Posts Tagged ‘brainpickings’

‘What kind of person do you want to be?’: careers advice from Hunter S. Thompson

November 21st, 2013 No comments

The question ‘what do you do?’, asked by a new acquaintance and understood to mean, ‘what work do you do to earn money?’, has always annoyed me. Partly, I suppose, because I have never been able to give an answer I like, such as ‘writer’ or ‘astronaut’. But more because of the implication: that paid work is therefore the defining feature of my life, that tells others what kind of person I am. (Sometimes I’ll acknowledge that new acquaintances are just making conversation, but this is usually after I am annoyed, and many hours later.)

I found an interesting explanation for the source of my irritation in a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson in 1958, to a friend who wanted advice on what to do with his life. (The letter is from the fabulous newsletter, though it was originally from the equally interesting Letters of Note website.) Thompson writes:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

Which I take to mean: to answer the question ‘what do you do?’ with the simple statement of your job title, to think of yourself as mainly a teacher or a banker or a fireman is to diminish your sense of yourself.

When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

I see this in some of the book designers for whom I sometimes do freelance work. At the start of their career they were delighted to be a book designer, a highly-prized job – but after months, years, the job title means little to them but the payment of a salary. And yet this is the career that they have bound themselves to, with little option for development unless they strike out into something different – in other words, give up their career.

For Thompson the goal should be not a particular job or even a particular goal:

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

For me this is getting to the source of why satisfaction and self-esteem will never be found in a career, because paid work for an employer will always define the limits of how you can personally develop. And so Thompson’s advice is less about careers than about asking yourself what kind of person you want to be.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development).

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

(The original letter on Letters of Note seems to have disappeared from the site… but you can read more of the letter on this post.)