Review: Working

Review: Working

WorkingWorking by Studs Terkel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They ask me if it’s true that when we bury somebody we dig ‘em out in four, five years and replace ‘em with another one. I tell ‘em no. When these people is buried, he’s buried here for life.

—Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger

It is not really accurate to call Terkel the “author” of this book. The real authors are the 133 subjects of Terkel’s interviews. Terkel serves as a stenographer and redactor, recording interviews and editing them into readable format. This is no mean feat, of course. The ability to get everyday people to open up and share their private thoughts is an uncommon skill. And considering how messy, faltering, and scatterbrained most ordinary speech is, rare talent is required to edit it into readable form while preserving the subject’s voice. Terkel is the ideal person for this task, able to ask probing but open-ended questions, creating interviews that follow the train of the subject’s thoughts without straying off topic. The result is a panoramic view of people and professions, encompassing nearly every imaginable attitude towards work, representing a wide swath of the public without reducing variation to a single narrative.

Books like this are especially valuable, considering how prone we are to taking work for granted. Work, as an institution, is a fairly recent phenomenon, the child of the Industrial Revolution. Back when the vast majority of the populace were farmers, “work” did not exist. Farmers work very hard, of course, but the rhythm of their work is dictated by the seasons; there are no set hours and no salary. The way we make our living is radically different from how our ancestors did; and yet work, nowadays, seems like the most natural thing in the world, more eternal and more important than marriage. This lack of scrutiny is especially striking, considering that our jobs dictate our social status, consume most of our time, and are usually the number one thing we complain about.

So what are the common themes of these interviews? One is boredom. Adam Smith famously proclaimed the economic benefits of the division of labor, which allows workers to be orders of magnitude more productive by dividing up tasks. But Smith was also wary of the dangers of this division:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Well, as Terkel shows, this is not quite accurate. Even the workers who have worked their whole lives doing very repetitive work show themselves thoughtful and humane in their interviews. Mike Lefevre, an astonishingly articulate steelworker, says “It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” The real danger is not stupidity, but profound boredom, which is arguably worse. I know this from experience: though apparently harmless, boredom can be hellish, and can wreak serious harm on your psyche. And it is a ubiquitous malady, either from repetition or simple inactivity. Nora Watson, an editor in an advertising agency, says:

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Connected to this boredom is a kind of brutish narrowness. Every person, even the most ordinary, is radically unique, with their own perspective, talents, and propensities. Jobs, on the other hand, often require only a very limited set of skills, forcing the worker to neglect a large part of their potential and to put aside their own priorities and preferences. Thus workers in this book often report feeling like “machines” or being “dehumanized,” such as Eric Nesterenko, a hockey player:

I know a lot of pro athletes have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself.

Some workers feel dissatisfied because of the disconnect between their jobs and the rest of their lives. Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative, says: “I see us living in a completely schizophrenic society. We live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third. You have to talk differently depending on who you’re talking to.” Other workers lament the separation of their work and the final product, such as Mike Lefevre: “It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.” The common theme is social compartmentalization and the feeling of isolation that results, something that the philosopher John Lachs thinks is responsible for modern alienation.

It goes without saying that inequality—economic, social, political—is a major source of concern. Roberto Acuna, a farm worker, has this to say:

I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. In fact, they treat their implements better and their domestic animals better. They have heat and insulated barns for the animals but the workers live in beat-up shacks with no heat at all.

Curiously, the bosses and elites on the other end of the differential, though more satisfied with their work, sometimes displayed alarmingly unhealthy or superficial mindsets:

My interest in motorcycles was for the money originally. I saw this was going to be a big field. Later, business becomes a game. Money is the kind of way you keep score. How else you gonna see yourself go up? If you’re successful in business, it means you’re making money. It gets to the point where you’ve done all the things you want to do. There’s nothing else you want to buy any more. You get a thrill out of seeing the business grow. Just building it bigger and bigger…

In America, where our jobs are one of the main determinants of our social standing, it is no surprise that status anxiety plays a big role in worker dissatisfactions. Dave Stribling, who works in an automobile service station, doesn’t like telling people what he does:

What really gets you down is, you’re at some place and you’ll meet a person and strike up a conversation with ’em. Naturally, sometimes during that conversation he’s going to ask about your occupation, what you do for a living. So this guy, he manages this, he manages that, see? When I tell him—and I’ve seen it happen lots of times—there’s a kind of question mark in his head.

