And it was still the happiest day of my life.
Last night, I received the call I had been waiting for all my life, or at least for as long as I have been old enough to wait for longer than five minutes and for anything other than candy. A charming, considerate, humorous, and intelligent voice that had become familiar to me over the past few months as the voice of my dream manager announced that I got the job.
The job in question? An incredibly handsomely-paid tutoring position on an internationally representative team of outstanding graduates in every conceivable field (Columbia, Cambridge, and Oxford were name-dropped with regularity), all situated in an affordable, cosmopolitan, and perennially sunny Southern European capital. This may not be everyone’s dream, but boy was it ever mine. Stumbling upon the advert last December felt like nothing short of fate. Hitherto, my life revolved around my a deep passions for learning and for imparting and creating knowledge, and the prospect of using the outstanding academic record and degrees this brought me, almost incidentally, to support the self-actualisation of others was almost too good to be true. I had visited the city involved many times, traversed its vibrant streets under the shadows of auspicious remains of ancient worlds, and fallen deeper in love with each bite of the local cuisine. I was also, incidentally, fluent, albeit somewhat awkward, in the national language. These were among the overwhelming areas of compatibility that I made sure to express in just the right words over the two entire days I spent perfecting a cover letter, when, filled with an ecstatic hope I rarely allow myself to indulge, I applied all those months ago.
Did I say ‘almost’ too good to be true? Scratch that. It was too good to be true. Not a moment after informing me that I had successfully made it through two rounds of interviews extended over almost half a year of anticipation, preparation, and concern by Covid-related delays, the charming manager said something altogether uncharming. Anti-charming, even:
‘With the remote learning and assessment situation, we’ve had a lot of requests from parents to work on students’ examination assessments and to sit their exams with them. The problem is that all of their classmates’ tutors do it, and it disadvantages our students for us not to when all their peers are getting 90%. I’m going to need your help with one student, Lena, who has a business exam coming up next wee-’
My brain short-circuited. For the next half hour, as he detailed the work I would be starting on, the promotion ladder, the best areas to rent in, tips for opening a bank account, the country’s Covid prospects and train lines, I took notes out of muscle memory like a starving court stenographer whose prefrontal cortex was occupied by the disproportionately confounding decision of what to make for lunch. That is, my body was screaming at me, and my conscious mind was entirely absent from the conversation. It was laser-focused, instead, on a decision:
Would I compromise my deepest ethics for my desires? After all, there is nothing I find more morally repugnant than rich kids reproducing socioeconomic inequality by using their wealth to pay for grades that secure them university placements, scholarships, accolades, and professional positions ahead of their hard-working peers. In fact, I spent my university years turning down major money from affluent classmates and reporting their misconduct instead out of my desire to defend the kids who really needed and really earned their academic achievements, the kids who, in my country, had no electricity or water at home, the kids whose entire extended families cut back on essential calories to pay their tuition in the hopes that their collective fate could improve. The kids who excelled against all odds.
After all, every extrinsic incentive welcomes us to convince ourselves that we’ve got no choice but to win at the twisted game, that we are victims of our own sick success. Blaming The System by way of identifying the root problem to agitate for change is verboten, but blaming The System as an excuse for conforming to its perversion is encouraged.
My body knew that I wouldn’t compromise. It wouldn’t let me. I was shaking. But my mind needed certainty and reassurance, so, when the call ended, I sat at the mental crossroads for a moment. What follow are the reasons why I sent a scathing email rather than an acceptance letter. If you find yourself in a similar conundrum, I hope that what follow are the reasons why you do the same:
1. The Hardest Decisions Reveal Our True Character
For those of us who are ethics-driven and intentional in a world governed by cheap self-interest and enrichment through exploitation, our strength of character and integrity is as much a source of suffering as one of immense personal satisfaction. This satisfaction is all the more special because it is earned. It is healthy. It is for the good of society that we derive satisfaction from virtue in the face of grave consequences — this, ultimately, is how all positive change occurs.
