Stoicism: Day 24 – Being Cynical About Your Job is Your Own Fault

I’ve become a big fan of the hot shower after the ice bath. It completely beats shivering your butt off for 40 minutes. If you are planning on replicating my ice bath experiment, I suggest going through the first few weeks without a hot shower, and then the second few weeks with a hot shower. You will learn to love them. And, you will be able to replicate the creativity and good ideas you have in your morning shower. I’m not sure why it works but it does.

Plus, I needed it to wipe away the cynical feelings I had after my company staff meeting yesterday.

I’ve never been the type to drink the Kool-Aid. In the Navy, I became cynical about bureaucracy. In Egypt, when I was teaching English, I became cynical about the curriculum, and at my current company, I’m pretty sure most of the work we do is meaningless.

This article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, captures my sentiments very well. I don’t agree with the social and economic arguments, but the existential angst is similar.

Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

My company is in the government consulting business. In theory, the work we do is useful.  We try to help the government make the best of its resources and operate more efficiently.

In the end, it’s hard to see what we actually accomplish, other than delivering a few reports and presentations.

Stoicism has been very good for increasing my tranquility in terms of day-to-day work stuff. If someone annoys me at work, I’ve been able to consider the nature of the person’s actions and brush it off.  When I feel anxious about my performance, I practice negative visualization and imagine that I’ll be fired and all sorts of terrible scenarios, and then I don’t feel so anxious anymore.

However, when I hear the company’s management talk about strategic goals and how we plan to grow, my cynicism returns. I can’t help but feel that there’s no point to the company’s existence and that many of government clients we help shouldn’t exist at all,

But, this is hardly a problem with the company; it’s a problem with me.

First, I have a history of being cynical at pretty much all the jobs I’ve had. It is possible that all the places I worked are pointless? Maybe, but it’s more likely that I’m not doing a good job of managing my expectations.  I also think it has to do with my own arrogance i.e. I think I’m smarter and can do everything better. That is certainly not true.

Second, I am overly attached to outcomes. No company can completely control the outcome of their work. In the case of my current job, the nature of government is such that it’s hard to get anything done, and the nature of consulting is that you provide recommendations, which the clients decide to implement, or not implement. It’s silly for me to be disturbed by the lack of progress in an industry where that is the default case.

My cynicism is my own fault.

I haven’t “solved” my cynicism just yet, but one Stoic technique that helped was to apply the dichotomy of control:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever our own actions. Things not in control are body, property, reputation, command, and in one word, whatever are not our own actions.  – Epictetus

The efficacy of my company and the industry are not within my control.  Therefore, I should not let it disturb me.

While accepting that I cannot change things, I can attempt to influence the direction of my company. I probably won’t succeed, but it’s within my control to try.

For example, the idea of getting my company to embrace philosophical or higher values (as opposed to just pleasing the client) excites me.  Alain de Botton and his “School of Life” is apparently trying to start a philosophical consultancy. I’m not sure if I will pursue this path, but just thinking about it excites me, which distracts from my cynical feelings about the company and industry in general.

Understanding that I can’t control the company’s direction, but that I can make efforts to change it, reduces my cynicism just a little bit.

Contemporary advice (popularized by the lifestyle design crowd) suggests I need to quit my job and follow my passion and start my own business. Perhaps I should work on the Ancient Wisdom Project full time!

Wrong. I was unemployed last summer and had all the time in the world to work on my side projects and blogging and such. I barely did anything. Plus I was depressed. Modern advice did not work for me.

I imagine the Stoics would advise someone who is considering leaving their job to only leave their job when they feel they no longer need to leave. You won’t need to leave when your job no longer causes you to be cynical.

This is not sexy advice and infinitely more difficult than just quitting your job, but isn’t that the only situation when you are truly making a free choice? Otherwise you’d be giving the company power and influence over your mind.

The thought of not giving the company control over my mind is a powerful and motivating one. I am going to remind myself of this the next time I’m feeling cynical.

  • Marcus Guan Hock Tay

    I can understand what you mean by that irony period where we have all the time in the world when we are unemployed and yet we do not embarked on all the small projects that we have always said that we will do.

    Oddly, when we have all the time in the world, we choose to be depressed. Contemporary advice works for super motivated people? Or is it better to do the way like you did recently, slowly “grow” into being a freelancer.