And then there is that universal blight of modernity, the lack of meaning. The feeling of being useless, of wasting your talents, of working solely for profit or a paycheck, plagued many of the subjects in this book. This was most heartrending when expressed by the older subjects. Steve Dubi, a steelworkers, says: “What have I done in my forty years of work? I led a useless life. Here I am almost sixty years old and I don’t have anything to show for it.” And here is Eddie Jaffe, a press agent: “I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, ‘What does a press agent do?’ you force me to look back and see what a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations—what I did with them. What being a press agent does to you. What have I wound up with? Rooms full of clippings.”

The modern remedy for this feeling of meaninglessnes, to “follow your passion,” also left many feeling lost and confused. Here is Sharon Atkins, a receptionist: “I don’t know what else I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit this job. I really don’t know what talents I have. I’ve been fostered so long by school and didn’t have time to think about it.” And some, like the unforgettable Cathleen Moran, a hospital aide, are just annoyed by the idea: “I don’t know any nurse’s aid who likes it. You say, ‘Boy, isn’t that rewarding that you’re doing something for humanity?’ I say, ‘Don’t give me that, it’s a bunch of baloney. I feel nothin’.’ I like it because I can watch the ball games in the afternoon.”

By the end of this list, it is easy to see what Studs Terkel means with his opening lines: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” But Working is not totally bleak. There are many workers, often in very ordinary jobs, who report great satisfaction. This seemed to be associated with jobs that require a lot of social interaction. I experienced this myself, when I switched from a desk job to teaching. It is hard to feel isolated and useless when you’re constantly dealing with people. Dolores Dante, a waitress, enjoys the constant waves of new customers: “I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me?”

Another obvious source of satisfaction is expertise. One of the most satisfied subjects in this book is Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker. She is satisfied with her work because she does it well. In the days before barcodes and digital cash registers, Babe memorized all the prices in the store: “I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform and nurse’s shoes and that I got varicose veins. I’m makin’ an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, they’re lower than I am.”

But perhaps the biggest source of satisfaction is the feeling of helping others. This is what Jean Stanley, a cosmetics saleswoman, takes pleasure in, despite not considering her job very important: “You would have liked to do something more exciting and vital, something you felt was making a contribution. On the other hand, when you wait on these lonely old women and they leave with a smile and you feel you’ve lifted their day, even a little, well, it has its compensations.”

This book certainly shows its age. There are many professions which no longer exist, mostly due to automation. But as a portrait of work, as a modern institution, Terkel has given us something timeless.

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Review: Excellent Sheep

Review: Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful LifeExcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I still remember my first exposure to Deresiewicz. I had recently dropped out of graduate school—full of disgust and indignation—and as a form of self-therapy I was busy reading everything I could find about the flaws of higher education. Naturally, I jumped on Deresiewicz’s essay in The American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It seemed to put into words so many things I’d been thinking.

A few days later, I was in the car with my mom and my brother (we were dropping my brother off at his elite university), bitterly complaining, and at great length, about the evils of the system. My mom turned on the radio.

This book is an odd jumble. While barely more than 200 pages, it attempts to be a manifesto, an exposé, a path to tranquility, a work of cultural criticism, and a philosophy of education. Needless to say the book fails to be every one of these things, but this doesn’t mean it fails to be any of them.

Deresiewicz’s first section, wherein he talks about the flaws in the system, is the most successful, since it is what he knows about. In a nutshell, the problem with American higher education is that there is an enormous amount of pressure and prestige for precious little substance.

