Choices, Careers and Livelihoods

My seventh semester is underway, and I feel this is a good time to write about this, as companies have just started visiting the campus for recruitment and most of my friends are eagerly writing the tests and facing the interviews amid fears that campus placements could be seriously down this year, due to the recession.

The fact that I’m not putting myself up as well, with a “FOR HIRE” board,  seems astonishing and hard to digest, for most. It has invoked countless enquiries as to what my future plans are. When I tell them that I have no real concrete plans, though I may do a post grad, they are perplexed and exclaim that I could have at least appeared for the placements just to be “secure”. Secure from what? The vacuum created by the loss of an address that defined your life for the past four years perhaps, as a job would give you a new one? And what kind of security? The promise that some company will buy your time and skills and give you lots of money in exchange?

I’ve been often reminded of the fact that I would need money to live (strangely, something which most people feel that I’m oblivious to). But there is a difference between making money to live, and living to make money. I have never been attracted by the prospect of making a lot of money. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. On the other hand, I think I know why people generally are obsessed with making money to such an extent that it is the central concern in their lives (of course, a small fraction of the people are lucky and get to work on things which they are really passionate about, but this is a minority).

The urge to earn more and more money, is ultimately down to a deep insecurity regarding one’s own survival (and other comforts to a lesser extent). Obviously, in today’s society and economy with specialized divisions of labour, none of us have any survival value. (That we take pride in this condition and consider it to be a sign of progress seems incredible to me, but that is the topic for another post). For example, a software engineer knows only how to code, and if his company goes bust, he doesn’t have the skills or resources to earn a living off the land. So his obvious concern would be to earn as much money as possible, so that he is “safe”. The more specialized the division of labour, the deeper is this insecurity.

Like Christopher McCandless says in Into the Wild, “Careers are twentieth century inventions”. For the most of us, doing this work or that doesn’t make much difference if we get the money we need to support our families and lead a good life. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, what people want is a livelihood and not a career. It is unfortunate that in our times, you invariably need to take up a career offered by an institution to earn a livelihood, and the difference between them has become almost imperceptible. I can’t imagine the Kalahari bushmen leading careers in picking berries. It’s just something they do for their livelihood.

Now I’ll tell you why I don’t like modern “careers”. It is a rat race out there to earn as much money as possible to “secure” oneself. In fact, people struggle too much just to stay alive. Some of the things you put into your work in exchange for wages, are simply invaluable and irreplacable. Each one of us might be aware that every decision and choice we make, is a tradeoff. When we choose something, we inevitably have to forego something else. And for me, taking up a career is a huge tradeoff, one that is almost unacceptable.

First, the amount of Time, Energy and Health that one has to put into a career. Any anthropologist would tell you that ours is the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. No other creature has to work so much just to stay alive. Nor did humans for a few million years, nor do the few tribal people who have survived. I accept that I cannot just jump off our culture at will, but what I can do is to reassess my actual needs, (as opposed to imagined needs and fear of future needs) and work only so much as to fulfil them, instead of sacrificing myself for earning money and then wondering what to do with it.

Another thing that is compromised, I feel, is Freedom. It is a word that is often used in misleading ways. For example, you often hear that when you get a job, you get economic freedom and independence. What the speaker probably means is that you no longer have to depend on your parents for your livelihood. But as I see it, a job just transfers your dependence(at least in modern economies with specialized division of labour) from your parents to the company and the wider economic structure without which your job wouldn’t exist. So that’s why I feel that taking up a career means compromising one’s freedom to a large extent. Again I realize that I can perhaps never be completely independent of the global economy, but I can experiment with alternative ways of living that would minimize the dependence.

To quote Thoreau once again, “The price of anything is the amount of what I call life, that you exchange for it”. So taking up a career is indeed a costly affair. If I reject a particular career, it is because I roughly realize the terms of the trade off and find them unacceptable. It is actually because I feel there is something to be gained by searching for alternative ways of living, and not down to frustration or indifference or prejudice. Of course, this is another trade off, where I’m compromising social “security” for other things which, obviously, I personally consider dearer.

