More Capitalism, Less Zen. Tackling Existential Questions Once More. In Vain?

Usually you make things worse by trying to explain again what you didn’t get across the first time. I do it nonetheless.

My post on Zen Capitalism might have been interpreted as advocating Follow Your Bliss and Anything Else Will Follow (Money, in particular).

I cringe; this is exactly what I intended to avoid, but it serves me right in a subtle way as I ridicule clichéd ‘new age-y thinking’ often.

I believe my cardinal error was to introduce over-used terms such as passion in a hand-waving way.

What I actually tried to get across was:

I believe we deprive ourselves of viable, commercially reasonable business opportunities because we simply don’t see them.

Options are obscured by a filter built from our interactions with ‘society’ – their expectations and doubts, their questions about what you are going to do based on your degree and your experiences. I don’t want to blame ‘society – theoretically we are old enough to take our own decisions; this is rather an observation and I am preaching to myself also, not only to the blogosphere (This is true for all of my posts, I should add this disclaimer more often.)

I picked my stint as an IT freelancer for SMEs deliberately in my previous post – as it was the most stressful transition in terms of having to come to terms with ‘expectations’ and comments like But you do not need a PhD to do that?? I argue that I put all my alleged smartness into overcoming that silly pride of an academic and just offering some services that somebody else really needs right now, no matter how menial or mundane former colleagues might consider that.

This is just an anecdote of mine, there is no silver-bullet-style philosophy of work ethics to be derived from that. Your mileage may vary in terms of your blind spot. Or worse, all options you could come up with in your wildest dreams might still not be converted into something business-y.

However, my theory may be faulty and incomplete anyway:

You consider me a geek – but there is a darker side of me: A penny pincher, a controller, a professionally paranoid consultant. The underlying truth is maybe that the paranoid part of me has forced and driven me to thrive in this capitalist world (this is drive, not passion) – until I reached a state that would have made even the most risk-aware coward taking a leap of faith.

So most ironically you might accuse me of having lived Randy Komisar’s Deferred Life Plan and I cannot deny. I could just argue that I didn’t consider it a plan at all – I thought (felt) it was the best thing to do at that moment of time. Randy Komisar’s theory of matching your portfolio of passions resonates strongly with me  – exactly because of that. He states (I am paraphrasing, this is not a quote)  that the current match between your passion(s) and your options, however imperfect, allows you to get a bit closer to some ideal state – a state you cannot even describe yet.

It might be the right thing to do to deliberately embark on a job or a project that is definitely not the epitome of Your Ultimate Passion, but it allows you to take a twisted, but reasonable step in the right direction.

Some years ago I said very often that my job scores about 85% on the scale of True Calling, but it gives me more and more financial freedom. Truth is, I was not aware of what I am really heading at, and I cannot say for sure that I know it now – but it felt like the right direction. Not in a ‘spiritual way’ – no revelations here, rather assessing options and risks, probably paired with great gut feeling in a down-to-earth way. Or simply dumb luck.

For full disclosure I need to add that I have neither been born rich nor have I married rich – I daresay anything I own is due to my very own achievements,  and I am darn proud of that.

But the definition of one’s true achievements is debatable. I am guilty of having been born in a wealthy, politically stable country with an over-developed social system. Education is nearly for free – there are no student loans. But on the other hand my country is over-administered in a legendary way and infamous in throwing in intricate, bureaucratic wrenches (think Vogon bureaucracy) into the careers of aspiring entrepreneurs, and we use to say If Bill Gates would have been born in Austria he wouldn’t have been able to found Microsoft.

And yet, there is another, much simpler explanation:

Some people are luckier than others because they truly enjoy what is considered dreadful work by a majority – and that majority is in turn happy to pay somebody for that.

For example I really enjoy troubleshooting technical systems to a greater extent than most people. This invokes the explanation ‘dumb luck’ in my case.

We should start a research project or search for existing statistics on people’s intended passions, any careers that might be derived from those(*), and the economic needs of a society. Probably we find that 20% of the world population would enjoy making a living of spam poems, but this planet only needs one or two spam poets really.

I’d like to ponder on (*) a bit more as I feel this is the hidden escape.

I do still hope that we are not yet creative enough enough to apply those skills that are fired by my passion to some economically viable venture. I conjecture that everybody has some skills that allow him or her to do joyfully what is dreaded by a majority. Can we work out the math in a self-consistent way? I am already considering that pie chart diagram of skills of every individual – skills I enjoy versus employable skills I have but I just apply in order to pay the bills.

Can we sort this out and bestow joyful jobs to all of us?

Or do we need to distort and twist the definition of ‘joyful’ in a sophisticated way?

I would like to hand that question over to you again and add Michelle’s epic quote from a comment as a motto:

“I’d want to study the life cycles of Devonian brachiopods and an oil company would like me to project natural gas deposits.”

As she pointed out – probably we should have some blog carnival of a series of posts (by different bloggers) on these existential questions as comments would grow quickly into full-blown posts.

25 Comments Add yours

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for the pingback! Readers – I really recommend this follow-up post by Michelle!

