Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.



Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.