I was very interested in your recent discussion with the Big Pharma Buddhist. I have a similar question, but without the benefit of a set of beliefs to apply.
I abandoned an arts-based degree to go into land use planning, which I felt was important and would have a positive impact, albeit in a highly localized way. I purposefully chose to go into a field that was not incredibly fulfilling to me personally because I thought it would be selfish to have a job that only made me happy and didn't really improve the state of the world in any way. I figured that I would learn to be passionate about my career.
Well guess what, that was dumb. I perform well at my job, and I am reasonably interested in it. But I am not going to be the next great American planner, partially because I chose a field that I am not passionate about. My sphere of positive influence in this job is small, and could probably be fulfilled by other means, like being a member of a local planning board. I am beginning to move toward working, at least part time, in a totally selfish job that I am going to love, as a way to bring some balance to my life. But the transition will take a while, what with obligations like bills and houses and spouses and dogs and the hey hey hey.
So how much of my brain do I owe my employer in the meantime? Does it matter if I'm not passionately consumed by my work, as long as I do a good job? I can adequately perform my tasks at work, even if my mind is consumed with a book or movie. But I feel guilty about not having my whole mind on my work.
And if my job does not lead me to be the best person I can be, but does some good for the world, is it selfish to want to abandon it? Does my resentment for how my job affects my personality negate whatever good comes from my career?
Tin Man in a Scarecrow's Body
Dear Tin Man,
I would restate your questions as personal statements of fact, and begin there. For instance, let's assume that you say to me that you feel your talents give rise to certain obligations. I might say, what are those talents, and what are those obligations? We might talk about your talents, what you truly enjoy doing, and the obligations that arise from those talents. We might talk about the difficulty of putting such talents to use in the world. That would be a useful discussion. And then we could move to your more immediate problem: Perhaps you are an artist and you are trying to make art but have certain practical obligations standing in your way. There are methods artists have used over the centuries to meet such difficulties. We could talk about that.
You feel guilty because you're thinking about other things at work. That's not so unusual. Is it right or wrong? I do not know. Did you make an agreement with your employer that you wouldn't think about anything but work while you're at work? If not, then perhaps you have invested more moral authority in your employer than is warranted by the situation. Perhaps it would help to remember that work is a material transaction: You trade your labor for money. If your employer feels the deal isn't fair, he can ask for more and better work; likewise, you can ask for more money and fewer hours. It's a question of trading and negotiating. Your employer does not own your brain.
In general, it sounds to me like you are disappointed with your current life; things didn't turn out as you expected. You made your decisions in a certain way, believing certain things, but now you wish you had done things differently. You did not end up as happy as you expected to be.
Well, you have a chance. You can change your life.
But I would just sit with all that for a while first. I wouldn't try to find any universal truths in it right away. Just sit with it, and ask yourself what you really want to do. You might not get an answer right away. Don't rush it. Just ask yourself what it is that you really want to do -- not what you should do but what you want to do.
Wait for an answer. When an answer comes -- and it will come! -- trust your answer. Whatever it is, set out to do it, without apologies. Don't worry about the abstractions. Obey your voice.
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What? You want more?