A PhD, the pinnacle of our current educational system, is ill-defined. There is an array of variables involved that uniquely separate one PhD programme from the next; the topic of the thesis, the size of the grant, the involvement of the professor. But they all have something in common: A PhD implies wasting 4 years of your life.
My first thought when writing this goes to some of my colleagues at university, who are in most cases writing their thesis or even have presented them already. However, in pure economical terms, they spend most of their time either thinking, attending conferences, doing research or writing. Which is a wonderful way to spend your time, but we can all agree that their short term output to society is virtually zero. And that’s because, from the point of view of a businessman, they should be doing something else. They should be doing something else.
We were presented during primary school the concept of What We Have To Do: a list of tasks that we must complete not because we like or because they have a point, but because it is our duty to complete them, because an authoritative figure is counting on us to do them.
The concept also assumes that, once we are done with the To Do list, we can sit and relax, because we’ve made it. After we are finished, we will have reached the Promised Land, the fuck you money, the life without worries. It’s the fundamental placing of our happiness in a near-to-come, never realised future that Nietzsche warned about:
Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
However, we haven’t wasted our time since. Wasting time is for kids and beggars on the streets. It’s no wonder that by the time we complete our education, we can’t conceive asking ourselves what we might really want to do with our lives. We have all the future ahead of us, and instead of looking at the white canvas with determination, we stare at it, depressed.
What We Have To Do was our only move, and it was the safest one; everyone around us was also doing it. A predictable outcome was at the other end: a good job, a good house, being employable. Misfits share their future with a Geography undergraduate: an uncertain one.
Truth is, What We Have To Do has backfired: there is simply too many people doing it for our society to handle it. Instead, success in our modern economy is going only to those who can bring an outstanding dedication and imagination to their work. Following the paved way leads to places where people has already arrived earlier.
Don’t shoot for the stars, because we know what’s already there. Shoot for the space in between.
But dedication and imagination do not come all the time, in all conditions. True pleasure must be present for us to be creative, purpose must be present for us to endure the difficulties. And both are things that we lacked while we were under the protection of What We Have To Do.
Moreover, there is already that sense of guilt that we cannot get rid of once there is an endless backlog of tasks that We Have To Do. We are exposed to pieces of news where 26 year old kids have built multi billion dollar companies from their bedrooms, Chess Grand Masters aged 8, and we see ourselves racing against certain benchmarks in our lives that our personal heroes have set (mine was 26 years, 3 months and 16 days, how old was Albert Einstein when his paper ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’ was received by Annalen der Physics, the science journal that eventually published it. At the time of writing, I’m older than that; Newton was 22 years and 7 months when he started developing his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation at his home in Woolsthorpe, and that milestone is also long gone).
We are already so guilty about What We Have To Do, that what we call laziness is, in reality, a symptom of anxiety. We need to relax and let go.
When was the last time that you gazed outside the window? Just staring, watching the clouds in the sky, their shape, paying attention to the colourful traffic, the variety of faces that criss cross like fingers, the echo of voices and noises stomping in the window, the quiet of our own minds not realising how time goes by…
Best ideas usually come to me when I’m not productive, but when I’m present instead: in the shower, talking a walk, putting on my pyjamas. That’s usually when I confront the abyss of my thoughts, the contents of my mind. It’s when I pause and gaze at the horizon, and check whether the path I’m going through leads to the place I want to be.
That’s why agility trumps velocity; it isn’t speed what gets you where you want, it’s the ability to change direction.
Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.
– Nassim Taleb
A PhD, or any meaningful piece of intellectual work, is built on unproductive moments. Our workplace, on the other side, is filled with people rushing from crisis to crisis, in the constant need of ‘catching up’ with an ideal version of themselves, usually called the competition abroad; much faster, much better, and much cheaper. In that sort of environment, there is no time for ‘training’: you learn on the job. They don’t see how paradoxical this mindset becomes when taking to the extreme: if we were to start working by the time that we learn how to walk, civilisation would consist of clueless kids running around the office with assignments that they aren’t qualified to fulfil. The resemblance of some organisations to that dystopia should be a signal for people to start polishing their CVs and run away.
