I think most people who are paying attention know that those of us in the U.S. are not actually living in a meritocracy. While people can and do raise themselves up (the ladder, from poverty, to the proverbial top) by getting an education and working hard, there is a far more insidious component to success in our society that is most accurately described as cronyism (and that’s putting aside all the issues of racism, sexism and classism that often play into “success stories”). This particular brand of cronyism isn’t simply about who you know, though, it includes the function of pandering to the egos of those in a position of power. It’s about performing “Respect Rituals” that have no direct bearing on anyone’s job, but signals that you as a colleague or employee are sufficiently subservient to deserve being recognized and helped up the ladder.
We all know what these Respect Rituals are, no matter the field or industry. Examples include using titles in place of names, deferring opinions instead of speaking truthfully, wearing uncomfortable clothes for the sake of a corporate culture, working “off the clock” on your boss’s pet project…but what they all boil down to is the display of submission, a show of being willing to subsume personality or individual identity in order to appease The Powers That Be.
Now, if you really want to get to that position (tenured professor, CEO, district manager, chef) then you’ll do it. You’ll do it because the reward is worth the sacrifice, and you know that if you play the game well enough, you’ll end up where you want to be (most of the time). You might even find a way to do it sincerely, because you feel that some signs of respect are worth showing. I’m not faulting anyone for that.
But not everyone fits into that mold, and by “not everyone” I mean “me.”
I’m not alone, though. I was recently talking to fellow writer and we got onto the topic of our respective “failures” in our fields (I use the term “failure” loosely, mind you, as he’s a stellar and well published scientist and academic). His was directly related to not playing the game of academic politics for the last 15+ years; mine were related to cycling through jobs because I self-sabotaged before I could even set down roots in a career, hating the game too much to play it willingly. We view our failures – his in the academic world, mine in the business world – as personal failures, as opposed to a failure of the system in which we were operating. I mean we know that, intellectually, but we still internalize that failure.
As we talked about our (precious few) options, he mentioned that he has been reading the blog of Tim Ferriss, he of the now-famous “4 Hour Work Week” book/website. “4 Hour Work Week” is both genius and insane. I think the book is kind of brilliant…and yet, not much in there is helpful to me personally. The value of it is in re-conceptualizing our idea of what a “work week” needs to be, and furthermore, what a successful career can look like.
Which leads me back around to our perceived “failures,” because while I think the bigger issue is challenging a culture that is not a meritocracy but rather a form of cronyism, at the individual level we need to understand that if we cannot function in the cronyism paradigm then we need to make our way to a different place. And that’s as radical an idea as is the concept of “only” working four hours a week, I think.
That is what drives my focus on writing. I cannot see myself in this kind of job indefinitely; I’ve been through the wringer in the business world, and now that I’ve been inside the uni system I see it’s the same exact bullshit all over. I thought differently when I was getting my MLIS, but that naivety did not last long. Being smart and reliable and hardworking and qualified wasn’t going to get me hired at the Smithsonian, ever.
Do I like my current job? I sure do. It’s a decent, full time w/ benies, good-office kind of job. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life. But for me, it’s also pretty much a dead end. To go up the ladder, I would have to play uni administration politics and wear a pants suit and generally become a completely different person. Some people enjoy that challenge. I am not one of them.
Personally I’ve combine the idea of a shorter work with my goal to not play the cronyism game. My goal is to work four hours a day at writing, at home (or in my future writing shed! It will happen!) I can do a lot of writing in that time, and also some marketing and blog posts. If I have the time to do that in the mornings when I have the focus and energy to do it, I can then spend the rest of my day doing OTHER things I care about (yoga, dancing, drawing, fandom). And never once will I have to worry about performing the obsequious Respect Rituals that are required for any kind of office job (or any other “paycheck” kind of job).