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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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personal boundaries

Mastering the Art

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Working or playing? Perhaps it doesn’t matter

 

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between [her] work and [her] play, [her] labour and [her] leisure, [her] mind and [her] body, [her] education and [her] recreation. [S]he hardly knows which is which. [S]he simply pursues [her] vision of excellence through whatever [s]he is doing and leaves others to determine whether [s]he is working or playing. To [her]self s/he always seems to be doing both. Enough for [her] that [s]he does it well.

–Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, 1932


I first heard this quote while browsing through the archives of an online Q&A session about leaving academia. To many academics, the delicate balance between work and play is both our motivation and our downfall. With no supervisor or fixed schedule, and with the measures of our success spread out over decades, we are constantly plagued with the uncertainty and the incessant wondering: have we worked enough?

The truth is that an academic should never ask herself if she has worked enough. To be in academia is to shun the world’s notion of success and to pursue passion and knowledge for the sake of the pursuit.

I am slowly internalizing the truth of this passage. I wake in the morning when it pleases me and sometimes I work right away, and sometimes I sit around playing games. I take naps when I am sleepy, think when I run, drink when I write and teach while I socialize. On a holistic level I am certainly much happier, more tolerant of others and more creative. However there are difficulties in applying this philosophy.

The master of life leaves others to determine whether she is working or playing. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the application. It would be lovely if each of us as individuals could determine our destinies, but like it or not we exist in a society which is governed by a culture. Our culture determines whether or not we are successful and whether or not we are deserving of our fate and for most of us, our culture believes that hard work which results in failure merits sympathy while too much play merits disdain.

Thus, the master in the art of life is also a master in the art of human relationships. For she must simultaneously satisfy her craving to play with her need to appear to those around her as an honest member of society. Perhaps the master is someone who has found a way to get paid to play, so that the distinction becomes meaningless to everyone.

On the Intentionality of Life Without Social Media

Many people have commented on how social media, specifically facebook, erodes social relationships. When I quit facebook three weeks ago, I learned this same lesson from a slightly different angle. Websites that allow “follows” and “likes” have a way of encouraging a sort of vomiting of information. The personal and the public all get blended together and spewed forth to the anonymized mass of followers, and the result is that we not only lose our sense of what is appropriate to share and what is not, but we also lose touch with the people we are sharing with.

I recently spent a lovely day playing in the snow with some new friends I made. A freak storm shut the city down, so instead of working we all rather dicked around in the shop, or else went outside to throw snow at each other. When I came home I was exploding with happy and I desperately wanted to tell someone. In my facebook days, I would have made a post. I would have then tagged the guys at the shop, making sure to include the one’s I meant as well as the ones who were more peripheral in order to hide the fact that I find some of them rather attractive. My friends who were not present would [like] the post because it would be a happy subject and they would assume it was an indicator that all is well in my life. The friends tagged would [like] the post because it would be impolite not to. And everyone in my network would know I wanted everyone to know my feelings.

However, without an online social presence, I only had the option to send the message directly to the people in question, or else not send it at all. I had one and a half out of three of the e-mail addresses I needed to send personal messages. So I sent a simple update along the lines of “Your shop rocks!” to the ones I had, and then I waited. Hours later I have not heard a response. Without facebook, there are no others observing whether or not that response is sent. It is a private communication between me and another person which holds the additional weight that it was intentionally sent by me to the recipient. This is a very different kind of message than a (semi) public online post.

Being intentional, personal, and direct about our communication with others is taking a gamble when a sure thing is available. By being direct I risk rejection, but I also risk building a stronger and more genuine relationship. On the other hand, a post on a website guarantees me a certain level of validation, but it is highly circumscribed. Many people, myself included, are afraid to build new relationships because each new connection requires exposure and risk. However, a human relationship is only as strong and genuine as the willingness of each participant to expose him or herself. In the end we all want acceptance, but if we try to engineer acceptance, such as through impersonal websites, then the acceptance we achieve is never of our whole selves, but only of the select facet we choose to expose. Relationships built this way will leave you feeling perpetually on guard, a perpetual outsider. Why? Because until you go all in, you’ll never be all in.

Perspective

Living in Japan has taught me many things. The most difficult lesson I am having at the moment is understanding how Japanese people can work six to seven days a week for weeks on end, and know the exact number of holidays they’ve taken year to date at any day of the year. I have two acquaintances here with whom I have discussed this point. Both were quite enlightening.

One man works for an interior renovation company as a project manager. He can easily work for three weeks without a day off, and they are mostly ten hour days. I still do not understand how this is possible. When, for example, does a person on this schedule do their laundry? This is in a country where letting your laundry pile up for more than two days is considered bad hygiene, and dryers are luxury items. When we met I learned that he loves surfing and used to live near the beach before moving for his job. His dream is to become employed by a boutique sports wear shop on the shore where he can surf every morning for an hour or two before work. To me, this sounds like a small dream, but to him it is immeasurable personal freedom.

Since we met he told me he has started to rethink his life and his priorities. He wants this job, but he does not know how to acquire it. Japanese are not particularly good at controlling their own destinies. Generally, they are a very passive people. Recently he lamented to me that he would like to quit his current job, but there are no other available options to go to. I said to him, “why don’t you just take a few ‘sick’ days without quitting?” I figured if he gets caught, he wanted to quit anyway and maybe he’ll get some unemployment or something. I feel like this was a very American suggestion. “Ah! What an idea? I never thought of that,” he says to me.  “You really gave me a new perspective!”

The second man works for a local branch of a large sports equipment company (what can I say? I like sports). He is an hourly employee, which is considered “part time” in Japan. The shop closes at seven in the evening and one night I received a message from him “Done for the day!” It was 10:30 pm. He gets one day off per week and on that day he works part time as a mechanic. I said he works too much. He said I work too little. I told him the French consider a 35-hour work week to be excessive. He said Japan is not a country where you can live working less. At this last point, my mind started spinning.

