Grad schemes. Training contracts. Banking. Recruitment. Consultancy. Law. ‘Which desk are you on?’ ‘What does your firm do?’Derivatives. Would someone please care to explain what on earth that means? Trading. Buy low, sell high. I generally grasp that concept; it’s intuitive enough, at least until some financial jargon or acronym that I’m apparently supposed to know is used. Oil prices. 60 dollars a barrel? Is that high or low? Red wine. It evades me how anybody could genuinely enjoy the taste of this. Perhaps I am not cultured enough.
I appear to be listening intently to the conversation; in reality, I’m following vaguely, lost for the most part. I sit anxiously, hoping my natural inclination towards contributing minimally masks the fact that it is my ignorance causing me to remain silent. There should be no shame in admitting ignorance. To remain silent is to reject an opportunity to learn. Yet silent I remain, my hope above all being that nobody asks me what I’ve been up to since graduating, for I have nothing concrete to share at present other than that I have been working a few days a week in my local library. Mentally preparing to be asked, I comfort myself with the thought that I could at least add the fact that I’m a supervisor in my place of work, to compensate, as though such an arbitrary title should attract some sort of distinguished, elevated status. Any status that the addition of this small detail might confer elsewhere would be completely eclipsed in this setting, around this dinner table, on this celebratory occasion, during this testament to upwards social mobility, at which it seems virtually every middle class job is represented.
The question inevitably comes. Thankfully it is asked discreetly, and in passing. Typically, in the moment, I abandon my premeditated response, instead opting to respond with a nonchalant, enigmatic answer, something to the effect of ‘not much, I’ve been giving myself some deserved time off to recuperate from education’. Giving such answers, or rather, non-answers, has served me well thus far, as my peers often deduce from this that I am simply being discreet about the numerous fruitful projects I run/am involved with concurrently. I am perceived to be always working on grand schemes, and it is readily assumed among my friendship group that it is but a matter of time until these all become manifest realities. I myself am often devoid of such confidence, so it is encouraging that such unwavering belief in me, in my abilities and in my activities is held on my behalf. This perception of me being ‘active’ is not at all completely misguided. I am indeed working on tangible projects in the fields of publishing and music, underpinned by what I believe to be extremely worthy causes, to the extent that I am beyond willing to make endless personal sacrifices for them. But where these ‘projects’ evade concise description so much so that they cannot reasonably be called concrete, and where they do not yield immediate benefits in the form of a 50k salary, annual bonuses and the grandeur of a Gold American Express card in my wallet, it seems shamefully feeble in comparison. My activities all of a sudden to be of no value. After all, as Zadie Smith writes: “Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.”
And with comparison comes self-doubt. And with this self-doubt, a crisis of direction. You begin to question the viability of the vague route that you may or may not yet have envisioned for yourself, and panic if you have no solid plan, or, more accurately, no plan that others will consider to be solid. The result of all the above is some kind of fear induced paralysis, which can become both a symptom and a cause of what has recently been referred to as ‘progress driven depression’.
As a result of my desire to progress, I then try to convince myself that despite my distaste for numbers, (I use ‘distaste’ as euphemism for ‘incompetence’ – I was one mark away from failing my compulsory statistics module), I too am perfectly capable of going the corporate route, and perhaps I ought to. There are many people who did degrees such as Sociology and Philosophy and even more random subjects like Classics who now work in banking. Could I not do the same?
I curse this empathy that inhibits me from happily doing so, this empathy that compels me to seek to ameliorate the inequalities and afflictions that seem to be omnipresent around me, although very many of these somehow, by some good fortune or other, neglect to exert their effects on me. Even the oppressed among us can be in some ways relatively privileged. Resentment grows for this idealistic ‘passion’ that at present seems to be a hindrance of tangible progress. It can be validly asked, indeed, I ask myself: what exactly are the so-called worthy causes aside from the product of a narcissistic desire to make a positive contribution, and the delusion that one is actually being made? Is it arrogance or self-righteousness that causes me to think that I am somehow too ‘moral’ to work in the private sector? Are these ‘good deeds’ I strive towards in my writing, in my speaking out, as Zadie Smith speculates, ‘a further, veiled, example of self-interest, representing only the assuaging of conscience’?
Yet on each occasion, in each set of negotiations I have with myself, I cannot be persuasive enough to shake the inexplicable duty I feel to dedicate my time, my resources, my very self, to speaking out against injustice via creative mediums – regardless of how monetarily unprofitable it is proving to be. Frankly, I have no real desire to undertake conventional work at all.
So finally, for the sake of my sanity, I adjust my perspective. Instead of doubting myself and conceding to the mounting pressure to be ‘successful’, I begin to question why this vague notion of success is such a universal goal in the first instance. My questioning leads me to believe that more often than not, the concept of success is largely tied to capitalist ideas. I wonder: is the advent of this unique concept of success as a widely held, life-defining pursuit, relatively recent in the grand scheme of history, emerging alongside modern capitalism?
I have to remind myself: to ‘have’ is not to be. Even more radically, to ‘do’ is not to be. My value is not determined by my employment, or lack thereof, or by anything I may or may not do. Someone who does absolutely nothing remains valued as a human being. As idealistic as it may sound – and the fact that this may be considered idealistic exposes the effects of capitalist ideology as insidious to the extent that they define the very meaning of life – everyone should feel liberated to do (or not do) exactly what they would (or wouldn’t) if money or status were not factors to be considered.
I have found that for me, the key to avoiding the inclination to compare, and thereby avoiding the possibility of falling into progress driven depression, is to not only to redefine ‘success’, but to shun it as an objective in the first instance.