The surest litmus test of our integrity, of our fundamental convictions, is to observe ourselves in situations where following through with our values would result in great personal losses.
But how do we know if we truly are the good people we’d like to believe ourselves to be? How do we know if we really have earned our satisfaction with our own character? After all, every extrinsic incentive welcomes us to convince ourselves that we’ve got no choice but to win at the twisted game, that we are victims of our own sick success. Blaming The System by way of identifying the root problem to agitate for change is verboten, but blaming The System as an excuse for conforming to its perversion is encouraged.
The surest litmus test of our integrity, of our fundamental convictions, is to observe ourselves in situations where following through with our values would result in great personal losses. Even as an atheist myself, I recognise that the emphasis placed on sacrifice and martyrdom in the world’s religions is not arbitrary or outmoded in our individualistic consumerist hell-scape. It is more necessary than ever to view these behaviours as the only real entitlement to the claim that we are ‘good people’.
Ultimately, a difficult decision is the perfect opportunity to prove to ourselves that we are not simply virtue-signalling. When we choose to associate ourselves with cheating colleagues, we begin to identify with them, placing ourselves on a moral slippery slope of deteriorating standards and character. Conversely, we must never underestimate the impact of a single principled act: when internalised, it can inspire a level of confidence and self-respect that spurs us on towards a legacy of greater good. We didn’t, after all, turn down a dirty utopia for mere mediocrity.
2. If You Feel Tempted to Lie to Your Heroes, You’re Doing Life Wrong
For the brief moment of doubt after my phonecall ended, I turned to my mother and tried to summon up excitement, ‘I got the job, Mom.’ The disgust I already felt amplified instantaneously at the flicker of disingenuousness I displayed. I immediately followed up with, ‘But I won’t be able to take it.’
Heroes come in all shapes and forms — from fictional characters to prophets to parents and old friends and teachers. A few of mine include Thomas Sankara, my mother, my childhood art teacher, and Mr Schneebly of School of Rock. What could such a diverse and, in some cases, seemingly arbitrary, set of individuals have in common?
Our heroes embody the facets of our values and personalities, and they inspire us to live authentically. When we find ourselves veering towards the unethical, we can often conceal the guilt of dishonesty from ourselves. But in conversation — real or imagined — with our heroes, we feel ourselves burning up with shame on any occasion where we attempt to deceive them, by omission or otherwise, in an effort to avert their disappointment. When we let ourselves down, in fact, we often experience this most immediately as a reticence towards the people who we love and value. We project the rejection outwards, and, in doing so, we find ourselves forced to confront it.
In the case of Thomas Sankara, I will forever hold on to his two magic words of ‘courage and action’, the principles that led him to uplift an entire nation with a level of faith, and, ultimately, success, that no sane spectators could anticipate — the principles for which he ultimately took a ‘Washington Bullet’ at the hands of a treacherous ‘best friend’. Parallels to the tale of Christ reinforce the idea that the signs of integrity are universal. Most importantly, I could never again allow myself to revel in his brilliance, in icons of him, had I chosen to dedicate my life to a cause he’d find deplorable.This applies in equal part to my other personal heroes. A lifetime of catch-up sessions tinged with the falsity of a high school reunion is a fate worse than death (almost).
Now, in times of great doubt, I ask myself: WWMSD (What Would Mr Schneebly Do?), and then I do that.
3. Who We Are at Work is Who We Are for Most of Our Waking Lives
The cognitive dissonance between who we say we are and how we behave is perhaps most dramatically evident in our professional lives, and, under late stage capitalism, this is not entirely our fault. Here is the crucial disclaimer: our moral value is not binary, and our power to live with dignity is proportional to the privilege we’re afforded. This is a consequentially different statement from ‘There is no ethical consumption, so I might as well max out on exploitative opulence.’
