are lawyers who do make a difference, of course. However, it most often occurs outside of their legal practice. It is when they enter into the realm of politics, journalism, or acquire significant influence through wealth or specialized expertise. But the thing is, you don’t actually need to be a lawyer to do those things. The reason so many of these people are lawyers is because they are intelligent, socially confident, and care about society. That’s why they went into law in the first place. Not to mention, they are often wealthy and have connections with people in high places.
Most of the lawyers that have done awesome things have actually done it more through independent study than from what they learned in law school. Richard B. Bernstein quit his legal practice and started writing books. He is now an acclaimed author and professor at New York Law School (NYL, 2018). Barack Obama worked and studied for 5 years in between his undergrad and attending law school. It was during that time that he established his values and knew what he wanted out of his legal education (Kantor, 2007). Bernie Sanders never even went to law school. He did a B.A. in political science and described his formal study as “boring and irrelevant”, stating that he got most of his education on his own (Talbot, 2015).
My point is, everything that’s interesting to me about law: the philosophy behind it, the societal impacts, social science research, politics, etc. are not things that lawyers have an active role in. They have a passive role. Creating an active role for yourself might be aided by a legal education, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. And, if one acquires large student debt that takes them many years to pay off, there is near absolute certainty that they will be subjected to a permanent passive role due to financial constraints.
I recently turned down the opportunity to do a journalism internship in Toronto. It was one of my goals of coming to Ontario initially, but I realized that I would probably run into some of the same problems I ran into with Axis in Colorado. The problem with journalism is that it is a business. And like Thoreau says, “though you trade in messages from Heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.”
Media publications are for profit. Whatever sells the most is considered the best. The problem is that truth and what sells are not exactly in accordance. Publications that confirm biases do much better than publications that seek to challenge them. The vast majority of magazines are either things that I have no interest in, like Fashion or Pets, or are things I am interested in, like politics and culture, but do a terrible job of writing about it.
There are, however, a few publications that I admire very much. While you can find good ones all over the place, I think the best one I have ever found is The New Yorker. I have never read an article on there that was of poor quality. If I were to be a journalist, I would only be willing to work for a publication like that. However, publications like that go out to millions of people, majority of them well-educated and carrying significant influence in society. That is a bigger burden than I am willing to bear right now. As I mentioned previously, I am still figuring out my values, much like Obama did after his undergrad. Of course, getting published in something like The New Yorker is quite a task in and of itself. Even if I decided I wanted to get published in it, and wrote the best article I possibly could, there would be a solid chance that they wouldn’t accept it. Because, after all, I’m a 22-year-old random with almost no recognition or substantial credentials. That is why I need to study a lot and practice writing on a regular basis. Then when I have become an expert at a certain thing, and that thing becomes culturally important, I can step in and come up with a big breakthrough article.
I guess journalism is something that I would be willing to practice professionally in the future, although I have a lot of necessary stipulations to it. Those include writing for quality rather than profit, being as honest as possible to pursuing truth, and writing when, how, and what I want. Those stipulations make achieving substantial income very unlikely.
The professors at the Augustana Campus of the U of A would often complain about how much marking they had to do. It’s a sad reality for many professors. They study all their lives and end up spending a significant percentage of their time writing X’s and check marks on students poorly written papers and assignments.
One basic problem is that you are teaching people who are significantly less knowledgeable on the topic. It’s like if you only played basketball against 2nd graders. Yes, you would be better than all of them, but it’s not likely you will improve that much. In order to improve, it’s best to play with people slightly better than you. And that’s the hope: that through independent research you will read the work of knowledgeable people, and be able to interact with them by critiquing their work. And yes, that is one very good aspect, but is also one that I would lose interest in quite easily if I was not granted sufficient autonomy.
That’s the other basic problem: you are an employee, and you are expected to teach a certain lesson, read a certain article, write on a certain topic, etc. You can’t freely pursue your interests as you see fit. Let’s say I was a professor of constitutional history, and I suddenly get really interested in capital punishment. Well, that doesn’t matter, because I have to teach a class on James Madison, then critique an article on the passage of the 14th amendment, and then work on my pre-approved article on inalienable rights. I end up being stuck in my topic of study, and the opportunity to pursue my interests freely is relinquished. I’ve found that I have to listen to my brain. If I want to study something, I just have to study it, and I become very annoyed if my mental energy is stolen from things I deem frivolous.
And that’s not to mention that the quality of the students you get is very mixed. There are all kinds of personal factors that are very annoying. A student doesn’t show up to class and then writes you a bad review for not teaching well. You give a rousing speech on one of the most important topics of our society, and half the students are watching the clock and the other half are wondering what part of this will be on the test.
I would be willing to do guest lectures that students can attend if they want to. That way you only have people who want to be there, and you can talk on the topics you want at the time you want. But, of course, it’s not like I’ll be a university guest expert next year. It will probably take around 15 more years of regular study, if it happens at all.