Young people have more hoops than ever to jump through: if they want to go to Harvard, they must be super students. They can’t afford to stop for one moment. They need to get excellent grades, take all the toughest subjects, be leaders in extra-curriculars—at least six!—maybe found a few clubs themselves, outcompete their peers in the SAT, and in general tick off all the rights boxes.

The problem, of course, is that the things that look good to the college admission office often have dubious educational value, and are most often the product of privilege as much as talent. The vignette that most stuck with me was about the “college enrichment programs” that took young people on carefully choreographed trips, so they would have some good stories for their college essays. (This is not to mention the writing assistance, sometimes bordering on ghost-writing, that the wealthy can afford.)

The ironic part is that all of this stress and effort does not lead to social mobility, since the wealthy already start with such a big advantage. Each cohort of students at elite universities is disproportionally upper or upper-middle class. This is no coincidence, since universities need a sizable number of “full-freighters”—students whose parents can afford to pay the enormous tuition costs—in order to stay afloat.

Even more ironic is that it doesn’t even lead to an excellent education. As the university becomes increasingly reliant on wealthy students, the students increasingly get treated like customers. The university cannot afford to fail them; it cannot even afford to make them uncomfortable, which is arguably a prerequisite to genuine learning. Grade-inflation is rampant. Universities focus on hiring a few research professors, because these professors bring more prestige. Though experts, these professors are often not especially good teachers; and besides, there aren’t very many of them. The bulk of the teaching gets done by contingent faculty, chronically underpaid, always underappreciated, who come and go, without the time or resources to teach to their potential.

Instead of education, these universities focus on ranking. The problem is that the ranking is not based on quality of instruction, but on things like admission rates: the more selective, the better. It benefits elite colleges to advertise to students who have a very low chance of getting in, since if they apply and get rejected, the school looks better.

The result is a system obsessed with prestige at the expense of learning. From the moment students arrive to their final graduation speech, students are praised for being the best, the brightest, the most wonderful. And yet they are enmeshed in an educational system that encourages them to put themselves into boxes for admissions, that rarely challenges their fundamental beliefs, and that leaves them with a sense of entitlement, a sense that they deserve all of the nice things their elite education will give them.

So what should an education do? This brings us to part two and three of Deresiewicz’s book, which I thought were much weaker. He has a lot to say about the value of a liberal education, about self-discovery, taking risks, questioning beliefs, developing a philosophy, finding your real passion, and lots of other nice clichés. To be fair, these are clichés for a reason: in some form or another, they are the goal of a true education. Nevertheless, I didn’t find Deresiewicz’s prescriptions particularly insightful or inspiring.

Finally, Deresiewicz aims his sights at society as a whole. What has this educational model done to our country, and how can we fix it? All the recent presidents, as products of “the system,” come in for a good bashing—especially Barack Obama, who Deresiewicz finds to be arrogant, condescending, technocratic, while totally blind to genuine ideological differences. The book ends with a widespread, sweeping, universal condemnation of the entire upper and upper-middle class. Their time has passed, he thinks, and they must be removed from the stage of history, just as the old, aristocratic WASP class had before them.

What are we to make of all this? It’s clear that the book bites off far more than it can chew. Ambition is certainly not a problem; but when ambition so far outpaces execution, it certainly is.

One weakness is that this book is so personal. By his own admission, Deresiewicz—the offspring of upper-middle class, Jewish parents, a former professor at Yale—is bitter about his experience in elite education, and it shows. For many years, it seems, he was dissatisfied and unfulfilled, consumed by feelings of envy and empty accomplishment, which accounts for both the self-help and the invective.

But emotion is a perilous guide. While at his best he is sardonic and witty, at his worst he is alternately whiney and preachy. His torrents of feeling often blow his vessel into strange waters—like the psychology of achievement addiction, or the dysfunction of government—where he thrashes about ineffectually.

