Careerist vs. Dilettante

To pursue a career is to run laps around an endless racetrack. There is even an etymological relationship behind the metaphor. After reading my earlier piece on micro-ambition — Tim Minchin’s antidote to the toxicity of careerism — a friend pointed me to Gillian Hemstock and Frank McEnaney’s 1986 book, The Careerfree Life.

What is the alternative to careerism? Hemstock and McEnaney say it is dilettantism, even though the word “has nasty connotations” nowadays. But ‘dilettante’ comes to us through Italian, via the Latin delectare, which means ‘to delight’. Originally, a dilettante was not an ‘unprofessional’, ‘amateur’, or ‘dabbler’ (principal synonyms for the word today) but rather an aristocrat who could afford to indulge time in their own personal interests and hobbies. Simply: a dilettante is a person who does activities they find delectable — because these activities bring them joy.

“If you are full of delight, then you have succeeded in life,” argue Hemstock and McEnaney. (1990[1986]:18) The problem with careerism is that it constantly punts ‘delight’ ahead to some future date or accomplishment: after the next promotion, acquisition, upgrade, etc. Dilettantes, by contrast, are much more immediate in their hedonism. If one cannot enjoy in the present what is at one’s disposal to enjoy, the rest of life is pretty sure to be miserable. After all, what is the future? Is it not simply a string ‘presents’ in sequence, strun together all the way to the grave? If you can’t figure out how to enjoy the present, the rest of life is looks pretty bleak. It is nothing but a whole barrage of ‘present moments’, barreling towards you at sixty seconds a minute! Careerists find themselves caught up with moving ahead another square in the Game of Life. But dilettantes, because they’re enjoying the activities of the moment, want to relax and put off rolling the die for as long as possible. You know, smell the roses and all.

If ‘delight’ is our principal measure for ‘success’ in life, what do we do about the practical problems of putting groceries on the table, paying the electricity bill, and cleaning the toilet? The authors of A Careerfree Life have a simple solution: when we need them, we get jobs. But jobs are not careers, and we must understand the difference.

It is etymology time again. According to Hemstock and McEnaney, the word ‘job’ arises as shorthand for “job carriage, job horse. Hired or used by the job for a particular piece of work, for a definite time.” (12) I can not find direct corroboration for this assertion, but it does seem that historically the word ‘job’ has a different relationship with time than the word ‘career’. For example, in 1878 when Anthony Trollope writes, “I have a job of work to do before I leave London”, his idea of ‘job’ seems to resonate with our contemporary notion of ‘task’.

Jobs are tasks. They are activities simply need to be done. Importantly, tasks exist to be finished. They come and go. Each one has a starting point and a completion.

Culturally speaking, we do not define ourselves by the tasks we do. We get on career-paths, not ‘task-paths’. We obsess with career-planning, not ‘job-planning’. Jobs and tasks are temporary and utilitarian. This is why we are better to think of work as a means to an end, not the source of our identity. This means rejecting the ideology of careerism that purports to offer us fulfillment in the work itself. No, by and large, work is mostly unagreeable, and it’s a fools errand to find a life’s worth of happiness in it.

The contrast between the careerist and the dilettante is stark. The careerist seeks fulfillment in productivity and work. The dilettante only works when it is required to support the activities they enjoy (and/or enables them to physically continue surviving so they can do these things). One defines themselves by their rank and accomplishment, the other defines themselves by their interests and passions. Therefore, inasmuch as ‘rank’ and ‘accomplishment’ are defined by other people, careerists find themselves on stationary treadmills pointed in the direction of an unachievable destination. Dilettantes, on the other hand, set their own rules of engagement in life when it comes to their contentment.

All of this boils down to an attitudinal shift. Do your work — your jobs and tasks — because they need to be done, not because they bring you a sense of transcendental purpose. Do everything you can to turn your career into a job — just another set of tasks, like washing the dishes and doing the laundry. And whether you are vacuuming the living room or doing payroll at the office, remember that every moment you will ever experience will be a moment in the present.

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12 Replies to “Careerist vs. Dilettante”

  1. Dear James Shelley. I just spent a glorious few minutes transcribing your post Careerist vs Dilettante for a project I’m doing called Proof in the Pencil in which I attempt to see how many words are in a single pencil. It is a delightful task. I hope it’s okay with you. Full credit is giving within the text. I’m on Facebook at Proof in the Pencil.

  2. hello James from a grey Dublin, Ireland.

    A belated thank you for the article. I work in higher education as a career guidance practitioner and toyed in my mind with what you have put so succinctly in your article.my paycheck say careers adviser but at heart i am a dilettante. how to discuss this with peers and students is another matter.

    your thoughts?

    1. I’m still very much wrestling with this, too. At the most basic level, I think the idea of finding projects/tasks/jobs that are ‘completable’ is fundamental (http://jamesshelley.com/2016/03/05/be-micro-ambitious/). This idea of completion points was what really triggered everything for me. Maybe this is a kind of discussion that makes sense to have with colleagues and students? I think it’s a way of thinking that goes beyond the job/career dichotomy. Perhaps it is more accessible, more broadly?

  3. Fantastic thoughts, here! So many folks these days wrestle with low dopamine from too much screen time. A top recommendation (in addition to less screen time) is to create big checklists with small tasks. It gets people hooked on the dopamine rush of completion as well as showing the value of the small over the big. Thanks for expanding this to the lifetime perspective. I’ll be sharing this post far and wide 👍

  4. Hello, James, we’re very happy to find that people are still discovering our little book. All the best, Everyone.

    1. Thank you so much for saying hello. And thanks for writing an interesting book. I’m curious, in the subsequent years since its publication, have you continued to write or expand on any of these themes elsewhere?

      1. That was our only non-fiction book but our novels, Luminosity (Random House, Canada) and Sea-Change (Mosaic Press) are informed by a careerfree sensibility. Perhaps you’ve read Ivan Illich’s book, The Right to Useful Unemployment and Its Professional Enemies?

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