This is amusing to me: the word many of us use to describe our livelihoods derives from the idea of running around in circles. In English, the word ‘career’ emerges in the sixteenth century to denote a set roadway or race course. One might have said ‘the horse raced around the career,’ or that ‘the sun follows its career across the sky.’ (Career traces its origins back to the Latin carrus, a chariot.)
Careers are much like racetracks. From our earliest encounters with the education system, we are groomed to believe that ‘success’ means excelling at a very particular set of skills. After all, what is a career? Is it not a fairly predetermined course of activities which you perform over and over again? If you execute these tasks sufficiently well, your scope of activities narrows further; the parameters become even more specific. It’s called a promotion. You specialize. You go around again.
Importantly, this is a race. The faster (and more laps) you manage to get around the circuit, the bigger your crown and the higher you stand on the victor’s pedestal. At least this is the carrot dangling in front of your chariot. Or maybe you don’t know what you are chasing, but since you are going around the loop again anyway, why not do it more efficiently? Either way, in this culture, your career is the anchor-point of your identity. It is the final check-and-balance of your merit. It is the definition of your self-worth when someone asks, “So, what do you do?”
For myself, the most demoralizing feature of being stuck in this loop is the chronic, inescapable sense of inevitability: as if my life is the rote performance of a story that has been scripted. Every other decision is weighed by its implications for either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ the career race. But if I win — presumably the best case scenario — what have I achieved? If ‘success’ comes at the cost of my healthiest, ‘most productive years’, how will I ever know that the rewards were even worth the sacrifice in the first place?
Is the whole point of running this race simply so that one day I will not need to race anymore? Do I work solely for the cause of not working in the future? How does this make sense? Never mind. Around I must go again.
Careerism — having a career for the sake of having a career — strikes me as a rather toxic, consuming ambition. The higher I climb up the ladder, the more autonomy I lose; the more invested I become in the course, the greater the cost of abandoning the path. The circuit owns me. Escaping its inertia becomes a fantasy that must be regularly repressed and forgotten. ‘Leaving now would just be irresponsible’ becomes my repetitive, self-placating creed. (And the longer I stay, the more ‘irresponsible’ and ‘impossible’ it becomes to shift my trajectory.)
Obviously, this attitude and outlook is intensely personal. I have many dear and wonderful friends who are extremely passionate about their careers. And, admittedly, part of me is jealous of their apparent contentment. They seem to thrive on the prospect of doing roughly the same thing they are doing now in twenty or thirty years from now. In fact, this seems to be explicitly be their goal. They love knowing the layout of the course in granular detail. They have a precise number of laps planned in advance. For them, the rule book of the race is a dependable, centring point of stability.
More power to them, I say. I dearly love and respect my career-oriented friends, but ultimately I do not want to spend my conscious existence on this remarkable planet running on precisely the same circuit over and over again. Careerists flourish where they find security and equilibrium in the repetition, but to me the potentialities of the unknown seem too incredible to squish into a predetermined course. Surrendering the opportunity to discover and explore new routes along the way is too high an entry fee, even if a first place finish and the grand prize were somehow guaranteed.
One of the most liberating moments of my life was accepting that the ‘career narrative’ of my culture is optional. No one is legislating it. It is a path to be chosen, not a destiny to be fulfilled. Careers are not privileges or rights, they are just popular, strategic approaches to surviving life in modern, capitalistic societies. Like religions, they are stories we are told when we were young.
No sooner had the realization and confession, ‘I’m not a career guy’ fallen from my lips than the probing inquiries commenced: if a ‘career’ will not be the crowning achievement of my life, then what do I live to create and build? How is one to ‘make a living’ if not by following the popular script? I can’t pretend to answer this for everyone, but the way forward seems pretty clear to me: being fully and wholly devoted to whatever opportunity presents itself right now.
