This blog entry is not an examination of consumerism; I will not ask how many iPads or televisions a person should own. Instead, it’s about our work and creative lives, and about what it means to fulfill the obligations that come with choosing a vocation. Oddly enough, the inspiration for this entry is fairly mundane: the resurrection of the Why? Radio twitter feed. With yet another thing to do everyday, I find myself asking how much work I have to do before I am satisfied. What are the criteria that tell people not to add anymore to their piles? How much work is enough?
At the heart of this dilemma lie at least three sets of questions. First, we have to ask what it means to be successful. At what point can we look at our careers and admit that we have achieved a standard of accomplishment that we should be comfortable with? And, if we ask this, we also have to ask whether other people judge our success or whether we decide it for ourselves.
The second set of questions involves the meaning of our lives. Many people find their primary identity through their jobs. Americans are particularly guilty of this; when we meet new people, the first question we actually ask is “what do you do?” We feel that identifying what someone’s profession is – what they get paid to do – tells us something essential about them. In all my years traveling, I have never met another group of people more concerned with occupation than Americans. Of course, I am one of them too, hence this blog entry.
We’re now at another dilemma. If I identify myself as a philosopher, how much of my time has to be spent doing philosophy to justify my self-perception? Twenty percent? Fifty percent? Being a philosopher is much more than an outlook; I also have to read and create philosophical work. But, again, how much is enough, one book or two? An article a year? Continuous writing until I retire or until I die? Artists of every stripe struggle with this last question. When are they finished with their life’s work? Do they ever stop being an artist or do they just expire with an unfinished corpus?
The third set of questions involves evaluating our roles in the world and our obligations to others. Sometimes we add more work to the pile because we are morally obligated to. Maybe our work helps someone else’s research or advocates for a cause. Maybe we assist a friend who is falling ill. I like to think that the world is a slightly better place because of my writing, and that if I stopped some people would be, at minimum, disappointed. But there are so many people who have more crucial roles to play. How does an emergency room surgeon or a firefighter declare that they have done enough? What a gut-wrenching decision that must be.
In the end, of course, someone is going to say that I should do the work that makes me happy. But this answer is too simplistic if happiness is just a feeling. If I’m struggling to meet a deadline, am I not, in some sense, happy? Would I not forsake the project if I weren’t truly committed to it? Aristotle reminds us that happiness involves doing things and that struggle is part of the process. Also, happiness is a combination of components. If my comments above are correct, then I can say I’m happy if I am successful, if my work provides my life meaning, and if I am fulfilling my obligations to others. But this doesn’t solve the problem because it only tells me what my goals are not when I’ve reached them. (Not to mention, that I’ve only discussed work life, not family, or social commitments that are essential to my self-image.)
So, how much work is enough? I really don’t know. At this point, I’m operating on instinct and there isn’t much more I can do. Whatever enough is though, I don’t think I’m there yet. So, I’ll just tweet away and see what comes of it. It’s just ten minutes of my day, after all, and that’s not such a big deal. Is it?