Saturday, May 22, 2010

What's Life About, Anyway?

My guy often bemoans the fact that when he gets together with his family (every holiday - his mom likes holidays) they seldom talk about things that, in his words, mean something. Big questions, things like what life means, what they honestly think, what ticks them off or delights them in a cosmic sense.

We all get trapped in that mundane conversation sometimes; it's safe. It's unlikely to lead to choppy waters if you stay in the shallows talking about traffic on the highway this morning. And it's deadening.

My daughter was visiting this week and I am happy to say we seldom get stuck in the shallows. She's 21, that age where all the questions are big and the answers are murky. This time her dilemma was one that got me thinking, too. It mirrors my own questions. I bet you've thought about it, too, if you're at all out of step with mainstream culture.

"Should I be planning for a career," she wondered, "or should I be planning for a future that interests me?"

Now don't bother objecting that those don't have to be mutually exclusive; we know. The problem is that for a person who apparently should have been born in the sixties, the professions of today hold little appeal. Lawyer? Economist? Doctor? Teacher? Politician? She sees their value but also sees them as intrinsic parts of a system that she thinks is inherently wrong; a system that holds profitability as its highest value.

She is considering the growing field of sustainability, a place where she sees a possibility of doing work she finds interesting as well as making a positive impact.

But here's the basic problem as she explained it: Do you pursue a career to make money, have a nice place to live and a nice car and spend your life working to hang on to them, or do you create a life that needs little and allows you to breathe, to enjoy the hours of your day and pursue your interests? Do you work in an office and make the big bucks, or do you live on an organic farm commune and dig in the dirt for your keep?

She tells me the organic farm idea is catching on with some kids- it even has an acronym: WOOF. Work On an Organic Farm.

Can you blame them? The job market is atrocious - I listened to an NPR interview with Georgetown law graduates who took on massive student loans anticipating six figure jobs when they graduated. They can't find any. And they think they probably won't; when the economy recovers, the big firms will hire students in that year's graduating class, students who intern with them and who they can train from the start.

So here's my daughter, midway through college, intelligent, idealistic and considering a completely alternative lifestyle. Part of it is the influence of friends, of course, but part of it is something that resonates with her. How do I know? It strikes me, too.

And here's where it gets a bit rattling. I spent my life managing to stay on the fringe of the system; I was a journalist, a teacher, a mom. I was connected, but I never worked in places where I felt immersed in the corporate world. I do now.

I get up early every day, slip into my torturous but very attractive high heels, grab my jacket, slip on my security pass, throw my blackberry into my briefcase and commute to a very nice high rise office where I have a lovely office. I sometimes have to go to New York City and go to our sister office on an upper floor of a very tall building. I am up to my neck in the corporate world.

It's not bad. It's different. The people are great, there's a work ethic and a commitment to doing a good job that I admire. But there are very clear, unwritten laws. Thou shalt not submit anything that has not been edited by at least two other people. Thou shalt maintain a paper trail. Thou shalt always consider any new idea from a dozen angles and vet it through at least that many people. Once part of the system, there is a heavy pressure to not rock the boat, to do a good job without making big waves.

I can understand why. Yet it also stifles creativity. I've heard management almost beg employees for ideas, yet no one wants to stick their neck out and offer one.

And is this where I belong? I rationalize, telling myself that I have spent a lifetime skating across systems that swallow other people, and this is just an interesting and very useful experience that suits my purposes for the moment. I'm still working on radio as well, I'm still writing a book. Who knows what happens once the kids are out of college?

Yet it makes me think about my daughter's question. What's life about? Jobs like mine are about security, making enough money to cover whatever bills exist. Security is a good thing, but it doesn't seem compatible with a life that's full, that's challenging, that's interesting.

And damn it, I demand that of my life. Apparently that's a gene you can pass on to your kids.


Ruth said...

Very interesting, Susan.

I heard that NPR interview too. As an academic adviser to 1,000 English majors, you know I get the question a lot, "So what can I do with my degree?"

I really like how our ENG BA'd Director of Career Services puts it: You don't have to decide what you're going to do with the rest of your life. Just, what you're going to do next.

Your daughter sounds cool. And you too.

Pauline said...

My eldest son faced that same dilemma - he chose going organic, joining WOOF, traveling the world on a shoestring to learn different organic methods in different countries and finding a job installing solar panels so he could keep his dream and still eat. He's doing just fine.

Good luck to your daughter - she sounds like there are things that matter to her more than money. I think she's on to something.

Russell said...

The eternal question with no answer.

I have always suggested to people that they need to do what they really enjoy and the money and success will follow.

Your daughter is questioning life and that is the sign of an intelligent person.

People who are dull do not have a difficult time choosing what to do in life as their options are limited. Those who are gifted have a most difficult time deciding what to do as there are so many possibilities.

Take care.

pinkpackrat said...

Ahhh the eternal question-- what is life about??? and the eternal answer .... " getting through each day" which is th only answer I have ever found that works. The things I plan for never seem to work out the way I think they will and the things I worry about never happen. Stuff that does happen always comes out of left field-- which is part of the joy and part of the problem

Provocative post

Reya Mellicker said...

Everything is so complicated, isn't it? Nothing is perfect, everything comes with strings attached.

I guess this is what keeps life interesting.