As part of their final exam week work, I gave students in two of my classes the assignment to create a “professional online presence” of some kind, presumably a website, at which to house themselves virtually—their work and/or career selves, that is. The results were graded according to a rubric that I often use that involves qualitative, quantitative, clarity, and creativity scores.
After spending the last several days visiting each of these in turn in order to evaluate them, I am struck by several things:
- How impressive many students are
- How naive at the same time
- How very free they feel today
- How very unfree many of them will feel tomorrow
These last two points, for me, are the startling ones, really, though they shouldn’t be.
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The fact is that work—any kind of work—absolutely crushes individuality and creativity. Whatever one’s industry, the higher one climbs, the more one adopts and internalizes the collective norms of said industry, until one becomes the archetype of the “veteran of the field,” at once “impressive” and utterly, utterly unoriginal.
In academics, this increasingly means what we’ve found to be the case at Deliberately Considered—that truly “big names” hesitate very much to open their mouths at all unless they are positive that they will impress. This is the nature of status, the nature of authority, of course; to have it and keep it are to exercise it without fail. To attempt to exercise it and to fail—well, that is, quite simply, to lose it.
There is a strong disincentive to be anything other than tremendously conservative the farther one goes in career life.
This has, of course, the paradoxical effect of threatening one’s career by causing it to become increasingly ossified, by causing oneself to become increasingly ossified. Even as one watches young hotshots with nothing to lose blast past, one struggles to try to find space in which to press advantage and innovate without putting at risk what authority and unassailability one has managed, through hard-scrabble work over long years, to assemble.
This state of affairs becomes multiplied exponentially as one adds multiple industries to one’s CV. Each industry becomes a little patch of turf to defend, each little patch of turf becoming, in turn, a kind of anchor—one can’t venture beyond it for fear of losing it, unless one is really positive of all of the metrics involved: victory, the amount of time one will leave said little patch undefended, the distances involved, the precise path and strategy one will adopt on the path to victory, and so on.
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To put this another way, in comparison to my students I increasingly feel:
- Hesitant to say anything in public that I haven’t researched and become an expert in already
- Hesitant to reveal anything that might reveal me to be anything other than a sociology-bot, instructor-bot, or corporate-bot
- Tremendously aware of the vagaries of liability and its semiotics at all times
- Increasingly exhausted by the demands of the maintenance of face and line
- As though I romanticize of guitar-twirling stonerhood on the banks of some southern river
- Even as I work harder, in greater obscurity (by virtue of the above) than ever before
There are some people that break out of this tremendously demoralizing trajectory, but in order for them to do this, they have to continually risk it all. They become The Ballsy Ones[TM], or the Old Man That’s Like A Young Buck[TM], or the people with Tremendous Energy And Drive[TM] and so on.
In short, they are the people with nothing to lose—the ones that move around, sleep around, are unattached, are uncompromising and unempathetic, etc. Those of us with wives, children, fondnesses, ethics…grow ever more vanilla-flavored as time wears on, so as to mitigate risk.
Even if this isn’t our initial impulse, a few near-misses are enough to cause one to don the khakis and tell students “I can’t accept the cookies you’ve baked me; someone else might misconstrue them as a bribe.”
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“Alienation,” said Karl, “sucks the big one.”