Monday, 20 February 2017
Overcoming the Too-Small Life
I do not believe that a person should have to adapt to their environment in order to be what psychologists call "well adjusted". Some of us need a way bigger game than whatever accident of birth or circumstances of others' creation life handed us. We are not the sort of beings that are capable of fitting into little boxes on someone else's org chart. The challenge is when one is trying to remedy the situation solo, or where input from others comes mostly from interactions via the Internet, and one is stuck in an ordinary life with (1) no platform and (2) no funding. The question is, how does one enter a game of a size appropriate to one's cognitive and creative capacity without (1) and (2) above?
Some may find this article a little strongly worded but before I start, may I say I make no apology for not pulling any punches and saying it like it is. If I strike any raw nerves, particularly among employers: good. There is too much apathy in this world, with people comfortable with the status quo, and who haven't any sense of responsibility to change anything.
People who read this article will generally fall into three categories:
1. Those who think that the status quo is a meritocratic sorter of ability, and that the cream will always rise to the top, it is just a matter of time. This is the person who hates to have spelled out to them the reasons our society isn't meritocratic, and prefers instead to deal in blame and the fundamental attribution error.
2. Those who see that society does not sort justly by ability, but think that the way to deal with it is to go along with it. More disturbingly, they think that everyone else should also just suck it up. This attitude displays a lack of responsibility for the state of the society around them, yet they are also the ones that love to lecture the rest of us about how we (i.e. individually) are responsible for our situation in life.
3. The ones who actually recognise the scenario I am describing. It is this last category that is likely to comprise my ideal clients.
Initially, my strategy was to devote myself to my life projects while taking what Barbara Sher calls the "good enough job"[i] for the purpose of economic self-support. Those "good enough jobs" proved to be a very long way from good enough, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they ate up an inordinate amount of my productive time while only providing a modicum of financial exchange. Secondly, there was the lack of any meaningful intellectual stimulation. Thirdly, there was the fact I had nothing in common with my co-workers or bosses and was simply turning up each day to do a job. Finally, there was the societal perception angle: people insist on judging individuals by the paid employment they have, rather than accomplishments in the wider world – and meaning that the purposeful projects pursued by the individual are relegated to "hobby" status and not worth the CV paper they are written on. Obviously, this was unacceptable.
Although I carefully refrained from bragging at work, it did not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that I was active in a lot of other arenas, and reactions to this were mixed. I can think of two firms that were mildly supportive of my personal development (at least, in the sense that they did not try to obstruct my outside interests) – one small business and one micro business. Large organisations, on the other hand, were deeply uncomfortable with the idea that I was anything other than just support staff and one in particular stands out for having engaged in a mobbing campaign instead of finding or creating a position for me that could have tapped into my Good Will Hunting-esque abilities.
For instance, colleagues knew that I was a musician and I thought music might have been an innocuous topic of general conversation. But when it was discovered that I was travelling to Europe with my band to compete in a world-class competition and play certain high profile gigs, while some colleagues were enthusiastic, others were less so. One of the partners complained to the department head, as if my musicianship were some sort of distraction (because the leave I had booked for a musical event clashed by a day or two with her secretary's leave and she realised she couldn't dump on me in her secretary's absence) and she thought I should be more committed to being chained to a word-processor.
People like her were keen to bandy about words like "initiative", yet when I did things like devising a training plan for the department secretaries to learn to draft legal documents, this was also resented. (Perhaps one or two people understood it might mean I could carve out a niche in staff training and development and they might actually have to promote me.) When I made further enquiries, it turns out their concept of "initiative" meant constantly asking for more work, i.e. being palmed off with every gruesome admin task that the department trainee and the work experience student had already turned their noses up at. Presumably this was a thinly veiled attempt to pull me in to the long hours culture that pervaded the whole firm, and our department in particular.
Some of my interests were just too technical for them, such as neuroscience. "What did you do at the weekend?" "I went to a quantitative EEG workshop." End of conversation. (I know, I know. Support staff aren't supposed to have a brain.)
Another thing was my involvement in politics. I didn't speak about my involvement in political campaigns, nor of my party allegiance, but I did discreetly mention (without namedropping) certain political figures. Another workplace, and one which purports to encourage introductions to celebrities and opinion leaders, were overtly dismissive of my connections, as if I were exaggerating or even confabulating. If they had worked as hard as I did at cultivating a mutual professional relationship, I could have gotten them some potentially valuable allies.
I contrast these scenarios to times I have contested seats in local elections. In particular, I recall the last general election I contested where there was the sitting MP, his main party rival, and other candidates going around all the local hustings. Even though in our constituency I was highly unlikely to win the seat, I made an interesting, and perhaps rather disturbing observation. Bear in mind these people fundamentally disagreed with most of what I stood for, particularly the sitting MP. Yet every single one of them was talking to me as an equal. Just consider that. I was getting more respect from my political rivals than I was in the workplace!
As I continued working on my own self-growth and intellectual sophistication, the reason became clearer and clearer. I wasn't merely under-employed, I was grossly mal-employed. Those jobs were simply not in my league.
Why the mismatch? Careful data analysis revealed two red herrings:
1. A lack of high school qualifications. I will not dissect the reasons for this here, but it became clear that success in the school system loaded heavily on factors other than g; and
2. A CV that only reflected the type of jobs that recruiters were prepared to field me for (based on point 1. above) and gave very little opportunity to showcase my broader portfolio. This is because recruitment is often a function delegated to minions or outsourced to salespeople whose lack of perception, low confront of life, terror of responsibility, and limited decision-making remit encourages crass bureaucracy. This makes them difficult gatekeepers to get past when one's education and/or experience has been acquired through unconventional means. Some may suggest this is even deliberate.
The point is, I have been there, I am still working on obtaining the sort of life I need to support my accomplishments and do my best work in order to contribute something of value to the world. I understand what the inappropriately excluded experience on a daily basis. If this story resonates, you are not alone. Together, we can work at solutions.