The Chosen Pursuit
Thoreau states that when we are not under the constraints of employment, we are “free to devote ourselves to our chosen pursuits.” But, of course, for many people, they wish to exercise their chosen pursuit within the realm of employment.
Most people pursue money, and they simply get a job that accomplishes that for them. I don’t doubt that there does exist in the world people who are made happier by the acquisition of wealth. As long as it is done through legitimate means and not from the exploitation of others, I have no problem with it. I would say, though, that majority of people who think they want money end up not being happy once they have it. If they do not escape the money=happiness paradigm they’ve made for themselves, they often just end up working their whole lives in pursuit of more money, hoping their next purchase or next million dollars will give them the joy they long for.
Other people pursue some kind of altruism or self-fulfillment, and I would say that is generally nobler than pursuing money. However, many people are altruistic or seek fulfillment for the wrong reasons, and go about it in the wrong way, so I wouldn’t say it is always nobler. These people often have a lot of trouble when they realize how difficult it really is to achieve those things in employment. Many aspiring teachers love children and want to be best friends with them. Within 5 years of teaching, they never want to see or talk to children unless they get paid big money to do it. Same goes for aspiring nurses, engineers, and as previously mentioned, lawyers. Employment has a tendency to kill your dreams.
That’s why I like to think of career being defined as two things:
1) Contribution to society
2) Personal Fulfillment
When you are 70 years old, what do you want to have given to society? I met one old man in Colorado who loved construction, and he often talked about the various buildings around Denver that he had helped construct. They are his legacy as he sees it. I’ve met teachers who talk about their students who went on to do great things in university. I’ve met pastors who talk about having built a strong and vibrant church community under their leadership. The list goes on…
We need to consider how what we do affects the world, and we need to feel sincere satisfaction from it. It is through our contributions to the world around us that we feel personally fulfilled. And I suppose that brings me back to my original point, that you should do what you want to do. No one knows you better than yourself.
The only careers I would stay away from, as Bertrand Russell suggests in his chapter on Public Opinion, would be ones that land you in jail or cause you to starve to death. That’s why, if you are an aspiring musician, artist, academic, writer, etc., it is important to have a day job. Henry David Thoreau started out making pencils at his father’s company, and then taught foreign languages. Bertrand Russell taught mathematics at a university. Socrates was a stone carver. Thomas Paine built corsets for sail ships, and then became a tax officer. David Metcalfe worked part-time at a recycling plant.
And even though I think very highly of myself, even I have trouble putting myself up with those names. But then again, why not? Like, why not aspire to be the best you can be, and perhaps achieve something great? If I achieved even 10% of what Bertrand Russell achieved, I would be very content with my life.
There are certain times when I am very happy, and it’s a kind of happiness that I had never before felt in my adult life. It is when I am able to use my talents in their full capacity in the way I want. The things that I have loved since moving to Kingston include: writing this blog, learning and teaching at church, attending public lectures at the university, reading books, studying film, and listening to music.
I think we often let our career define our identity, and one of my constant problems is that I never felt like I had anything to provide me that. I never had a sincere interest in anything, and anytime I started to, my parents would remind me of how foolish it is to follow your interests, and why it’s better to be practical and get a high paying job. Their advice is 90% bullshit, but there is 10% truth in the sense that I ought to not lose all practicality away to my abstract interests.
And that is why I am content to work at the recycling plant part-time. I can work whenever I want, there is no boss telling me what to do, and it is mindless enough that it does not steal my mental energy, which allows me to think through things throughout my shift (like the ethics of capital punishment, for example).
I believe that one of two things will happen: either I will forever be a weird, single hermit with outrageous theories that no one takes seriously, or I will eventually happen upon a proper use of my best talents. Either way, I think it is important to do what I truly enjoy, and be unapologetic in doing so. If I am 30 and still have no money, no wife, and no decent job, then I will probably write another blog post about it and update you on whether I made the right decision. Hopefully by then I will be a little wiser than I am now.
For now, I believe my greatest skill is to want but little, and work hard for nothing more than its own reward. I sincerely enjoy that process.
Kantor, J. (2007). In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/us/politics/28obama.html?pagewanted=all
NYL. (2018). R.B. Bernstein Profile. New York Law School. Retrieved from http://www.nyls.edu/faculty/faculty-profiles/adjunct/r_b_bernstein-2/
Russel, B. (1929). The Conquest of Happiness.
Selley, C. (2018). The covenant and the courts: inside a Christian university’s law school crusade. National Post. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/feature/the-covenant-and-the-courts-inside-a-christian-universitys-law-school-crusade
Talbot, M. (2015). The Populist Prophet. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/12/the-populist-prophet
Thoreau, H. (1854). Walden.