The idea that we can separate our professional selves from our, well, selves, is often the proverbial Cheeto lock holding shut the gate that keeps a tidal wave of self-loathing from bursting forth (Google the Cheeto lock meme — I’ll wait). About thirty percent of our lives, or a solid 25 to 30 years of our prime energy and acuity, is expended at work. Even if we believe that we can split our personality into two and send our inner Jeff Bezos to the office in our place, we must surely understand that the personae sharing our brain and body converse, extensively. Marxist or neoliberal, naturist or nurturist, we can all agree that what we do day in and day out inevitably shapes who we become. The effects may differ based on who we are to begin with and how we found ourselves in that position — what enhances the psychopathy of some can radicalise others. But most of the time, we find ourselves affected by our working culture, corporate or otherwise.
Here is the crucial disclaimer: our moral value is not binary, and our power to live with dignity is proportional to the privilege we’re afforded.
If we choose to immerse ourselves in a rotten environment, some part of us is rotten already, and the rot will only grow with time. If we are paid to cheat, we are cheaters. If we are paid to steal, we are thieves. Unless we are truly forced by our own hunger or that of our family’s to engage in crime, we are professional criminals, and that is all the more damning. There is a reason why we ask others about their professions ahead of all other forms of descriptors, and, for that same reason, we cannot pretend that our ethics can be packed away from 9 to 5.
4. Our Strengths, Without Ethics, Are Weapons of Mass Destruction
Just as our culpability for unethical work is directly proportional to our power to turn it down, so too are the social consequences of perverse professional activities directly proportional to our skills and abilities. Our strengths and talents, and the time and effort we have poured into honing them, are our ultimate source of power, and, as the Peter Parker principle holds, with great power comes great responsibility.
The superhero movie tropes do not end there. In fact, for the majority of such blockbusters, the entire plot hinges on the good guys reclaiming an impressive technology, an energy source, a biological anomaly, or some form of mutually-assured-destruction-inducing weapon from ‘the wrong hands’.
What few of us realise, though, is that we are the energy source. We are the ultra-sophisticated technology. We are a weapon in the wrong hands and a blessing in the right ones. Unlike the bomb or the radioactive spider, however, we have a say in whose hands we play into. Who we choose to rent out our labour power to and for what price — be it zero-fee community service or billion-dollar civilian drone strike approval — ultimately depends on, and reveals, our ethics… or lack thereof.
In this sense, the market does not provide. Those who need my expertise and could benefit from borrowing my brain the most, those who deserve it, cannot pay me a living wage, if they can pay anything at all. The baddies, meanwhile, can offer me every temptation under the Mediterranean sun. It is my responsibility, as it is yours, to protect my power from those who wish to abuse it, which brings me neatly onto the final point:
5. My Dream Job Matters Less Than My Dream Community Role: To Be a Light for Others
Once we recognise our power, once we recognise that our labour conveys it, and once we recognise that where we allocate our labour is, therefore, a central criterion in any assessment of our ethics, our relationship to work changes. Radically.
Our perspective shifts from one centred on ‘drudge-work’ to one centred on ‘life’s work’. This is the difference between working to earn money to survive, and earning money to survive in order to do The Work. To quote another personal hero, the Beat icon and poet Allen Ginsberg, whose life’s work has taken on a life of its own after his passing:
“Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work — and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living.” — Allen Ginsberg
The Work means serving our communities. The Work means meeting real, pressing needs rather than servicing superficial and indulgent wants backed by cash. The Work means educating those who are most excluded from academic life rather than faking an education for the children of oligarchs. The Work means feeding those who are hungriest rather than catering to the most gluttonous. The Work means housing those who are stripped of their land rather than becoming a piece of the furniture in a rich man’s mansion.
The Work also means inspiring others to do the same — becoming the heroes we’ve needed and turned to in our most conflicting moments. And The Work is driven by a sense of solidarity, the fundamental ethical principle without which we can barely claim to be conscientious human beings rather than the crudest of animals.
In some small way, I hope that this helps you to recognise what part of The Work is your work. In that sense, writing this marks a continuation of me doing my Work in my dream community role. That is why, because of, not in spite of, the fact that I just turned down my ‘dream’ job, I have never been happier or more successful.
Yours in solidarity,