This thrashing led to some tiresome writing. He has a tendency to write in epigram after epigram—none very clever—pounding and hammering his opinions into your head, while supplying few particulars and little evidence. He makes sweeping generalizations, all written in antitheses: “Everybody is doing this, and nobody is doing that,” “All of us care about this, and none of us pays attention to that,” and so on. He rarely qualifies his points, he does not address counterarguments, he does not betray even the least doubt of his righteousness and the system’s evilness. (The book’s condescending title is indicative of its fervor.) If I were his writing teacher, I would tell him it needs more work.

This book could really have been a long essay, focusing exclusively on the flaws of elite universities. The rest feels like self-indulgence and padding, an excuse to air his views and sell a book.

But for all his shortcomings, I think that Deresiewicz is making a vital point. All of his complaints boil down to one insight: meritocracy is insidious.

Now, how can this be? Isn’t meritocracy good? Isn’t is the only fair and just system? Well, there are several obvious problems. For one, what is ‘merit’? Any meritocracy must begin with some notion of worth; and this notion will always be shaped by cultural and economic pressures. You simply cannot measure the inherent ‘worth’ of a person, so you end up measuring people against some arbitrary standard—like analytical intelligence or academic pedigree—imposed by the outside.

But even if we could agree on a universal measure of ‘merit’ (which is impossible), there would be no guarantee that we could measure it perfectly. Some people will be lucky, others unlucky. And even if we could agree on a standard and measure it perfectly—two impossible conditions—we are still left with the question of reward. If somebody is in the top fifth percentile, how much wealth do they ‘deserve’? This will also be arbitrary, and whatever decision will likely not satisfy everyone.

So you see, first a meritocracy imposes an arbitrary standard, and then denies the existence of luck, and then distributes rewards along this standard arbitrarily. A meritocratic system is not necessarily fair—since people’s worth cannot be measured—nor is it necessarily effective—since chance will always play a role—nor is it necessarily just—since meritocratic systems can still be highly unequal. The most insidious part is that it makes people believe they deserve their rewards: the rich deserve their wealth, the poor their poverty.

This is essentially what Deresiewicz is complaining about. The American elite educational system tends to reward certain qualities that are not necessarily desirable (and which are usually associated with wealthy families), and then treat this unequal distribution as justified. But when you think about it, is it really fair that educational resources and prestige be concentrated in very few, very expensive institutions, instead of distributed more evenly throughout the system?

I agree with this fundamental critique. However, I am far from sure that I know how to fix it. For his part, Deresiewicz puts his faith in the old tradition of the liberal arts education.

While I am naturally very sympathetic to this idea, I always ask myself: Are the liberal arts compatible with big institutions? Can a tradition predicated on free thought, on questioning authority, and on open enquiry—a tradition that is not oriented towards job skills or economic gain—be made compatible with an organization of power and wealth? Can we really expect students to pay enormous tuitions to induct them into the life of the mind? Or can we expect tax-payers to support universities that do the same?

To me is seems that, in the United States, by asking our universities to be both liberal arts colleges and pre-vocational training, we are asking the impossible. The first tradition teaches us how to live, while the second teaches us how to work. The problem, it seems to me, is that in the United States we have come to identify so fully with our jobs that we can’t see the questions as separate. Deresiewicz definitely falls into this error, which he exemplifies by his endorsement of the “follow your passion” advice for a better life.

As I finish, I am left with more questions than when I started. And, as cliché as that sounds, that is still the sign of a good book.

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Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and HappinessDo What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe anybody can do what he or she loves, but only the wealthy can avoid going into debt to pay for it.

I first heard of Tokumitsu when an essay of hers was being circulating among some friends on Facebook. I was struck by how well she articulated some half-formed thoughts that had lately been kicking around my head, so I immediately got her book. Then, I immediately put off reading it, until now.

