These past couple of weeks I’ve felt more like a travel agent than an academic. There’s a location I’m trying to sell, an oasis of calm contemplation and satisfying solitariness, rather like one of the smaller Greek islands, that we might call the land of work. It’s nice there. There’s a certain spaciousness, some peace of mind, and on a good day, pretty spectacular views. I find it’s necessary to sell it as a location because students (and troubled students most of all) have a very different concept of what the world of work might look like. In their minds it’s more like Hieronymous Bosch’s images of hell: a blazing cavern of claustrophobia and incarceration where demons stand over you with pitchforks and whips. Work is all about enforcement and obligation, about submitting to painful shackles and humiliating punishment. It’s little wonder they don’t like to go there very often, or if they do, the result is anxiety and distaste. The transition to university is such an awkward one to make, because ostensibly the environment of learning remains constant, but the person who inhabits it is suddenly very different. Up until university, education is part and parcel of the child’s desire to become an adult, to master the world, to gain attention of a good kind, to try out rituals of competition, to gain a sense of self-worth. But the child who makes it to university may well be forgiven for thinking that he or she has actually now attained all of these goals. What are they supposed to do about work in that case? It’s all too easy for what was once a journey up a necessary ladder to look like a form of self-imposed torture, and the relationship to work has to be remade from scratch.
Of course, this situation is by no means applicable only to students. Any one works for a living is obliged to figure out a similar equation. What do we expect work to do for us? Well, pay the bills, I hear you shout. Which is true, but if work is only about paying the bills then it’s probably time to move on. It isn’t providing all the important and helpful things, like purpose, and interest and a sense of shared responsibility. Work offers us roles we can play and people we can be, competent, admirable people, efficient or useful or just plain needed. But those roles are complicated, I think, when the issue of being a ‘success’ creeps into the working environment. Then work always risks being bound up with unresolved parts of our identities, problematic parts, because the notion of success is based on a wish for the future to look different to the present, for us to have attained something that we lack right now. It is, in other words, a way of being a child again, with part of our qualifications for adulthood still missing. We still, despite all our efforts, have yet to ‘make it’.
One of the most complicated of all the success stories is the one of becoming a writer. It’s probably why writers make such fabulous biographical subjects, as their lives are inevitably fraught with psychoses, harnessed to the cause of abstract success. I write this with some irony, and some humility, you understand, being in the sorry position of starting to think about how I might become this fabled beast, the successful writer. The truth is anyone can be a writer – it’s the simplest thing in the world to pick up a pen or settle down behind a keyboard. Getting other people to read you is the next hurdle, and then getting people to like what you read is a further frontier. To actually get people to pay for what you write is so far off this particular map that it might as well be in a different galaxy. I have no idea how anyone ever manages to make any money doing this, and rather suspect it may all be a myth. So, to set oneself the goal of being successful opens up a huge space between the person who writes and their future ideal, and the real question is: what happens in this space? Often an intense psychodrama gets acted out, of longing for approval and horror of rejection, other people may be reasonably cursed for their lack of insight or intelligence, and there may be more wailing and wishing than words put on pages. The more the focus lies on the attainment of success, the more the pleasurable activity of writing itself recedes, and the less likely it is that the writer inhabits a peaceful Greek island of calm and contentment. But this isn’t to say that they are not being successful on the sly, finding a way to give voice to injustices, insecurities and rebellions that maybe never got enough of an airing before. But what do I know? There must be a way to write healthily and happily, and maybe even to publish it, too, without courting negativity.
What I’m starting to discern from my students is that work is no fun if the demons with pitchforks are sitting on your shoulder and whispering evil nothings in your ear. I’m thinking that the pursuit of the top mark is a fundamentally self-punishing desire that speaks volumes about insecurity and should be distinguished from pride in one’s work or intellectual integrity. I’m thinking that one should always go where the energy is in whatever one is doing, and then gently unite curiosity and interest to the kind of discipline that is firm, not tortuous. And I think that any trip into the world of work begins with the metaphorical purchase of a ticket to an island of serene contemplation, to a state of mind that is relaxed, open, ready, and receptive, where success and failure are understood to be mirages of dehydration. We can’t always make it there, this is life after all, but it’s the best location I’ve ever found to work in.