And yet, ‘experience’ is the key to being ‘employable’. Every job advertisement asking for experience builds on the idea that there is no learning outside of working. Your job as a student is to work hard so that someone may think you’re worth a chance, and then keep working so that, eventually, you achieve the dream of employability. It only takes submitting yourself to do What We Have To Do. It also builds on the assumption that 1 year experience doing a certain task is the sane everywhere. That might have been true when we worked at the assembly line, but for the majority of us, what we learn and how intense is that learning makes all the difference.
The first and most absurd consequence of modern economy is what I would call the experience paradox: you need experience to be hired and gain experience. Those who have a job enjoy the comfort of clocking each day in the office as ‘gaining experience’; those who don’t, well, don’t. The afterthought of this is that those who are outside of this ‘experienced enough to gain experience’ club have only themselves to blame: laziness, of course, cannot be found in those who already have a job.
If you’ve ever read James Joyce’s Ullyses, you might have noticed that is hard to pinpoint what the book is all about. At each stage in the novel, we are presented a variety of issues that drive the narrative forward, but it’s not at all clear how everything fits together. When you read Ullyses, you get the confusion of our modern existence. Life, when doing What We Have To Do, is pointless.
But what about others? Do others feel the way we do? Why do they all know what they are doing, whilst we don’t. Sonder is the Finnish word that encapsulates the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and deep as yours, even if you only get to see their faces throughout the window. Everyone behaves like they know what they are doing, but the truth is that they are all just swinging it, all the time. At the top level, politicians make tremendous mistakes when governing, and CEOs of Forbes 500 companies make silly mistakes daily in their lives.
The fact that even Chess Grandmasters make mistakes all the time should be a reminder that we can cut ourselves some slack.
Adam Smith, in his book Wealth of Nations, introduced the idea of specialisation for the first time: if we divide a complex task in lesser, simpler ones that can be coordinated and assigned to more people, then we as a society are able to produce faster, better, and cheaper. Since then, we have exhausted the idea of specialisation, up to a point that we are no longer aware of the ultimate contribution of our colleagues (not even our own) to the value chain of the companies that we work for, or the society that we belong to as a whole.
Instead, Romans used to seek something entirely different: to do as little as possible. Indolence was the greatest goal in life; to ditch the tribulations of the city, and march off to the countryside, where the well earned stipend would buy tranquility and peace of mind for the rest of our days. Nowadays, we thrive for a bigger car, a bigger house, and essentially, we are doing our best to Keep Up with the Kardashians’ lifestyle. We are bound for misery.
Buddhism is about reincarnation, but some people get this wrong; it’s not about living the same life over and over again, Hedgehog Day’s style. It’s about reincarnating into yourself one second at a time. To be fully present, and to value time for what it is: an irrecuperable, finite resource.
Our educational system focuses on the future; learn to be employable. Our work focuses on the future too; always thrive for more money, because money is how we keep the score. It’s only when we reach a tipping point, usually upon retirement, that we no longer have an appetite for learning and we no longer have to work that we realise that everything was in vain: your life has been squeezed out of you, and all you have in exchange are distant memories of your reckless youth.
Learning, then, must be done for the sake of it. Some would say that is meaningless; after all, we learn to apply what we learned. But that is what someone who has things that He Has To Do would say. Once you freed yourself from the utility of your knowledge, you start to realise that learning is enjoyable by itself, that pushing your mind and your body to its limits sets you in a different mindset. One where you’re no longer thriving for wealth, but for purpose, for something higher than yourself.
There are, then, two ways to look at life. One is that nothing has meaning.
We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are no questions left, and this itself is the answer.
The other one is that life does have meaning, one that you must seek for yourself. But if life has meaning, there is a burden that comes with it. A sense of responsibility that you cannot deny. So you have to behave yourself, you have to care.
If life has meaning, there is no time to waste with What We Have To Do.