The time goes too quickly. Four weeks isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but for me it’s the longest time I’ve stayed in another country. And as Buenos Aires becomes more familiar and homelike to me, I am preparing for the next leg of my journey. At 5 tomorrow morning, I fly to Ushuaia, “the city at the end of the Earth.”
My time here has been vibrant and full, my project at Proyecto’Ace is essentially complete (though I’m ruminating on how else I want to evolve it). I’ll write a post soon about this project and the amazing, invaluable experience the people at Proyecto’Ace have given me. But first, I need to backtrack a little to how I even got to this point.
In August 2014, I quit my job at a manufacturing company, quite possibly at a time when my life was the most comfortable it had ever been. Life-wise, nothing scary was happening, no horrible financial stresses, no family illnesses/deaths, no tense relationships, etc. Career-wise, I was on a good-looking track. I cared about what I was doing: finding ways to eliminate waste and grow and improve the company. I got paid to be a “change agent,” more or less, at a time when many jobs are designed to finish task lists and maintain the status quo. I worked tirelessly and persistently and was rewarded for it. I got a promotion. I had terrific managers who mentored and invested in me. I got to share my voice on the importance of continuous education, and while maybe that should just be a given, it’s important to not take for granted having the right and ability to exercise one’s values in the workplace. Not everyone has that luxury. I parted on such great terms with my managers to the point that I questioned what kind of a self-righteous asshole I had to be to walk away.
Was there shit I didn’t like? Of course, lots of it, but there is very little in life that’s worth doing that doesn’t come with duress. Things that make us angry or frustrated are not our enemies as long as we know how to channel our energies; indifference is the real devil.
But I’m an artist!! Was this really what I wanted, to work in the corporate world and be a part of a system? “Want” isn’t really the issue, I’ve learned. Despite our greatest proclamations, few of us truly know what we want, and who I am, how I work, what I philosophically believe in, doesn’t change depending on what I’m doing. Lean manufacturing became my art in the past year. Process improvement in business is no different than one’s handling of a paint brush or a pen. Teaching has always been an art. Learning how to lead, when to let others lead, this, too, is an art that can only be learned in organizing with other people. If the only job I could get was as a trash collector, then keeping the city clean would be my art. The strength of my identity as a creative does not depend on the time I can spend holed away in a studio surrounded by paints and picturesque paraphernalia. Of course, I could only come to understand that by having something else consume my time, and then to see how my visual language has evolved even in dormancy.
So what was the big problem?
For me, it was a question of depth and motives. Things looked good on paper, but on a deeper level I was conflicted. On the one hand, I believe I worked with good people who genuinely wanted to clean up this old company and make it great. On the other hand, I dislike the corporate hierarchy. No matter how well your managers treat or try to treat people, no matter how great the intentions, no matter how great the interest in service of of others, hierarchy breeds a limited mindset, layers that hide and manipulate information, and narrow perspectives. The pro is you know where the floor is, and you can’t fall lower than that, even if you fuck up at your job. The con is that you know where the ceiling is, too, and it doesn’t matter how high up anyone is in the organization. The law of the lid still applies.
We are taught in our societies that having a job is important and that the importance of our jobs directly correlates with our ambition to move up. We are taught that it’s not just what you know, but who you know, and even those with the best intentions and greatest integrity get caught in the race to the top. Here’s the Catch-22. You cannot be heard unless you rise to power, and you rise to power by appealing to the interests of those with more rank than you have. You earn accolades by accomplishing the objectives set by the top, not so much by improving conditions for the bottom. The more you get to share your own voice, the more out of touch you become with those you truly need your service. And so the imbalance of power perpetuates.
The nobler part of me quit because I have no interest in ascending to a “good enough,” comfortable life, with a nice house and a white picket fence and enough dispensable income to drink my problems away after 5. While there’s something to be said for proving your worth and earning respect, particularly as a woman, I feel conflicted about receiving any special treatment, even if I did work hard to earn them. I don’t want to sit at a conference table and be a “have” talking about how to make things better for the “have nots.” I don’t want to give PowerPoint presentations lecturing at people about how I know what’s best for them.
And while it can seem counterintuitive to let go of a thing you have fought hard for, even just a few months of distance has reframed my perspective dramatically. I’ve had the time to pursue other opportunities that have enhanced my skills exponentially faster than I was able to before. I’ve gained a confidence in my discipline as an independent worker.
The less noble part of me, frankly, led me to quit because I’m a control freak. I love my freedom to a fault. The reality of working for a company is that everything you do, they own. Every hour of hard work you give them earns you the privilege of doing a harder hour of work to make somebody else richer, and though it’s nice to say, “I don’t need a lot of money to be happy,” it’s undeniably perverse to dedicate your service to lining bigger pockets without really, deeply, understanding why all this work matters in the first place. Companies today want speed and efficiency at the cost of purpose. Who cares how fast you are if you don’t understand what you’re running for?
But as George Orwell kindly informs us, freedom is slavery. I’ve had to eat a lot of humble pie in the last few months. As free as I am to conduct my own schedule and pursuits, I realize that my ability and opportunity to work with other people either greatly enhances or limits what I can accomplish. On my own, I may be in control, but there is no one to make up for my weaknesses. There is no ceiling on my potential, and with it, I’ve lost the grounding to break my fall.
Finally, I simply had the privilege to quit, so I took it. I’m single, in my twenties, and have no dependents. And even without these great conditions, I’m lucky that my life experience has made it easier for me to be flexible and to know that there is very little in this life we can actually lose. Few have the education and perspective to know they can change what they do, and even fewer have the mindset coupled with the opportunity. I can’t count the number of times I questioned whether it was right for me to take this privilege, but in the bigger picture, it is terrible and misguided to let the weight of your conscience limit your potential. Our energy is not best used worrying about what others cannot do, but rather on what each of us can.
In the past few months, some people have called me brave for being willing to quit without knowing what’s next, and others most definitely think I’m a reckless idiot. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few months, it’s to trust as much in the counterintuitive as we normally would the obvious or the sensible. To be in control requires a willingness to let go of control. To have stability and security requires that we not need either. To grow, we must always be questioning, always be listening, without needing to find the answers we are searching for.