Archives for June 2011

Nobody’s Tool?

What is freedom?

In the past I would have given various definitions, but rarely would they have involved freeing my mind. I used to poke fun at the phrase “free your mind” because it sounded kind of hippieish and a little weird. Plus, the people I know that talk about freedom a lot don’t seem very free themselves, or they tend to like to impose their “freedom” on others so that others are less free.

I have been thinking lately about freedom, and how and why we end up in the systems we live in. Many people play the perpetual victim, and speak of freedom as someone else allowing them to do, or not do, something. But, shouldn’t we actually be questioning the worst limiter of freedom: our own minds, which are often mired in bad systems and patterns??

Before I begin, I want to state that I love my current job. I have a lot of freedom and flexibility, and I enjoy teaching. However, one system that I have been questioning lately is working for somebody else. From a young age through college, and into the world of work (whether this is the Academy, the corporate world, or at non-profits) we are conditioned to work for somebody else. The American dream is usually presented as getting a degree, working for somebody else, getting an occasional raise or bonus, and climbing up the ladder, so you can buy nice things. Even as a child, our career choices tend to fall within the same framework: we “dream” of working for someone else. Most people complain about this system, but still continually buy into it, even if it is physically and mentally killing them. Lately I have realized this system is very limiting, and the answer is not complaining about the system, or shifting around in the system (“same crap, different toilet” syndrome) but rather leaving the system and starting a new one. Let me explain why I question the current “work” system most of us fall into:

1. Working for someone else means that your best time and ideas benefit someone else – For some reason, very few people realize that by working for another person or organization, we basically hand over our time and ideas so someone else can get more money and influence, while we struggle to make ends meet. This happens in the corporate world, non-profits, and the Academy. If you are lucky (and this is a big “if”), the organization you work for won’t get rid of you or cut off your pension when times get lean. One of the issues I had with college0 was that my college was basically using graduate students (who I often found to be more talented teachers than full professors) as slave labor. Their time, talent, and ideas were barely benefiting them, yet many people were willing to put up with the abuse. It took me a few years being in that system to finally realize I couldn’t stand working in such a ridiculous and dysfunctional system. It is just as bad in the corporate world too, with people giving all they have, while the company benefits, and they get denied raises.

2. Your degree may or may not actually help you – I used to believe that to get ahead you had to go to college. I still believe this, but with serious reservations. I value my college education, but many days I question whether the amount of money I put into it (including student loan debt) is actually worth the return. My colleges were laughing at me all the way to the bank. My BA is in psychology and my Master’s is in religion. Both degrees pretty much leave me in limbo. The BA doesn’t qualify me to do anything related to Psychology, and the Master’s in Religion pretty much qualifies me to barely make ends meet for the rest of my life (whether I choose to teach, be an adjunct professor, etc). Yes, I chose these degrees, and yes, other people choose degrees that are marketable, but the system is broken in the sense that I was never told what life is like after college for people with my degrees. And why would colleges be honest? If they were honest, the few English poetry majors that are actually making decent money teaching English poetry (the tenured professors), would be out of a job. It is just not in the college’s best interest to be honest with its young and idealistic students. So, basically I no longer believe having a college degree=success. I think the person him/herself determines success.

3. By working for someone else you are making trade-offs – Many people dislike their bosses and employing company or organization, yet they remain in this system for the stability. This could be a regular salary, health insurance, etc. Others remain out of habit. Others don’t realize there is a way out. There is a way out, and it is called starting your own business, organization, or non-profit. The government makes this difficult (regulations tend to favor companies, especially big ones, that are already in business and can influence regulations), but it can be done. The question, however, is this: can you handle the risk? Doing your own thing requires trading stability for risk, but also trading resentment and monotony for happiness and autonomy. As I have gotten older, I have decided that the risk is worth it.

4. Isn’t working about sacrifice and heartache?? – “Work sucks.” I hear this all the time. If it is so bad, then why in the world would a person get up every morning and devote 40-60 hours of his week to such an endeavor? If you are doing this, stop for a second, and ask why any happy and free human being would do such a thing? Why does it have to be this way? Can’t you see yourself waking up every morning and loving your job? Why can’t every workday be exciting and full of possibilities? Many readers may scoff at this, but does it really take that much to be happy and fulfilled? I know people that are photographers, freelance writers, and handymen that love their jobs. We are taught to settle. We are taught to remain in limiting systems and jobs in which we are asked to do more, for less money and less freedom. We accept that micromanaging bosses and wasting away mindlessly in a cubicle are laws of nature. We are taught that we are victims, and that the only way out is retirement. Not true. You could leave today! You could leave right this very moment. I am not saying that is a good idea without planning, but you could do it right now.

Now, let me ask my readers, have you ever complained about your job or job system (job system= being in the corporate, Academic, or non-profit “worlds”)? Most of us have. Now, let me ask: how many of you have ever questioned the system itself? How many of you have actually looked into exiting the system? Unfortunately, studies show that once humans commit to something, it is hard for us to leave it. If we have gotten a degree, or given 5 years to a job, many people will stay simply because of past commitment. However, who says that spending 5 years working for a job means that you have to live miserably for the next 20 years? If the “system” sucks, then start your own system!

In today’s economy, it is illogical for people to hate business. Instead they should love business. I understand their dislike of big business that conspires with the government to run the little guys out of business and devalue the average worker, but in this era we need more competition, from the good guys, not less competition, so that our only options end up being to work for the unwieldy and uncaring big businesses, universities, and non-profits. This is why one dream of mine is to help schools pair with local entrepreneurs to teach a younger generation how to start and run their own businesses. Whether school systems, which generally encourage conformity and dependence, would ever encourage this, I don’t know.

At age 33, feeling more independent and confident than ever, I question the system. I now dream of being in charge, being the boss, not of other people per se, but of my own destiny. I don’t want to work for someone else or another organization anymore. I may not get rich (I actually believe I will), but at the very least I will be doing what I love, and enjoying my autonomy. Even though I do love my current teaching job, I don’t see myself being there forever. I went to a fundraiser a few months ago, and the teachers and principals were talking about how many sacrifices they have made over the years. The people we were honoring at the event, who donated thousands of dollars to help our schools, owned their own businesses or organizations and were using their extra money and influence to give back to others. I decided I would dream to be like them, not the people who after 30 years were still scraping to get by and scanning their mind for reasons just to get up in the morning. At that moment, I decided I wouldn’t be anybody’s tool, except perhaps, my own.