The way the modern world expects us to live is kind of absurd. Around our early twenties, we are expected to choose the thing we are going to do for the rest of our lives, then we are expected to do the same job year after year until we drop dead, and be happy with it. The thing is, I’ve never really found this way of living appealing, because there are many things that interests me and I want to do all of them at the same time, but because of the way society expects humans to function it’s just not possible. It’s not possible to be a farmer in the morning, a chemist at noon, a computer programmer in the afternoon, a philosopher in the evening and a novelist at night. (Technically it is possible, but I don’t think there is an employer who will pay to do all those different things.)
I think this way of living developed due to two different ideas that somehow collided together through the course of history. First is the idea of the “calling.” Back when Christianity was still influential, it was believed that some people are “called” by God to serve him. This service took many forms, sometimes it was going into the desert and pray, but other times it was to do some important work such as caring for the poor, making beautiful artworks to glorify God or even doing practical work such as making furniture. However, it wasn’t expected that everyone has a calling, it was believed that only a few people are selected by God and the rest will do mundane things such as farming or cleaning dishes.
The second idea comes from the Industrial Revolution, and it was the discovery that division of labor and specialization increases economic output. The key notion here is “specialization.” If you make a person do the same thing over and over, that person will perform that task much more efficiently due to experience. This is a good thing for the productivity of the economy, but not necessary good for the individual. In such a system, an individual might get stuck in a job he or she may not like, but finds it difficult to change career because that person has only one or two skills they are very good at.
But if this idea of “specialization” causes so many problems, why do we all accept it? I think this idea of “specialization” merged with the older romantic version of the “calling.” Many of us do not believe in God, nonetheless we believe that what we should choose to do with our lives should come from something deep inside our soul, not something demanded by society. The idea of choosing a “career” is a very romantic one. When we choose a career, we are expected to first find “who we really are” and then find an occupation that fits the truth of our being.
The thing is that the search for a career first starts out as romantic, but it doesn’t (always) stay romantic. For some people, they choose a career became at first they find that career exciting, but as time goes on they discover the less enjoyable parts of the career, and eventually become jaded. It’s the equivalent of falling deeply in love with someone and getting eloped, but later discovering that the person you married is kind of a jerk and now you’re stuck with living with him or her for the rest of your life. I don’t think this always happens, but people do get stuck in a career they initially thought was good.
There’s another problem, when I look into myself I find that I am a lot of many different things. I am a scientist, a poet, a programmer and even gardener. Each of these identities is completely authentic, and choosing one means denying another. I don’t think this is a personal idiosyncrasy, I think many people would prefer to do more than just one thing throughout their lives.
I also have doubt as to whether the idea of “career” makes sense in the 21st century. During the Industrial Revolution “specialization” was one of the things that increased economic productivity, but that’s less of a case nowadays. The professions have become so specialized that people are often unaware of anything outside their narrow realm. Specialization have built walls between professions that shouldn’t be there. For example, the “science” of bioinformatics was developed because computer scientists and biologists are so unaware of what each other are doing. Bioinformatics shouldn’t exist if the two communities took more notice of one another.
With the Internet, it makes less sense to over-specialize. Knowledge is no longer scarce, it’s easier to find high-quality information on any subject, which reduces the need for formal education. But in order to actually make the 21st century possible, we need to rethink this particular notion, as well as a lot of other notions. We also need different institutions, both private and public, but this is outside the scope of this essay (and is probably far more controversial to discuss).