By ‘opportunity’ I mean whatever is in my capacity to do in the moment. It might be a paying gig, managing a corporate portfolio, a ‘passion project,’ or a volunteer commitment. It doesn’t matter. I am avoiding the abyss of careerism by doing the assignment in front of me as if it is the sole litmus test of my integrity and calibre — as if it is the final ‘interview’ for my next opportunity. My principle aim is to achieve maximum quality and take utmost pride in whatever I do.
Tim Minchin, the Australian comedian, describes this attitude succinctly: he calls it micro-ambition — ‘passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals.’ The next opportunity worthy of your attention will probably show up in your peripheral vision, some unpredictable consequence of having “put your head down” to invest your best effort in the present enterprise. Micro-ambition is all about focusing on projects… not crossing some imaginary, arbitrarily defined ‘finish line’ in the future.
This is actually very old advice: ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,’ urged the sage of Ecclesiastes.(Ecclesiastes 9:10, World English Bible) Of course, many career-oriented folks work with great diligence too. But this isn’t a contest over who works harder. Neither is it a denial of the obvious social privilege I enjoy to be able to approach work with this kind of attitude. No, the ‘point’ here is whether we think of life as a sprint around a racetrack or an exploration through a labyrinth of alleyways. Is the route predetermined or not?
To me, careers are like leaky buckets. Every day you refill what has drained, knowing full well that you will need to do it all over again — perhaps next week, next product cycle, next harvest, next fiscal quarter, or next semester. Around and around the racetrack. It is hard to stay invigorated and curious. You keep topping up the bucket and it keeps emptying again. Do you define success as having the most important ‘bucket filler’ title? Do you want to be the chief executive bucket filler? Why has your sense of self been defined by a bucket? When you retire and pass along your position to the next senior bucket filler, eagerly waiting in line for your position, what do you take away with you? What do you leave behind? What was the opportunity cost to find out?
To adopt a ‘micro-ambitious’ attitude is to approach your work as an artisan. Everything you have to give is poured into short-term, project-oriented goals. Micro-ambition means investing yourself into ventures that you can complete, polish, and proudly admire… before launching yourself into the next opportunity (that you haphazardly stumbled upon along the way). The only ‘problem’ that you ever need to worry about ‘solving’ is the one in front of you right now — the only problem you can actually do anything about anyway.
Micro-ambition assumes from the outset that continual learning and self-reinvention are par for the course.
Regardless of where your paycheque comes from, do you think of life as a racetrack or a labyrinth? Are your current projects a means to an end, or a chapter in a twisting, unpredictable plot? In reality, of course, these are not absolute dichotomies. (There are plenty of careerists who leverage their position to create incredible opportunities and plenty of freelancers who fret over the legacy of their careers.) This is ultimately a question of attitude. How do you approach the present?
In the end, objectively speaking, perhaps we ought to accept that life is something of a circuit. Careers might be somewhat avoidable, but the cycles of life are inescapable: The sun rises and sets. Seasons come, go, and return. Taxes are due. Every day we must engage with the ‘career’ of getting out of bed before we go foraging for food, an income, or a sense of purpose. Our children grow old and have children of their own, and all along the way we retell our narratives about education, internships, and retirement, in much the same way our parent taught these stories to us. Whether we sow seeds across a field, instruct students through a course, or move papers across a desk, most of us are intractably ‘stuck’ in many simultaneous circuits. Over time, our lives and identities are defined by the cycles, patterns, and routines of our days.
How can you ‘escape’ the gravitational force of careerism? How can you game the system? Or is this even the right question? Instead you might ask, What does it mean to live with enthusiasm, joy, and curiosity in a world of cyclical repetition? To answer the latter question, first look at whatever opportunity or project sits in front of you right now, and imagine that it represents the penultimate opportunity or project of your life.
Think about it: the opportunity in front of you right now is the convergence of every other experience you have had. This is it. To be ‘micro-ambitious’ means embracing the present opportunity — whatever it is — and making of it everything you can. After all, just as the present is a coalescence of your past so far, rest assured that the next thing will be built on the foundations you lay today. So build well. Go ‘all-in’ on whatever opportunity you have now. Be micro-ambitious.