The Ladder-Climbing Generation
*Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential - as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.*
— Bill Watterson, 1990 speech at Kenyon College
Someone, once again, is complaining about those misbehaving youngsters who don’t understand the value of hard work. He lampoons the advice to follow your passion, saying that young people are just scared of hard work. He makes the dangerously misinformed claim that burn-out is just a myth: “Burn out is just a rationalization for giving up early.”
For someone who seems so sure of what they’re talking about, it would be difficult for him to be more wrong. Following your passion doesn’t mean you do less work. It doesn’t even mean you’ll avoid doing boring things. A standard 9-5 job doesn’t require you to think. You drive to work, get told what to do by some guy in a suit for 8 hours, then go home. It’s about following instructions, not actually doing anything difficult. Most programmers are lucky, and have plenty of employers who give them interesting problems to work on. In fact, for calling his post “The Hacker News Generation”, he doesn’t seem to understand his audience very well. One of the current talking points is startups overworking their employees by expecting 80 hour work weeks, and how employees are trained to think this is ok.
That kind of seems like the exact opposite of an aversion to hard work.
Following your passion is immeasurably more difficult than climbing a corporate ladder. You usually work more hours for less pay, and often have to struggle to make ends meet. You have to do every part of your job, including all the mind-numbingly boring stuff, because there isn’t anyone else to do it. People who are following their passion enjoy it more because they’re doing something that’s important to them, not because they’re doing less work. An artist is the one drawing constantly, every day, barely making enough money to feed themselves. The guy at Microsoft writes a bunch of test code, checks it in, then gets lunch at the cafeteria. Where does this glorification of doing boring, repetitive tasks come from?
These people are busy climbing a ladder that society has put in front of them. They look out and see someone running around on the ground, away from the ladder, and become convinced they are hopelessly lost. Clearly, they don’t understand the value of ladder climbing. When they realize that other people don’t care about the ladder, they immediately conclude that these people don’t understand what’s important, because the only success they know of is the success they were promised by society at the top of the ladder.
A human being’s worth cannot be measured in dollars or promotions. To follow one’s dreams is not an act of cowardice, but rather one of incredible courage. To resist taking the easy way out, to avoid the routine of a 9-5 job, is to accept a life that is often filled with failure and hardship. The difference is that it will be a life worth living.