Tokumitsu’s thesis is that the cultural ideal of doing what you love (DYWL) is, in practice, often exploitative and nefarious. She gives many reasons for this. First, DWYL glorifies certain types of work—almost all white collar—and ignores others. Only certain jobs are believably lovable; other types of work are unglamorous, and thus ignored. Steve Jobs gave a famous commencement speech in which he encouraged the young graduates to follow their dreams; but Apple would be impossible without the thousands of people toiling in factories, cafeterias, and warehouses supporting the visionaries.

Another way that DWYL can be exploitative is when it is used to underpay workers. Any musician can tell you that they are often expected to play for free, because they’re doing it out of love and not for money. Unpaid internships have grown in popularity; and academics nowadays often find themselves in underpaid adjunct work, because they’re supposed to be passionate about their subject. These purgatory periods are characterized as paying your dues; and yet studies have shown that, more often than not, unpaid internships and adjunct work don’t lead to full-time positions.

I find the situation in academia especially ironic. As a group, academics are some of the most politically conscious, leftist people out there. And yet in academia the pressure to do underpaid work, to personally identify with your job, and to work long hours can be intense. All this is justified with the notion that academic work is more noble than the grubby capitalism of the non-academic world. In the process, however, academics become ideal capitalist workers, doing enormous amounts of work for little compensation. This is “hope labor” at its purest: badly paid work performed in the hope of breaking through to the next tier.

In many ways, the DWYL ethic is not so different from the Protestant Work Ethic identified by Weber over 100 years ago. The major shift is that the Protestant Ethic viewed work as a duty, while DWYL sees work as love. Duty isn’t trendy anymore, but self expression is, which is what DWYL is all about. In any case, although the virtues we choose to emphasize have changed, the basic logic of an individualistic, competitive system remain. When you’re living in a supposed meritocracy, the poor can be dismissed as deserving their poverty, and the rich congratulated for deserving their wealth. DWYL just puts a different spin on this. One hundred years ago we might have chosen to emphasize Steve Job’s force of will, penuriousness, or his abstemiousness; but now we talk about his passion, vision, and his courage.

Another consequence of DWYL, in Tokumitsu’s opinion, is the culture of overwork. Employers want their employees to be passionate; and the easiest way to demonstrate dedication is to work long hours. This mentality is certainly common in both New York and Madrid; and it is rather strange when you consider that people become generally worse employees when they work longer hours. When you don’t sleep enough, it takes a toll on your health, not to mention makes you sluggish and slow-witted.

One of Tokumitsu’s most valuable observations, in my opinion, is that the DWYL mindset seems to devalue sources of pleasure, pride, and love that are not work-related. Under DWYL, finding love in a non-work activity, like a hobby, a relationship, or just relaxing, is frivolous. If you were serious and passionate, you would be paying your dues and working as an intern. Tokumitsu illustrates this with her discussion of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, in which the interviewees express astonishment and mild disapproval that Maier, who worked her whole life as a nanny, could have been such a dedicated, talented photographer and have not sought recognition.

The book ends with a call to make free time legitimate. In order to enjoy free time, we need to be paid decently and to work reasonable hours. We shouldn’t be seen as lazy or insufficiently passionate if we want to be fairly compensated for artistic, academic, or even menial work; and we should have the leisure to pursue interests outside work, since for most of us having a wonderful job isn’t realistic. To accomplish this, Tokumitsu envisions labor movements.

These are some of the Tokumitsu’s observations I have found most valuable. For that reason, I think the book is worth reading. But I must admit that, even when I was in agreement, I often found this book exasperating. Without looking at her biography, I could tell Tokumitsu was a recovering academic. The formal writing style, the many quotations and citations, the Marxist bent, and especially the topic of the book—everything belied a recently minted PhD who had felt the pain of the academic job market.

There’s nothing wrong with having a PhD, of course. But there is something wrong with writing a book like this in an academic style. The book’s subject is accessible and relevant, and Tokumitsu’s aim is to spur labor movements. Yet its orientation and tone severely restrict its audience. Her first chapter, for example, is an analysis of two television shows and the way that they portray the DWYL mentality. The analysis was well done, but why on earth would you lead with that?

