I touched on this topic before when I wrote about not wanting a job. I thought it was worth bringing up again, because there’s so much pressure in our culture to get a ‘real job’ and work your way up the ‘career ladder’.
I’ve always thought I’d be pretty content doing simple, stress-free work – just enough to pay the bills, with plenty of time to spare. But the education system seemed designed to push me in the opposite direction. I played along, getting good results and being accepted into university, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t what I wanted. There was unease in the pit of my stomach every time someone alluded to my future career.
In university, we were strongly encouraged to do a year in industry. The pay was high, and there was a strong likelihood of landing a job with the company after graduating. I knew it was a sensible thing to do, so I signed up to the program despite my lack of enthusiasm.
We were given talks by some of the companies offering placements, which were mostly investment banks and software development companies. The talks were mind-numbingly boring, and I quickly realised I had no interest in working for any of these companies.
I put off applying for a placement for months, finally dropping out of the program at the last minute. The organiser asked me why. I told her it wasn’t for me.
It isn’t just the education system – the whole of society seems geared to push us towards having a career. If you decide to take a different path, you’ll be met with concern from friends, family and people you barely know. Some people will feel that you’re wasting your education by not going into a relevant field. In the past, I too have been guilty of judging people who don’t have conventional jobs.
It’s easy to see where these concerned people are coming from – careers bring stability, and money for the things we’re assured that we need. A wardrobe full of clothes, cable TV, a nice car, a mortgage, a big wedding, a kid or two.
Yet there are so many people who sink their lives into their careers but still aren’t happy. They often develop health problems, including mental health issues like depression. Their marriages may suffer or fall apart completely. They have everything they were told would make them happy, but they feel empty, like something fundamental is missing.
It brings to mind some of my favourite Frank Turner lyrics – “No-one’s yet explained to me exactly what’s so great/About slaving fifty years away on something that you hate”. Too often, someone’s success is defined by how much money they have rather than how happy they are.
As humans, what we really crave is love, community, and freedom. Money and material possessions can never bring us true happiness in the long run. Of course, not having enough money for necessities like food and shelter will negatively impact happiness. But if you do have enough to cover these necessities, having more won’t make you any happier.
However, we do need to have something to get up for in the mornings. We need a purpose in life, whether it’s something specific like helping the homeless, or a general motive like making the world a better place. Life quickly becomes dull without something to live for.
I think pretty much everyone has a purpose (or several), but the forms they take can vary greatly. For some people, it may be raising kids or rescuing animals – for others it could be activism, healing, writing or educating. Some people want nothing but to travel nomadically; others are on a journey of spiritual development. I think these are purposes too.
Of course, there are some people whose passions do coincide with careers – I don’t mean to say that this is impossible, or that everyone with a career is unhappy. Neither am I suggesting that everyone quit their jobs immediately, or looking down on those who devote a lot of time to their careers. I’m simply making the point that having a career isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
In terms of our happiness and wellbeing, pursuing things we truly believe in will always trump chasing money. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the vast majority of us do need money to survive, but by living simpler lives we can greatly reduce our dependence on it (if we so wish). That means more time for our loved ones, our purposes and ourselves.
My hope is that we’ll eventually live in a moneyless society, where everyone is free to do what they love without fear of starvation or homelessness. Until then, I’ll do whatever it takes to live the life I really want. What about you?