The Protestant Stupid Ethic

At one of my previous jobs, my company put me through a profiling test often used by other companies to fire people. That wasn’t their intention here – they were, in all honesty, a very good company – but there were concerns that I wasn’t very passionate about my work. By matching my profile scores on the test to the profiles of other employees who were highly effective in other roles, they were wondering if there might be a different position in the company I would enjoy more.

I had signed on to be a software developer, but I found myself dragging and dropping boxes on a screen most of the time. I felt like a fraud. The test suggested a decent match for my current role, but my profile matched slightly better for Quality Assurance and possibly Project Management. I wasn’t enthused by either of these, though for a time I leaned toward QA. I was good at what I did, but I really wanted to write more code. And I wanted to work with more visuals. That’s what first got me into computers. There just weren’t many opportunities for that sort of work.

“And,” I said to our HR representative, “I tend to get tired around 2:00pm.” She was dumbfounded. “But that’s not even 8 hours….”

This was a company with Christian roots, and a lot of what they believed was that if you weren’t passionate about your job, then you needed to be somewhere else where God was calling you. This was not their official policy, of course, but it was implied. It permeated the atmosphere. And it wasn’t all bad. But in that single statement, “But that’s not even 8 hours,” I realized just how stupid misguided Christians can be in their veneration of work. There’s nothing in the human genome that codes for 8 hour workdays as some holy standard of “work ethic.”

I was pushed out of that company a year later. Despite 6+ months of non-programming-related work and complete misguidance on the actual usefulness of new technologies on the job, I was given two options: have passion and micromanage yourself, or move on to God’s real plan for you. We parted on good terms. And I suppose maybe they weren’t entirely wrong, because God got me a job paying almost 30% more. It’s too bad more Christian don’t have a “protestant fair pay” ethic.

Some people really get their hard on for work. They read Genesis and immediately see work as the path to life, liberty, and [] happiness. They’ll gladly ignore that Adam was called to till the earth (farming), and they’ll gladly forget that it was a curse and not a blessing, but then the Protestant Work Ethic was never really about the Bible at all and has more to do with culture than anything. It was simply christened by an interpretation of the Good Word.

And I don’t disagree with the sentiment. I believe hard work can be a good thing. I just don’t see it as the end-all be-all. I also don’t worship Roosevelt, Truman, and Hoover and the whole era of “we killed the Nazis.” History has somehow settled upon the 40 hour work week and that may or may not be your shtick. I personally would prefer the 30 hour workweek, and even better, I would prefer a 0 hour workweek, where I volunteer for things I care about because I want to.

A lot of people see work as a distraction from sin, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and whatnot, which is probably just the suspicion that not working leads to a whole lot of drugs or a whole lot of porn.

What people fail to realize is that work is one of the greatest stresses a person can face. There’s even the term “paying to work,” which is a way of recognizing the financial cost of work in terms of ROI. If you are making $2,000 dollars a month but your new car is $350 per month, your insurance is $150 per month, and your gas is $150 per month, almost 32% of your income is spent just going to and from work. Don’t count lunches out if you’re into that habit, and forget the stress of commuting five days a week if you have to commute. Work is good for its own sake, right? Right?

We even teach this to our kids. The most academically “successful” join such bull-shit organizations as Nation Honor Society, where, last I checked, they are required to participate in 3, count ’em 3, extracurricular activities, in addition to full time high school and dealing with the shit-storm that is being a teenager. (full disclosure: I was in NHS) We call this “successful,” while really we’re training our kids to be dysfunctional members of society, dysfunction friends, and dysfunctional parents. “You’re value is how busy you stay. How hard you work.”

Works tends to be one argument Christians leverage against Financial Independence, or even Early Retirement. Just search google for reactions. “But work is good for you! How dare you consider investing a lot in order to stop working!” They’d rather be chained to a job that can lay their butts off at the drop of a hat. They’d rather continue the destructive cycle of overproduction that has been destroying our planet. All because their sense of purpose, their sense of being a good Christian, derives from their love…of work. Not sharing that love is threatening to those people.

