What is a Career, anyway? 

“Mr. Franz, I think careers are a 20th century invention and I don’t want one.”

– Chris McCandless

If you haven’t read Jon Krakaeur’s 1996 book Into the Wild or seen the film directed by Sean Penn or listened to the Eddie Vedder soundtrack, then your education as a man is already deficient. Chris McCandless is one of those people who causes a lot of great discussions about life, and his rejection of a career is noble. His rebellion against what most adult men want is an invitation to re-think what a career is to begin with.

The word comes from the Latin for “road,” and we all know that roads are not always smooth. It takes some improvising to navigate any course – especially life and finances.  And as strange as this may sound, a career is not about money (fine, or only about money), not even in our current economy. A career is about creating meaning for yourself – even if you’re not in love with the work you’re doing; in fact, especially when you’re not in love with your work. Find the meaning beyond the monetary, and from there you will become the kind of man who is attractive in all realms of his life.

True rebels travel their own roads and find deeper meanings beyond the pastures where most men, sheep-like, daily graze. And traveling your own road is a matter of creativity. Be open-minded and willing to adapt.

Versatility 

Bookie: I’m in the hole, I pay him two grand a week. There’s no profit, I pay him two grand a week.

Mr. French: Well make more fuckin’ money. This is America. You don’t make money, then you’re a fuckin’ douchebag.

[pulls out gun]
Mr. French: Now what you ganna do?
[kicks him]
Bookie: I’ll make more money!
Mr. French: That’s the spirit!

The dialogue here is from Martin Scorsese’s 2007 film The Departed. It’s a great scene, almost a bit of a throwaway. But the line by Mr. French is too good to pass up – “This is America.” America invented the gangster. Only a nation that, at its core, celebrates the individual can appreciate the gangster. Forget the crime aspect for a moment – think of it as a metaphor. Mr. French doesn’t want to hear about someone not making the weekly cut. He wants to hear that the bookie adapted to the economic conditions through being versatile.

Think about French’s words – “This is America.” He might as well be working for Nike and telling us to “Just do it.” A man’s life is about the struggle, about the fight. If being a man were easy, then everyone could lay claim to that title. But only a few of us live up to being men – making opportunities where none existed before.

No one ever said being a man was easy. In fact, the mantle of “man” should be bestowed only upon those male adults who consistently demonstrate the determination and courage necessary to overcome great adversity in life to reach their goals: Jim Brown, any role played by Clint Eastwood or Daniel Craig, Ayrton Senna, maybe even your own father, just to name a few. We build ourselves up only to deal with the bullshit of life that tries to make us feel small again. There are forces out there trying to crush us the moment we begin to live our lives boldly. To lead a life of dignity – especially economic dignity – one must have a plan, yet always be ready for variations based on what life brings to us unexpectedly.

French and McCandless – two outsiders of the American Dream. Yet only the outsiders, the rebels, can teach us how to live lives that are meaningful as we walk our roads full of twists and turns. By being both inside and outside of society, rebels speak words that awaken us to the deeper meanings of making a living.

Work

“I don’t like work–no man does–but I like what is in the work–the chance to find yourself. Your own reality–for yourself not for others–what no other man can ever know.”

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

When Joseph Conrad published these words in English (his third language!) in 1899, I’m not sure if even he fathomed the depth of feeling and knowledge beneath them. Conrad’s reminder to us saves us from becoming working stiffs in corporate structures that attempt to make each of us robots. The fancy word for this transformation is dehumanization. But once we find our own “reality” in the work we do, we are able to live like men, like people of conscience striving for more than a mere paycheck. What we’re talking about here is a complete life of fulfillment on both the material and the spiritual levels. And to insist on one’s humanity in light of the current economic climate might just be the strongest form of rebellion.

Let’s take a step back further in literary history to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, his whale of a novel published in the mid-nineteenth century. For the uninitiated, Moby-Dick chronicles, among many vast ideas, the revenge of Captain Ahab. Ahab loses his leg to the famed whale Moby Dick, and on his next voyage out he’s faced with a decision: to toe the company line and make money killing a vast number of whales or to seek personal satisfaction and find the whale who took his leg. He opts for the single whale, thus giving his work a personal meaning. The nerve and daring of this guy – such balls – to stand on a ship with one leg and to howl against the universe.  “Nantucket market! Hoot!” old Ahab spouts, not giving a damn for the marketplace, but seeking a meaning for himself in an otherwise impersonal world of profit and loss. Ahab then, in a moment of poetic and tragic grace, thumps his chest and says that his hunt for the white whale will fetch him the greatest price not in his wallet but his heart.

If literature teaches us anything, it’s that we have to make meaning of the world for ourselves. Only then are we able to live truly fulfilled lives. Passion for one’s work always translates into success.

The Ethics of Manism 

“In order to protect the sheep … you’ve got to go after the wolves. And to get the wolves …you’ve got to be a wolf. Are you a wolf or a sheep?”

– Detective Alonzo Harris

Detective Alonzo Harris portrayed by Denzel Washington

While the parable of the wolf and the sheep might make it seem we’re dealing with the Aesop Fables you read or didn’t read as a kid, we’re not. We’re dealing with adult life and the responsibilities of being a man. Detective Alonzo Harris, portrayed brilliantly by Denzel Washington in Training Day, earns an honorable mention in our rebel’s guide to careerism. While events don’t go quite as planned for Alonzo, his individuality is commendable. He’s a direct descendant of every gunslinger we see in the classic westerns cranked out by Hollywood. He’s a man with his own view of the world, and he never sacrifices his beliefs. Sporting his police shield and his cross, he is sacrificed for his beliefs.

While his actions are misguided, his words are spot on. “Only a wolf,” he later says, “can protect the sheep.” Alonzo’s fatal flaw, for Training Day adheres deeply to Aristotle’s idea of the tragedy, is hubris. He thinks he’s above the law, and he actually hurts those he should serve. But the idea of being a “wolf” who protects the “sheep” remains intriguing because it goes against what we see as the relationship between wolves and sheep. Yet when it comes to protecting those we serve, a man’s capacity to ward off aggression, while practicing restraint at home, is what’s needed to create safety for the lives we touch, for those who depend on us.

In all, Alonzo’s parable suggests that the core of being a man is the extent to which we can use our aggression to cultivate peace where sheep may safely graze. In other words, a man always stands up for himself and those he protects. Yet a man also understands that the drive and aggression necessary in establishing a career must be checked at the threshold when we come home to family and loved ones.

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