The prose was also a problem for me. I admit I’m especially sensitive to this sort of thing, since I spent a bad year in a PhD program. And I also admit that Tokumitsu is certainly a better writer than the vast majority of her peers in academe. (I’m talking about the humanities, specifically.) I also think that Tokumitsu has great potential.

Even so, there are many sentences like this one: “Attending the theatrical performance of one’s child faces long odds against the obligations of capitalist production.”

The sentence is irritating in many ways. It is about something intimate, but uses formal language. It is about something concrete, and yet uses abstractions. It turns something personal into something coldly impersonal. Here’s an example of a rewrite: “Making time for your daughter’s school play is hard when your boss can email you at any hour of the day.” I’m not saying my sentence is perfect, but it’s at least an improvement.

The Marxist perspective was also unfortunate, in my opinion, because it will further limit her audience. The DWYL mentality afflicts people of all political persuasions; and I think you can see serious flaws in the mentality without being opposed to capitalism itself. Wanting shorter hours and higher pay is pretty uncontroversial, after all.

I could go on with this complaining, but I’d better stop. Really, the book is a worthy read. Certainly it will be hard for me to forget Tokumitsu’s insights. And even if the style isn’t terribly accessible, the book compensates by being short. So stop doing what you love, and read this book.

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On the Quarter-Life Crisis

On the Quarter-Life Crisis

From College to Chaos

In the modern world, there is a certain existential dread that comes with being in your twenties. Certainly this is true in my case.

This dread creeps up on you in the years of struggle, confusion, and setbacks that many encounter after graduating university. There are many reasons for this.

One is that college simply does not prepare you for the so-called “real world.” In college, you know what you have to do, more or less. Every class has a syllabus. Every major has a list of required courses. You know your GPA and how many credits you need to graduate.

College lacks some of that uncertainty and ambiguity that life—particularly life as a young adult—so abundantly possesses. There is a clear direction forward and it’s already been charted out for you. You know where you’re going and what you have to do to get there.

Another big difference is that college life is fairly egalitarian. Somebody might have a cuter boyfriend, a higher GPA, a richer dad, or whatever, but in the end you’re all just students. As a consequence, envy doesn’t have very much scope. Not that college students don’t get envious, but there are far fewer things, and less serious things, to get envious about. You don’t scroll through your newsfeed and see friends bragging about promotions, proposals, babies, and paid vacations.

There’s one more big difference: nothing you do in college is potentially a big commitment. The biggest commitment you have to make is what to major in; and even that is only a commitment for four years or less. Your classes only last a few months, so you don’t have to care much about professors. You are constantly surrounded by people your age, so friendships and relationships are easy to come by.

Then you graduate, and you’re thrown into something else entirely. Big words like Career and Marriage and Adulthood start looming large. You start asking yourself questions. When you take a job, you ask yourself “Can I imagine doing this for the rest of my life?” When you date somebody, you say to yourself “Can I imagine living with this person the rest of my life?” If you move to another city, you wonder “Could I make a home here?”

You don’t see adults as strange, foreign creatures anymore, but as samples of what you might become. You are expected, explicitly and implicitly, to become an adult yourself. But how? And what type of adult? You ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Yet the more you think about what you want, the less certain it becomes. It’s easy to like something for a day, a week, a month. But for the rest of your life? How are you supposed to commit yourself for such an indefinitely long amount of time?

Suddenly your life is not just potential anymore. Very soon, it will become actual. Instead of having a future identity, you will have a present identity. This is really frightening. When your identity is only potential, it can take on many different forms in your imagination. But when your identity is present and actual, you lose the deliciousness of endless possibility. You are narrowed down to one thing. Now you have to choose what that thing will be. But it’s such a hard choice, and the clock keeps ticking. You feel like you’re running out of time. What will you become?

The American Dream

A few weeks ago I was taking a long walk, and my route took me through a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Big, stately houses with spacious driveways, filled with expensive cars, surrounded me on all sides. The gardens were immaculate; the houses had big lawns with plenty of trees, giving them privacy from their neighbors. And they had a wonderful view, too, since the neighborhood was right on the Hudson River.

