Blood Money and the Quest for Meaning
Idealism is for teenagers, 20somethings and suckers. At this rate, I’ll be 100 percent cynic by the time I hit 40.
Down here in D.C., lots of people say they “want to make a difference.” I don’t buy it, and I’m not sure I ever did. But somewhere in the fading memory of my youth, I recall caring about supposedly noble ideals, like wanting to work for a cause and helping other people. So what happened?
In journalism I learned to always follow the money. It’s all about cash, man. The motive behind most players in any story is getting paid. Skim through a newspaper and tell me I’m wrong. Why weren’t the nuclear power plants in Japan better prepared for the tsunami? Money. Or how about this headline: “Expanded NCAA bracket disturbs a perfect arrangement”? Why did they expand the tourney? Seriously, do you have to ask?
It’s the same deal with the daily hustle, aka “career.” A friend of mine recently spelled out her job requirements thusly: I want to do something intellectually-engaging, that’s not for an evil purpose, and I want to be well-compensated for it. I believe that, rationally if not emotionally.
The only problem for me and my 30something pals is figuring out where to draw the line–figuring out which gig is too immoral to stomach. Corporate law pushes the envelope. Sifting through paperwork to help a conglomerate renege on retirement benefits might be a bit much. How about pulling a Nick Naylor to do P.R. for Big Tobacco? Or being a private investigator of the corporate-espionage variety?
For most of us, however, the work question isn’t that extreme. It’s about choosing a paycheck over a calling. These are cost-benefit questions. We have lives outside of our jobs, more so than when we were in our twenties. Family, friends, hobbies, travel. You don’t need to get much value out your work these days, or at least that’s the story I’m sticking to.
Young journalists are often sanctimonious about their profession. I can’t stand the cloying cliche heard around the J-school set: Speak truth to power. That B.S. usually gets beaten out of journalists, if they actually work in the trenches. It’s hard to be an idealist covering crime and city hall. Wannabe pundits and Ivy Leaguers who get to the show without playing in the minors might be able to view their work in those naïve, arrogant terms, but I digress.
The bottom-line is that it’s a low-paying field that can fill its ranks because the gig is entertaining and provides plenty of ego-stroking. But at a certain point, unless you’ve “made it,” journalism doesn’t pay. And it’s not going to get easier, because the industry is collapsing.
The news business is dying because of its lack of money and the fact that it’s now prostituting itself to chase dollars. Follow the money. And many of the people remaining in journalism don’t have to worry about getting paid. (Look up “trust fund” and “Huffington Post.”)
Against that backdrop, I called it quits and left my reporting gig in January. I went to a work as a P.R. consultant for the industry I covered. Morally, I think I’m on firm ground. It’s a white-hat industry, trust me.
I like the work so far. But it’s been a tough adjustment. Despite my cynicism, there’s something pure about the concept, if not the reality, of journalism. You tell stories for a living, try to get at the truth, and don’t worry about the advertising side of the shop. My new work is a business.
A buddy of mine can relate. He’s a surgeon, and has considered going consultant so he can actually spend time with his family. But he’d leave behind a big chunk of his identity if he left medicine. Besides, surgeon sounds cooler than consultant. Reporter does, too.
I realize that sweating the meaning of your work is a problem of the privileged. White-collar types are more likely to have the luxury of existential angst. A cube farm tends to let the mind roam, or so I gather.
But that doesn’t make the dilemma any less valid. Maybe there are remnants of “make a difference” buried in my brain, somewhere. Nah, that’s probably just my ego talking.
With grown-up wages comes the spending trap. We’ve all seen it: A buddy starts making money and blows it like a pro athlete. Pricey mortgages, useless furniture, too much car, etc. And suddenly you need that whole paycheck.
A friend of mine recently bought me “The Freedom Manifesto: How to Free Yourself from Anxiety, Fear, Mortgages, Money, Guilt, Debt, Government, Boredom, Supermarkets, Bills, Melancholy, Pain, Depression, Work, and Waste.”
It’s a good read. The anarchist sentiments remind me of World Bank protesters I once saw flashing plastic at Starbucks. Fight the power! Give me a $4 latte! But I agree with decent chunks of the book, including its main messages on career (bullshit) and consumption (a trap).
What’s left for me and my friends, now that we’ve hit the realism of our late thirties, is figuring out what really matters and living in the present. In short, decide what you want and go get it. My wife and I like to joke around about moving to Italy someday. Maybe we should put that on our checklist of life, for reals?
Even better, perhaps there’s a gig out there where you can have it all. In my case, to write badass books and live where I want. That might not be realistic. But it can’t hurt to try. In the meantime, I plan to spend more time playing my guitar.