For Love or Money or Necessity

From The Wall Street Journal: April 23, 2008:

“Must I Bank” by Jonathan Knee

I’ve been thinking a good deal about my Engineering vs. Liberal Arts post earlier this week, and couldn’t help but remember this great column by Jonathan Knee from just about three years ago.  Harken back to 2008 and you will remember the first rumblings of approaching economic challenges, and the first waves of impact in the financial sector where life as it had been known was about to lose a lot of luster.  Careers were changing, some were ending.

The passage that leapt out at me, and why I committed Knee’s article to memory, is a cogent but quietly profound quote from the existentialist Rainer Maria Rilke which he cites.  In “Letters to a Young Poet” Rilke writes:

“This most of all: ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

In Knee’s analysis that followed, he framed the business context with poignant clarity: “Rilke warned of the hardships of his chosen craft, arguing that if the poet could even imagine living without writing, he would be better off doing so.”

I remember this same discussion growing up time and again with musicians, comedians, authors, dancers, and actors.  Why did they do what they did, why would they choose a life where hardship was the norm?  The answer in every circumstance was quite clear, they did not choose the hardship at all, who would purposely be such a maniacal masochist?  They did what they did because they could not imagine doing anything else.  They did not choose their path, except in acknowledging that the discipline chose them.  If you could do any other thing for a living than follow the path of the gift and be happy, why wouldn’t you?  You would.

Knee applies this same rigor to the discussion of career choice, in this instance, the path of the investment banker.  Yet Knee’s thought pattern travels well beyond that of the investment banker, beyond financial services, to career at large.  Must You Do what it is you are doing?  If not, then can you make a choice that is a better or closer fit to what it is you are supposed to be doing or could be doing.  Knee is not impractical in what he suggests, he knows we all have bills to pay and responsibilities to meet, he simply asks us to consider the extreme case to make sure that we are thinking actively instead of passively, and at least considering if that which we are doing is by selection, momentum, or the well placed secret traps of the pigeon-hole.

We may choose to study liberal arts or engineering, and we may choose the path of a profession.  The choice to change is always present, but really, it is not much of a choice if we force ourselves to be honest and think about the concept of Must.

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