I was walking along, and I suddenly realized that this is what I’m supposed to want. This is the American Dream, right? A suburban house, a big lawn, a few cars and a few kids.

For years I’d been torturing myself with the idea that I would never achieve success. Now that I was looking at success, what did it make me feel? Not much. In fact, I didn’t envy the people in those houses. It’s not that I pitied them or despised them. I just couldn’t imagine that their houses and cars and their view of the river, wonderful as it all was, made them appreciably happier than people without those things.

So I asked myself, “Do I really want all these things? A house? A wife? Kids?” In that moment, the answer seemed to be “No, I don’t want any of that stuff. I want my freedom.”

Yet nearly everybody wants this stuff—eventually. And I have a natural inclination to give people some credit. I don’t think folks are mindless cultural automatons who simply aspire to things because that’s how they’ve been taught. I don’t think everybody who wants conventional success is a phony or a sell-out.

Overwhelmingly, people genuinely want these things when they reach a certain point in their lives. I’m pretty certain I will want them, too, and maybe soon. The thing that feels uncomfortable is that, in the mean time, since I expect to want these things, I feel an obligation to work towards them, even though they don’t interest me now. Isn’t that funny?

Equations of Happiness

One of the reasons that these questions can fill us with dread is that we absorb messages from society about the definition of happiness.

One of these messages is about our career. Ever since I was young, I’d been told “Follow your passion!” or “Follow your dreams!” The general idea is that, if you make your passion into your career, you will be supremely happy, since you’ll get paid for what you like doing. Indeed, the phrase “Get paid for what you like doing” sometimes seems like a pretty decent definition of happiness.

Careers aren’t the only thing we learn to identify with happiness. How many stories, novels, and movies end with the boy getting the girl, and the couple living happily ever after? In our culture, we have veritable a mythology of love. Finding “the one,” finding your “perfect match,” and in the process finding the solution to life—this is a story told over and over again, until we subconsciously believe that romantic love is the essential ingredient to life.

Work and Love are two of the biggest, but there are so many other things that we learn to identify with happiness. Having a perfect body, being beautiful and fit. Beating others in competitions, winning contests, achieving things. Being cool and popular, getting accepted into a group. Avoiding conflict, pleasing others. Having the right opinions, knowing the truth. This list only scratches the surface.

In so many big and little ways, in person and in our media, we equate these things with happiness and self-worth. And when we even suspect that we don’t have them—that we might not be successful, popular, right, loved, or whatever—then we feel a sickening sense of groundlessness, and we struggle to put that old familiar ground beneath our feet.

Think of all the ways that you measure yourself against certain, self-imposed standards. Think of all the times you chastise yourself for falling short, or judge yourself harshly for failing to fit this self-image you’ve built up, or fallen into a dark hole when something didn’t go right. Think about all the things you equate with happiness.

Now, think about how you judge your good friends. Do you look down on them if they aren’t successful? Do you think they’re worthless if they didn’t find “the one”? Do you spend much time judging them for their attractiveness, popularity, or coolness? Do you like them less if they lose or fail? If someone else rejects them, do you feel more prone to reject them too?

I’d wager the answer to all these questions is “No.” So why do we treat ourselves this way?

Is it the Money?

There’s no question that the quarter-life crisis is partly a product of privilege. It takes a certain amount of affluence to agonize over what will be my “calling” or who will be “the one.” Lots of people have to pay the rent; and their work and romantic options are shaped by that necessity. When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, your anxiety is more practical than existential. This thought makes me feel guilty for complaining.

But affluence is only part of the it. The other is expectation. Many of us graduated full of hope and optimism, and found ourselves in a limping economy, dragging behind us a big weight of college debt. Just when we were supposed to be hitting the ground running, we were struggling to find jobs and worrying how to pay for the degree we just earned. And since many of us had been encouraged—follow your dreams!—to study interesting but financially impractical things, our expensive degrees seemed to hurt us more than help us.

