Working for Prestige vs. Working for Play

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. – Henry David Thoreau

As a young 20-something old, I often bump into people with whom I went to school with. When I ask them about how their job is going, I hear a lot platitudes. I hear about the sheer importance of the work they are doing. I hear about the high profile client they are working for. I hear about impressive brands of the people they work with (what schools they went to, who they are related to). I hear about the parties they get to attend from work in the after-work hours. I hear about all the perks of the job: new cell phones, latest gadgets, hotels and taxis paid for by the client or company, the expensive wardrobe they get to wear. They mention about the upgrade in their tastes.

I hear about all the doors their job will open for them. In other words, I hear all about The Dress Suit Bribe they’ve taken.

    You know what’s missing though?

They don’t talk about the job itself. They don’t mention what they actually do! Ask them about that and they tend to freeze up. It starts getting uncomfortable for them. Words like “yeah…I mean, it’s good man.” And then they go back to talking about the sheer importance of the work they are doing.

I think it’s remarkable that so many smart young people are resigned to the work itself. Maybe I’m completely stupid and off the mark here. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. And please leave a comment if I’m wrong or misguided in my thinking. I’ll gladly eat my words. I definitely want to be wrong. But it has become my understanding that most of us are leading lives of quite desperation inside. We’ve bought the dress suit bribe.

Famed VC Paul Graham mentions in “How To Do What Your Love”:

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…

The other big force leading people astray is money…

The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.

I’ve brought this up a few times (or been tempted to). The response I usually get, with very gritted teeth, is the idea that you have to “pay your dues.” That you have to “work hard.” It’s not so much the idea of hard work that bothers me as the place from which these people speak from.

I’ve seen absolutely passionate people dissolve into their work. They love what they do. They would do it even if they didn’t get paid to do it. “Paying your dues” becomes just “playing your dues” with these people. I think if we are to create a new renaissance in society, this is the type of work we must pursue. If we want truly extraordinary people, then to go through The Dip (The long, tough slog through mediocre-ville) requires that we pick something we can endlessly play with.

It is difficult. I certainly know. But I think I am at the place where I can work for play; work that I know will be profitable and of value to society. In the meanwhile, I must keep playing more.

Leave your comments. I’d love to read what you’re thinking.

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