  1. David Yerle says:

    I think I understood you the first time, but this clears things up. I agree with what you said: the trick is liking something nobody else in the right mind would want to do and which is necessary for society to function. Then, of course, you get paid for it. If you want to be a rock star, things get tougher. I am reasonably lucky since I love teaching physics. There is some competition, but nothing I can’t handle…

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks David – I like your summary: “liking something nobody else in the right mind would want to do and which is necessary for society to function”. Unfortunately I feel my theory will not work out fine if we consider what people really like. If society would need and pay for “liking and sharing an social media” overall happiness would increase (?). But before I would blog about this any further I would try to do some research …

  2. Mike Howe says:

    Hi Elke, you must be exhausted! Seriously though both of your posts are deeply felt and well thought out. Your statement “I believe we deprive ourselves of viable, commercially reasonable business opportunities because we simply don’t see them” is sadly very often true. I don’t think most of us are brought up by our parents or indeed educated at school to think in that way, which is why we don’t see them. And even if we did, often we’d be too scared to act upon them. It’s not easy to raise a child and not to instill in them a sense of seriousness about the world and making a living as a priority before self satisfaction, and in addition a lot of children get a very poor education so they are limited right from the beginning. Our choices are usually financially dictated, but not always. I know a lot of people who choose to live how they want regardless of what society thinks, and actually they have inspired me to do the same, but much later on in my life, perhaps a little like you have done. In the end, nobody cares what you do, it’s up to you. If at first people raise eyebrows about being an IT consultant rather than a Phd scientist, they soon lose interest and go back to thinking about themselves. At least that’s what I’ve found. I changed career quite radically about 2 years ago and put up with a lot of stupid comments from people who couldn’t understand my motives, in fact I was shocked by their narrow minds. But they soon lost interest and now nobody cares again :) Just the way I like it! Whatever you’re doing it’s good, you seem free of mind and spirit, and that’s as good as it usually gets :) Thanks Elke, Mike

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Mike! Actually I shared this post on some social networks with the comment: “This is not the most productive day in my life, but it depends on your definition of productivity”. So, yes – probably I was exhausted.

      Your remarks are spot-on. As you can imagine from my comment on Microsoft not founded in Austria probably, Austria’s culture is (was?) not too entrepreneurial. I think this is changing now, but when I graduated the options you ought to pick from (as a graduate in science) were: working for That Large Steel Company in the same city as the university, or better: work for Some Dull Agency in the Public Sector.
      I don’t want to blame anybody, in a sense we are all society, but – just as you describe it so well – it took me quite a while until I stopped caring about these secret rules I wasn’t even aware of.

  3. bert0001 says:

    Thx for your elaboration on the subject. Didn’t have much time today, and will have to reread and answer most comments tomorrow.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Bert! I always appreciate your comments!

  4. Margie says:

    I suppose we all ‘go’ where the job takes us until we figure out how to make the job take us where we want to go.

    1. elkement says:

      Very well said, Margie, thanks! Probably the difficult part is to figure out where we want to go!

  5. marksackler says:

    Well, It seems Woody is always in a Kierkegaard-Heidegger-whatever-existentialist philosopher mood. Only in his case it is probably better described as Kiekegard-Heidiger-Groucho Marx existentialism. That’s why his quotes fit in so perfectly in my blog of ridiculous and sublime.

    1. elkement says:

      I added a picture of a vampire – this really adds to the content! Thanks! And I mentioned Sartre in the caption.
      Your Kiekegard-Heidiger-Groucho Marx existentialism reminds me – in a very, very remote way (but this is the day of interdisciplinary discourse, isn’t it?) of John Baez’s crackpot index
      Item 8 in particular: “5 points for each mention of “Einstien”, “Hawkins” or “Feynmann”. “

      1. marksackler says:

        I wonder what the Crackpot Index would awarding to me for asserting that none of it applies to me because I am in my own alternate universe? By the way, I think Sartre would be better represented by a zombie. :D

  6. marksackler says:

    Not at all. Your blog; your rules.

  7. M. Hatzel says:

    Yes, I will post something on this… it will transition nicely into the excuses I must soon make for becoming an absentee blogger. Just to extend the context of the above quote to everyone… I am still an English major. Geology is my undeveloped alter-ego.

    1. elkement says:

      Looking forward to your take on this, Michelle! As for English versus Geology – isn’t this the internet? *You can be anything you wish for* [Guru self-help trainer mode: off]

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        That only works until I have to communicate something… there’s that saying, “better to sit in silence and let people think you’re stupid than to open your mouth and dispell all illusion.” ;)

        1. elkement says:

          You should be on Twitter – this aphorism is 109 characters. Can I tweet this with a URL to your blog?
          BTW I added an image of a vampire to the post – owing to Mark Sackler. Just in case this is important for the post you are going to write.

          1. M. Hatzel says:

            Yes, tweet it, but I like Margie’s line above, a nifty literary touch in how she phrased it. Maybe I’ll get around to twitter in the fall. I miss some good stuff, as I sometimes notice tweets like the time travel you tube video Dan noted.

            1. elkement says:

              Done! Twitter is still an experiment – but I got to love it somehow. Pure distraction :-)

  8. marksackler says:

    P.S.that’s Woody Allen. And I meant to put a smiley face after the vampire comment.

    1. elkement says:

      I think I got it – even if I am in Kierkegaard-Heidegger-whatever-existential-philosopher mood today :-)

  9. marksackler says:

    As Woody so eloquently put it: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” (There is a darker side to you than geekiness? Are you a vampire?)

    1. elkement says:

      A tweet-worthy aphorism – as usual :-) You are able to boil down all this philosophical fuss into a concise statement –> you should turn this into a business!
      I should have added an image of a vampire to this post – if I edit it to paste some Batman logo or the like – is this cheating?

      1. marksackler says:

        As for making a business out of the aphorisms, it could be called “Tweeting for Dollars.” Only without the dollars. :(

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