Love of work betrays an ignorance of economics. You have to realize that as specialization makes the necessities of life cheaper and cheaper, far less “work” is really needed on the global scale. Unemployment was high in the United States during the recession because budgets were tight and, quite frankly, so much of the work being done didn’t significantly contribute to the world. But since everyone needs some way to earn money, we find new and obscure ways to work. And most of this just gets dumped into landfills and the ocean. Now, I’m a big fan of capitalism, do not get me wrong, but work is not necessarily the answer to the world’s problems. There is already so much work that sometimes whole cities are on the verge of unemployment. I just watched a fascinating documentary about ship breakers in India, where there are so few jobs that these men will work in extremely life-threatening conditions just to put food on the table. (aside: nobody’s marching for women to be equally represented in that industry, are they?) They work harder than anybody I’ve ever known, but that still hasn’t worked out so well for them. You can’t honestly see virtue in this!

Sure. Do what you love. But the old scenario still plays out: do you pay the nice, perhaps even Christian surgeon who loves his job and has an 80% success rate, or do you pay the asshole surgeon who hates his job but has a 99% success rate? I think you can guess who I’m going to pick. And what about the pastors who are mortified of public speaking but feel God has called them to be pastors anyway? Passion is not the key to everything. Passion may even have nothing to do with your calling. There is no one-size fits all formula here.

If and when I do hit my Financial Independence goals, it’s definitely not my intention to spend my time sitting around watching Netflix (well, maybe only occasionally). I’d probably pursue archaeology in some form, or volunteer for something that usually can’t be afforded, or I’d working for a small company that cares for it’s employees but can’t necessarily afford a software developer. I’d even like to spend a few years working for the company I’m currently volunteering for. That would be amazing! But not because I have to, or because it’s virtuous, or because ’till the earth’, but simply because I enjoy exercising my skills and making a difference in the world. It’s no good being a slave to your employer or a slave to this bizarre work fetish that dominated our grandparents’ generation and our national and over-glorified bucolic past.

The Edge of Forever

People think you’re weird if you spend too much time ‘taking it in’. We go to our locations, snap our pictures for instagram (if that’s what you’re into), and go home. But I remember when I was a child when I didn’t have the option to get up and leave. I remember I would be present where I was and take it in. I have a lot of memories and impressions where I don’t know exactly what they were from, but I believe they came from really sitting in the present and feeling them, whether it was a scene outside, a colonial poster from a book, or paintings on our walls.

When I was a child, there was one particular day when Mom took me to our local Toys R Us. The land the store was located on was elevated above the other stores in the area and was made of a tan stucco or concrete color with a vast parking lot. This was back in the 1990s when retailers more frequently placed products outside for display, and I remember the mood of the sun over the displays. I found a Crash Dummies toy I really wanted. I’ve always described the setting, how it felt, as if being at the edge of the world, but in a more dream-like way, as if being at the edge of forever. Above was the great void of the sky, and beyond the parking lot must surely have been the great void where the Earth dropped off. Between these voids was the light of the sun, warm on my arms and warm on the boxes and the plastic that sat on the shelves.

It’s entirely possible I’ve confused the details of that memory, but the feelings, now you never forget those. This scene and how it made me feel has been a key element for many of the stories I’ve wanted to write, and every now and then I come across it when the sun is beating down on suburbia, or when the zoo has those fake African huts made of stucco. Sometimes at the junk yard, or the flea market.

As I was snowshoeing today, I looked up a smooth, sloping hill to see a solid field of unbroken snow. The clouds above blew flurries up and over the mountaintops, and the sun shown down from above. And on the way back I paused here again to really take it in this time. The sun was going down, and through that frosty mist high above, you could, at times, see the disk of the sun. I felt that I could have spent hours there, taking it in, but somewhere inside, I almost felt like crying, because there’s so much we don’t, or even can’t, take in.