It is one thing to know all this, and quite another to actually experiment with one’s life. That’s why I admire people like Gandhiji and Thoreau so much. I don’t really know what I’ll end up doing, but I am damn sure that what I’d like to do is to find my own path, however dense and unforgiving the undergrowth seems, and not to follow the beaten road, “secure” and “promising”. It doesn’t really matter how long the path runs or where it leads, as ultimately it is the journey itself that is important and fulfilling.

11 thoughts on “Choices, Careers and Livelihoods

  1. I guess I have been one of your “mentors” in the past and in some ways to be held responsible for influencing you into the path of engineering+electronics+REC etc.. not knowing whether you would like it or not :-). Leaving aside the electronics learning, I hope you found some other “learning/knowledge” in these four years which you can look back to and consider as what contributed to you being the “wise man” that you will be years down the lane :-).

    So in this matter of “career and choices”, I certainly wont try to do any influencing :-). I am confident that you will find the way that you want to travel on, just make sure you never give up anytime, thats all !


    1. You definitely influenced me a lot in choosing the course, institution etc. I may not have become passionate about Electronics and Communication engineering. But you know what, all things considered, NITC was the best place I could have gone to for doing an undergraduate course.
      Yes, I’m sure these four years have given me priceless knowledge/experience which will stand me in good stead.

      I can’t put into words how valuable, to me, your confidence in me is. I hope I’ll be worthy of it. 🙂

  2. Kishore,

    Wholeheartedly support you in that you have all rights to choose how you want to live your life. But whatever you’ve written has a very idealistic tint; see: most people are happy living their seemingly routine lives, making a family and procreating and raising their kids, finding happiness in sex or in raising the kids or earning a little money or drinking or some such thing, that is how majority of humans are, the idea of “higher purpose” for humans dont have much basis, right? I mean, some people will be different, but the majority is quite satisfied with the times, overall? Times change, the way of life (and political economy) changes, “careers” become a social phenomena (like individualism, liberation etc), and people are living their lives without bothering a lot? I dont think the majority are dissatisfied or unhappy. To each his own of course, but was just making a point. I myself studied at NITC, and I was completely transformed by the four years there, especially in thoughts etc. I came out being much more idealistic. But then, 3 years of non-academic life made me feel that there is no much point in living a “right” life; hedonism is everywhere may be cuz thats what people want… You know, at some point in Into the Wild, “Supertramp” tells a guy in the bar (the guy who gives him work with the tractors, if I remember correctly) – intellectual whining about “SOCIETY” etc etc, that guy responds: you should not go deep into these sorts of things (and live accordingly). Sometimes I feel thats true. While Gandhi’s politics and ethics and some parts of philosophy are worth deep pondering and perhaps emulating, what he told and did about celibacy is not going to work with humans! Saints like him and Jesus will be there in humanity, but they become saints because they set such unnatural standards in life… I will leave you with Orwell’s thoughts on Gandhi:

    You might have read it already, but if you havent, I recommend it.


    1. I’ll tackle this in steps.

      First of all, I didn’t mention any one “right” way to live. I don’t believe one such “right” way exists. All I feel is that the current way doesn’t seem to be working too well for human beings or the planet (or for me personally) and I’d like to explore a different way of living, which brings me to the next point.

      From what evidence do you conclude that most people are “happy” with the current state of society? I can tell you from my own experience with my acquaintances that most carry on only because they believe that they have no other choice, and are seasoned for it through education, right from childhood. Just a simple test- ask them whether they’d carry on with their occupations if they had a crore rupees in the bank, and you’ll see how very few like what they are doing.

      And now coming to living like sages, I don’t believe anyone should sacrifice anything or live like sages. If they are happy with their current lives, FINE, let them carry on with it. (I’d bet that it is a tiny minority, though.) Again I’ve never mentioned a “right” or “holy” or “idealistic” path.

      It might help you to read my previous post, to understand this post in its fullest sense. In a nutshell, for a while, I have been interested in the problems with civilization, why we seem unable to live in harmony with nature, ecological crisis etc. and I’ve come to realize that we are actually trapped in a culture that alienates us from the consequences of our actions.

      I’ll only be happy if people can be satisfied with their “routine” lives, but I think you are misinformed to think that the majority are, today. Don’t just think of yourself and those immediately around you, who probably have a good job and live in reasonable comfort. Expand your view to include the whole of humanity, a sixth of which probably goes to bed hungry, and another sixth probably just ekes out a living after tremendous struggle.

