In the celebrated 1967 film The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college grad, has no clue to his future (including seduction by Mrs. Robinson—Anne Bancroft). When I saw the movie, I could relate.
A recent college graduate (English) stationed at Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio), I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left the Army. Neither the corporate world nor the professions interested me. I had no desire to hop on the treadmill and grind my way towards wealth and prestige.
Of course, this was the ’60s. The war in Vietnam had not yet brought down America’s economy. Middle-class young men lacking their parents’ Depression experience assumed that good-paying, non-stressful jobs would always be available.
In 1979, after eight years in ad agencies, I started my freelance copywriting business. I became competitive. I had to care for my family. But I never bought into Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” (Michael Douglas in Wall Street, 1987). Being my own boss enabled a healthy work-life balance.
The tech boom and the inability of working-class people to get by on a single job [ushed many Americans into an almost slavish devotion to work. Now, the COVID pandemic has shaken the concept of job and career.
Noreen Malone writes in The New York Times Magazine (“The Age of Anti-Ambition,” Feb. 15), “Essential or nonessential, remote or in person, almost no one I know likes work very much at the moment.”
In the second half of 2021, according to Malone, about 25 million people left their jobs. Many took new positions, spurring job growth across the nation. Yet many jobs beg to be filled. “The pandemic may have alerted new swaths of people to their distaste for their jobs,” Malone writes, “or exhausted them past the point where there’s anything to enjoy about jobs they used to like.” Many people have curtailed their careers.
This is natural, writes Arthur C. Brooks in the March Atlantic (“The Satisfaction Trap”). According to neuroscientists, brain chemistry plays a major role, driving people towards accomplishment only to leave them disappointed. “If you base your sense of self-worth on success—money, power, prestige—you will run from victory to victory, initially to keep feeling good, and then to avoid feeling awful.”
We can keep up with, even surpass, the Joneses. But the Smiths, Browns and Schwartzes may still be ahead—and beyond—us. Reaching plateau after plateau, Brooks warns, “We become cardboard cutouts of real people.”
Pirke Avot, the wisdom component of the Mishna (edited ca. 200 CE), instructs: “Who is rich? One who is contented with his life’s portion” (4:1). This view does not champion poverty and its attendant ills or call for asceticism. Rather, reducing our needs and expectations can free us from constant acquisitiveness and envy—and endless misery. The Buddha agrees.
In the 1950s, advertising claims for new cars included, “Longer, Lower, Wider.” Then in 1959, the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach introduced an opposing concept for the affordable Volkswagen Beetle: “Think Small.”
The media is full of celebrities who destroy their own lives and others’ because chasing—and achieving—wealth, status and power ultimately prove unrewarding. Hopping off the treadmill—or trying to humanize it—may bring us less money but more peace of mind.
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