Sometimes I feel you better watch out. You could be laying in your bed, or your tent; you could be shopping at the mall or watching the rain, and you could turn right over and slip off the edge of forever.

Breathing Again

Over the past two weeks, I’ve gotten rid of a great many books, mostly technical books that either duplicated content or covered technologies I don’t need to know. My relationship with books is long and complex, but the gist of the story is that I have, for over a decade, been addicted to books. In a strange twist, owning books has been psychologically terrible for me because of the pressure I put on myself to finish reading them. This is the first time in probably six years that I haven’t had something to read through. I probably own between 20 and 30 books now, only four of which are related to programming. Quite frankly, they’re the only four that are truly useful at this time.

It was kind of a brutal process. Some books I literally kept because I was afraid I would need them. $30 books. Fear. It’s ridiculous. It first took admitting that, “I hate this book”, then it took actually stepping out and saying, “I’m getting rid of this book”. So many people complain about being busy, but they’re afraid to cut things out, afraid to say “no”. My situation is a bit weird, I don’t know anybody else who tortures themselves over unread books, but I’m willing to bet many people can identify with suffering due to their inability to say “no”.

It’s like breathing again. I haven’t been staying up late feeling I need to read or learn more. And, oddly enough, I’ve been incredibly tired. This could just be my imagination, but it feels like the stress of all those years has started to collapse, and now my body is trying to make up for all the lost years.

A decade of striving. What do you even do with that?

I can feel that this is a year of great change, and I’ve been wanting to explore some deeper things in my life with God. Lately, I’ve been re-reading my old journals. They’re insanely boring, but give me some perspective on just how far I’ve come. Last year I shredded Journal #1, and today I shredded Journal #2, which was written around 2011 and 2012. One of the most frequent subjects in #2? Having too many books to read! Can’t believe it’s taken this long. We’re all works in progress.

I’ve been watching hockey again. I haven’t actively watched hockey since high-school. But that was about the time I started turning to knowledge for all of my answers. That was when life lost a lot of its magic.

I have many friends I’ve been meaning to hang out with, but I’m giving myself the liberty to just rest. Some days I skip church (like today). I used to get lunch with friends every single Sunday, but lately I have just gone home and bought something special from the grocery store.

I don’t plan to keep this up forever, I am a social introvert, but I can’t explain how nice it is to just rest. To breathe. I’m a competent programmer and I don’t have to worry about my career. I didn’t have to before, either, but I chose to. I have friends who care about me, I don’t have to see them all the time, and before too long I will get back into the swing of sociability. I know who I am, and I don’t need to hold onto old journals to remind me. It may be different for other people, but for me it’s time to move on. One last read-through and it’s to the shredder they go.

There are things to do Tuesday nights and Thursday nights and that’s it, I’m done, I’m not making anything else a priority. Even Sunday mornings are lower priority. I’m done with that ‘busy’ crap.

I’ve wanted to write more posts on here but they haven’t been working out. Part of this goes back to my post about being financially bored, where once that savings rate is set, you just have to keep showing up and everything else is automatic. I could follow some obnoxious list of frugal tips, but that really won’t do anything for me at this point. Shaving $50 or $100 off my spending every month just isn’t worth the struggle of living by the letter, so to speak.

Honestly, one of the biggest things on my mind right now is Nepal. My personal savings is very nearly enough to start taking my plans to go there seriously. I think the goal is to spend two weeks there. Soon I plan to start mapping out what that visit will look like. Since books aren’t really around to distract me anymore, I may even spend a little time in the evenings re-learning the Devanagari script.

I need this post just to express these personal things that are going on in my life right now. This isn’t a financial post but one that I still very much have wanted to write. Once the journals are done, I’m hopefully going to be doing a lot more snowshoeing, and there are several movies I’d like to check out from the library. I think there are many good things in the works, so I’m pretty excited for this year.