Dear Watson: When to Sell Out
I just graduated from college a few months ago and have had no luck so far in the job search. I had good grades and worked hard and did internships, but I just can’t find anything related to my interests or the stuff I studied. I’m also facing student debt (much less than most people, to be fair, but with an income of $0 the amount is basically irrelevant) and my parents are starting to pressure me to look at jobs that have nothing to do with my interests and even some which run against my personal beliefs (a job at a tobacco company recently for instance). Those jobs are hard to get too of course, but since there are a lot more of them it’d still probably increase my odds if I cast my nets wider like they’re suggesting. I’ve always been idealistic but it just feels like there’s no room for my beliefs or my sense of “dignity” in this job market.
I guess my question is, what exactly does it mean to “compromise yourself” and why shouldn’t I do it? I always thought that the reason was that going after money instead of following your interests wouldn’t make you happy in the end. I guess by that I mean that I thought that “compromising” WAS putting other stuff ahead of your happiness. But now that I’m in the position where the alternative to abandoning my beliefs is just being even MORE miserable (and possibly homeless), I realized that that can’t be it. I’m not sure what Im asking for, actually. I mean I understand if you don’t have an answer, maybe there isn’t one. I’d appreciate your thoughts though.
Just A Stat
Firstly, fuck you very much for sending me the hardest question of the year — but thanks for articulating it so well. I think part of the reason your question is so hard to answer is that what compromises you is something that very much varies from person to person. Some people describe being seen in places they find lame, or with people they don’t respect, as compromising, for example. And I guess if you feel that way, then it really is compromising to you. I, on the other hand, was once caught by my boss in the ladies’ room with my arm stuck half-way up the tampon machine, and didn’t find that even remotely compromising, although I suspect that she thought I should have. Thinking about it later, I realized that the reason I didn’t care was that I didn’t honestly respect my boss, and didn’t really mind if she thought I was a klutz or a klepto. If, say, rumors that I’d slept with Rick Santorum reached the ears of someone I respected — well, that would be compromising, I guess.
So one way to resist feeling compromised when your professional life puts you in places you don’t want to be is just to minimize the extent to which you care what other people think of you. As Maya Angelou put it, “No one can embarrass you without your consent.” The more independent you are, and the stronger your sense of your own beliefs and values, the harder it will be for other people to make you feel embarrassed or ashamed.
Other people aside, however, the ethical question remains. Is it compromising to you to work for a tobacco company, for instance? Taking it a step further, is it compromising if you don’t actively dedicate yourself to protesting the actions of these companies? My sense is that it is, actually. More than anything else,our ideals are what give us our sense of identity. But ideals don’t actually exist outside of our minds unless we live by them — that’s the only way to give them substance. So when you cave on stuff like that, you allow these people to take something away from you that was part of how you defined yourself.
That said, the tobacco companies will continue to exist, and to employ people, regardless of whether you work for them. And in theory, it’s possible to work for one of these semi-evil corporations and still retain a clear sense of right and wrong, still protest for what you believe in, and still remain intellectually independent — right? So maybe that’s not quite the line either.
A few years back I found myself asking a professor of mine a similar question. “You’re always telling us to travel and explore the world and work in bookshops or whatever if we have to,” I said, Manhattan in hand (a bit brusquely, if I remember right), “but what’s the difference, then, between working in a bookstore and hating your job and working in finance, or some other lucrative field, and hating your job? I mean, if it’s going to be short-term and you’re going to hate it either way, doesn’t the choice seem clear? Isn’t it a bit pretentious to choose poverty all the time?”
“The difference,” he said, “is that if you’re a broker or a paralegal or whatever — if you work in one of these socially-accepted, respectable fields — you’re much less likely to actually make it short-term. I’ve never known anyone who went into finance, for instance, for more than a year, and still managed to quit. You go in thinking that you don’t need other people’s respect, you don’t need thousand-dollar handbags and a fancy apartment, you’re going to pull one over ‘em and take the money and run — but then you start to get hooked, you start to justify what you’re doing, you start to look forward to being asked what you do and watching people go ‘wow,’ and suddenly, you can’t quit. I’ve seen it a million times. Whereas nobody ever got hooked on waiting tables. Yes, the money is shit, but you’re not compromising yourself, because you’re not risking your freedom.”
So now when I think about compromise I tend to think about that conversation. In other words, yes, I think it’s possible to take a job that in every respect appears compromising, but retain your sense of identity and your sense of independence and your sense of your own values. But I think it makes all of that a lot harder. In fact, this whole job market makes integrity a lot more difficult. It’s worth fighting for, though. You just have to dedicate all of your energy to remembering what matters to you and what you care about, regardless of what they make you wear to work and who you end up sharing a desk with. Stay free, stay yourself, keep your mind sharp and keep reassessing things. You’ll make it through.
Dear Watson is The Faster Times’ weekly advice column. You can reach Watson anonymously by writing to email@example.com.
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