      I’m not whining about society. All I mentioned was that I’d like to find my own path. And if I drag society into it, it’s only because of this- I firmly believe that the world will be saved through changed minds and new perspectives, and NOT through government policies or market forces.

      And for changing minds, we need to encourage everyone who feels that there is something wrong with the world, to awaken from blind conformity to the system. More so with children, whose creativity and skepticism are deadened by education, who are (especially in urban societies) brought up alienated from nature, in marginalized communities, without an inkling of an integrated view of the world, or nature.

      I don’t know whether my reply is satisfactory, but perhaps not quite, since this post doesn’t convey entirely my outlook, and I can imagine the ways in which my post can be misinterpreted. Anyway, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

  3. Hi Kishore,
    Excellent post. I completely agree with you.

    Today we live in a world in which we are made to believe that “one has to earn a lot of money”, “one has to own a bmw”, “one has to have that cool thing”. There is a big problem with such culture driven by marketing techniques. With every product that is created there is an associated cost that is payed in terms of degradation of environment. And we are beginning to see the dangers of this. We need a major shift in thinking of the society.

  4. Hi Kishore,

    This is just to say that this post heartens me immensely. I used to work at a broadcast channel till last year, after which I couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t just the stress and the hard work, it was, rather the more obvious fact that I wasn’t doing anything of consequence and struggling internally to be motivated when I was clearly not. At such times, even a 56% raise isn’t enough to keep you there. My learning curve, if anything, kept falling lower and lower. I went through with placements in college, because after years of being a part of an education system that encourages you to be an ‘achiever’, give ourselves labels and function like perfect cogs in the whole machinery, it IS difficul to do otherwise.

    But in the past one year I managed to travel a lot,on minimum amounts, learnt how to make a knife, learnt to farm, taught kids etc. More than I could ever learn sitting in a broadcast studio under bright lights. It is, at times, so ironic.

    There are times of course, when I do have pangs of ‘what the hell am I doing?’. But that is again an outcome of an idea that has been imposed on me by society that to be counted as a ‘productive’ member, I must bring in a paycheque at the end of every month, and it is equally important to be aware of all these influences.

    All the very best on your journey.

  5. Tell me one thing: what is wrong in a career? I felt that you seem bogged down feeling a career is only about minting money. No, its not. See it only as a means of securing one’s future with a sure income to sustain and do so reasonably.

    Regarding freedom, it really depends on which profession you choose; not from an industry point-of-view. But from how you accept it. In general artists are supposed to be free because they chose to follow a path from their heart. But does that mean all artists are free? Ask any circus artist what they feel.

    Naturally there are a lot of engineers in jobs paying “peanuts” in terms of currency, but ask them about the freedome they enjoy.

    After all, it is a matter of mental state. You can chooose to be a teacher, yet be either free or tied down. If freedom only means following one’s heart, you may choose rather to be a wanderer. Freedom of that sort is for the rich people who need not worry about securing their families. For others, a career is most rewarding and something worth looking forward to.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with a career as such… Especially if one is able to find newness and new challenges and happiness in a career. Like you say, freedom is a matter of the mental state. Of course it’s a personal thing.

      But I feel that people are becoming more and more alienated from their surroundings as they become more and more dependent on the corporate economy for their livelihoods. Whether this is a good thing, and all that they can buy for money compensates what they lose, is open for debate. It depends on one’s perspective, and I feel that what one loses is much more than what one gains.

      1. Kishore,
        Alienating from surroundings and the quest/lust for money are all seemingly unrelated tasks. Is there a confusion? For a majority of the salaried people in the world, money comes from corporates; either from MNCs or small companies or educational institutions or societies or whatever. Alienating from surroundings is more a personal choice again. And I don’t think corporates have forced anyone (excpet the so called software industry. I work in it, so I am against it!) to move away from our natural habitats.

      2. I don’t think there is a confusion. I was referring specifically to corporate careers in MNCs and other companies in an ultra-urban setting.

        I don’t think alienation is open to choice… It’s inevitable as division of labour becomes more and more specialized, and one’s world gets marginalized to one’s immediate work environment and the social stratum one belongs to.

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