As an economist I am keenly aware of the role of boundaries in our lives. Sometimes the boundary is money, as in we have to meet our budget or else we can’t pay off our mortgage. Sometimes the boundary is very personal and very rigid, like our innate attention span. Sometimes the boundary is imposed upon us by organizations that seem more mechanical than human, like the boundary between on-the-clock and off-the-clock. Boundaries can be comforting, such as when we set a boundary for how much risk we are willing to tolerate in our lives, and then stay safely inside it. But they can also be suffocating, such as when the boss thinks that an acceptable boundary between work and personal life is having access to your social media profile, e-mail and cell phone number, but promising not to misuse them. Boundaries can also control our ability to make good decisions by changing the context of the choices that we make. Japan, I argue, has a problem with boundaries.

As a member of the modern world with access to the internet, you have undoubtedly been told that the wealth available to the average citizen of the United States is greater than that of King Louis XIV, or some other similar claim of modern affluence. Undoubtedly you were told this by some charitable organization hoping for just two dollars a month to save some children from starving, or else you were told by some authority figure who wanted to impress upon you the need to work more and play less. Perhaps when you heard this claim, you thought to yourself, “if I am so rich, then why is my life so difficult?” Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer unless you are accustomed to thinking about how boundaries influence our welfare.

Let us take a moment to think back. Decades, indeed centuries ago, when the sun went down the world went to sleep. Even the lowliest peasant on a Midieval fief was sent home at the end of the day because the fuel to light the fields was simply not worth the expense. Come industrialization, not only did we have the ability to work long, grueling hours, but we also had the technology to make it profitable. From industrialization we moved to telecommunications. Now, even when the work day ended, our bosses could still find us in our homes and return us to work. From telecommunications we went to the current situation of live feeds and mobile computers so light and small that they fit in our pocket, and which are more powerful than the clunky desktop pieces we shared among an entire family barely twenty years ago. From the perspective of the economy, this is a massive increase in productive capacity and it is part of the reason why we are so affluent today. However, all this technology has created a difficult situation for employer and employee relationships.

Years ago, in fact only one generation ago, when you left the job, you stayed off duty until your shift started the next day. It was simply too difficult or else too cost ineffective for your boss to expect you to be productive in any capacity when you were not physically on site. Even jobs that relied on computers (or typewriters, as it were) stayed in the office since many people did not own the necessary equipment to take their work home with them. This placed a boundary on the daily productive capacity of each employee, which in turn restricted overall profits as well as individual wages. Today, however, the ability to take work home with us has reached through to almost every kind of job. Today, if we want to stop working, we have to provide a reason to stop where before the reason was clear: that it’s simply impossible to work more.

The technology that has allowed us to choose when and where we work has essentially created a conflict between employer and employee that clearly favors the employer. Now every employee must appeal for the privilege to stop working. If it is possible to work, why wouldn’t you? seems to be the logic that every company employs. Unfortunately because the power is never balanced between boss and worker, the worker loses ground. It is impossible to say to one’s boss “I simply don’t want to work this much,” without risking one’s job. The truth is that over time, technology has eroded the natural boundary between work and personal life and the individual is simply not equipped socially to reinstate it.

My friends do not work six to eight days a week because Japan is a country where it is impossible to live working less than six days a week. In fact Japan is a country where it is possible to live working every waking hour, and even some sleeping hours. That’s why my friend’s lives are so difficult. In Japan it is even more difficult to assert yourself to your superiors than it is in the western world. This is because Japan has a very well established social hierarchy and sense of obligation. The employer should take care of his employees’ every physical needs right up to subsidizing their rent and work meals, and in return the employees must dedicate their lives to their employers. It is almost as if the Samurai live on with karoshi (literally “death by over work”) replacing seppuku as the means of preserving honor.

Japan is not the only country that is slowly destroying its people through over work. Americans are well on their way there, too. To see this we need only look at the billions of dollars wasted on medicating chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and depression. Unfortunately this outcome is inevitable. The powerful will always take advantage of the weak, and there is an inherent power imbalance in our market system. All hope is not lost, however. We may not be able to control the infrastructure of our society, or be able to tell our bosses that they are crossing the line, but we can appreciate each other on a personal level. We can love our friends and celebrate their lives — lives lived fully, and completely, with work and with play and with love and with responsibility. In doing so we will lessen the moral burden of leaving an organization that abuses us. If we know we have the support of our friends in making decisions that improve our lives holistically, then even if it means risking our jobs, we can turn around and assert our own personal boundaries on the people who seek to use us up for their profits.

It may never happen that, as a society, our right to happiness and leisure is officially recognized. Even if we do everything in our power to protect our happiness and the happiness of those we love, it may always be true that the weaker in spirit will not be protected and will further contribute to a system that consumes where it should be providing. However, even if our numbers are too small to “make a difference,” there is still enough affluence in our society that even if we were to live perpetually at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, we would still have enough to live and live happily if only we could remember to keep that happiness precious.

In the end, I suppose it is all about perspective. We have a choice between selling our souls for affluence, or building affluence out of pure spirit. It can be done. It’s scary, though. We are not taught to be alive or to be happy and many of us simply assume that if we just do the “right” things happiness will fall on us. But, no. You have to make your happy. If you take the perspective that the world exists as resources to build happiness, as compared to the perspective of you exist to “succeed” and are only entitled to whatever happiness you can fit into the margins of that success, then you will find that happiness. As an economist I am meant to study the world as it operates in the presence of scarcity, but I don’t think we live with scarcity. I think we live with abundance, if only we were brave enough to reach out and take it.

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