This led to a lot of bitterness. My generation had been told that we could be anything we wanted. Just do the thing you’re passionate about, and everything will follow. That was the advice. But when we graduated, it seemed that we’d been conned into paying thousands of dollars for a worthless piece of paper. This led to a lot of anger and disenchantment among twenty-somethings, which is why, I think, so many of us gravitated towards Bernie Sanders. Our parents had a car, a house, and raised a family, while we were living at home, working at Starbucks, and using our paychecks to pay for our anthropology degree.

For a long while I used my sense of injustice to justify my angst. I had the persistent feeling that it wasn’t fair, and that went back and forth between being angry at myself or the world.

Nevertheless, I think that, for most middle class people, financial factors don’t really explain the widespread phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis.

I realized this when I started my first decent-paying job. I wasn’t making a lot of money, you understand, but I was making more than enough for everything I wanted. The result? I felt even worse. When I took care of the money problem, the full weight of the existential crisis hit me. I kept asking myself, “Can I really imagine doing this forever?” I thought about my job, and felt empty. And this feeling of emptiness really distressed me, because I thought my job was supposed to be exciting and fulfilling.

This was a valuable lesson for me. I expected the money to calm me and make me happy, and yet I only felt worse and worse. Clearly, the problem was with my mindset and not my circumstances. How to fix it?

From Crisis to Contentment

Well, I’m not out of it yet. But I have made some progress.

First, I think it’s important to take it easy on ourselves. We are so prone to hold ourselves up to certain self-imposed standards, or some fixed idea of who we are. We also like to compare ourselves with others, feeling superior when we’re doing “better,” and worthless when we’re doing “worse.” Take it easy with all that. All of these standards are unreal. You tell yourself you’re “supposed” to be doing such and such, making this much money, and engaged at a whatever age. All this is baloney. You aren’t “supposed” to be or to do anything.

Bertrand Russell said: “At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view.” He’s right: There is nothing magical about the age of thirty. There is no age you pass when you don’t have to worry about money, about your boss, about your partner, about your health. There will always be something to worry about. There will always be unexpected curveballs that upset your plans. Don’t struggle to escape the post-college chaos; try to accept it as normal.

Don’t equate your happiness or your self-worth with something external. You are not your job, your hobby, your paycheck, your body, your friend group, or your relationship. You aren’t a collection of accomplishments or a Facebook profile. You’re a person, and you have worth just because you’re a person, pure and simple. Everything else is incidental.

If you want to be rich, famous, loved, successful—that’s fine, but that won’t make you any better than other people. It might not even make you happier. Don’t worry so much about putting ground under your feet. Don’t fret about establishing your identity. You will always be changing. Life will always be throwing problems at you, and sometimes things will go wrong. Try to get comfortable with the impermanence of things.

Don’t look for the “meaning” of life. Don’t look for “the answer.” Look for meaningful experiences of being alive. Appreciate those moments when you feel totally connected with life, and try to seek those moments out. Realize that life is just a collection of moments, and not a novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

These moments are what bring you happiness, not the story you tell about yourself. So you don’t have to feel existential dread about these big Adult Questions of Love and Work. It’s important to find a good partner and a good job. These things are very nice, but they’re not what give your life value or define you or make life worth living. Treat them as practical problems, not existential ones. Like any practical problem, they might not have a perfect solution, and you might fail—which is frustrating. But failure won’t make you worthless, just like success won’t legitimize your life.

One last thing. Stop caring about what other people think. Who cares? What do they know? Be a friend to yourself, be loyal to yourself. Every time to judge yourself, you betray yourself. In a thousand little ways throughout the day, we reject our experiences and our world. Don’t reject. Accept. Stand steadfastly by yourself as you ride down the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, flavors, colors, sounds, mistakes, accidents, failures, successes, and petty frustrations that make up life as we know it.