Have you ever heard the story about the fish and the water?
It’s from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College. He used this parable to start his address:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water? “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
It’s a simple but powerful story. It holds a significant truth that can be easily forgotten in our overstimulated world. As we move through life, we all, to varying degrees, run on autopilot, making decisions of massive importance without careful thought.
If your life is like mine was for many years, time is scarce, and commitments are abundant. We flit from one thing to another like a hummingbird zipping from flower to flower — so fast that in the blink of an eye our attention is a million miles away.
Instead of taking the time to apply deliberate thought to major things in our lives, it’s easy to just keep moving along the path that we established long ago.
But back when we set those goals, did we have the knowledge that we have today? Were our tastes and priorities the same? How about career goals? Did we have the same personal and family relationships? Did we have the same health concerns? What about political beliefs? The same morals?
Too Many Trees to See the Forest
In Wallace’s parable, the point is that we often overlook or are blind to the most important realities of our lives. They’re the most difficult to talk about. They require time, patience, interest, and deliberate thought. If they question cultural norms, we’d rather avoid them.
We move through life, and we act as we’ve learned we are expected to be. We conform to social norms without a second thought. We wave to our neighbors and trade pleasantries, but it’s a robotic, reflexive exchange. Most of the time we don’t even really mean what we say.
When we are fuming from an early morning nasty work email, and our neighbor asks how we’re doing, we don’t tell them we’re about to blow our lid. Even if we were tempted to do so, our assumption is that our neighbor either doesn’t really want to know, doesn’t have the time to hear our story, or wouldn’t want to be burdened with our emotional baggage.
The neighbor exchange is a simplistic example, but it’s a microcosm that applies much more broadly. We assume that many of our major life decisions are correct because they fit norms.
The Myth of the American Employment Contract
Think about the state of the jobs market today. Millions of workers have been furloughed or laid off from institutions of every size, in every industry, spread across every region.
In many ways, the fallout from America’s disjointed and inconsistent response to the coronavirus pandemic exposed our collective obliviousness to the reality of careers in America. Even though many workers experienced layoffs and a shrinking job market following the 2008 financial crash, once the market had settled, millions of workers bought back into the American employment contract myth:
Work hard, demonstrate your value and your employer will take care of you through the good times and the bad.
Perhaps, at one point in American history, employer actions inspired belief in this type of employment contract. But the days of golden parachutes are long gone (unless you sit at the very top).
When push comes to shove, as it inevitably does, workers are out on their ass without a second thought. When the ship is sinking, the captain is no longer concerned with saving the crew; instead, the captain cares about the ship. The crew has turned into dead weight that needs to be chucked overboard to increase the odds of saving the ship.
As Americans have absorbed longer work hours, higher stress levels, and the creep of work communications into our personal lives through smartphones (notably the worker is responsible for maintaining healthy boundaries), corporations have slowly been unburdening themselves of financial responsibilities to workers. Employers have used high-deductible plans to steadily shift healthcare costs to employees (causing many to delay or avoid care). Employer-funded pensions have become employee-funded 401(k)s. America is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (comprised of the 36 wealthiest nations) that does not have federally mandated paid vacation.
Admittedly, I’m a little condemning the ethical behavior of employers because I worked on industry thought leadership research about employer benefits for many years. The question, however, becomes if businesses and institutions have shifted employment power dynamics so much in their favor, should workers agree to play by the same rules?
Job hopping and contract work had already been growing trends before forced quarantines required employers to rethink their workforce. It’s probably time for workers to rethink whether or not they want to keep all their eggs in the corporate basket.
Employment in America, however, is but one example.
Success and Happiness (and Money)
In many Western cultures, success and happiness are closely associated with the accumulation of materials goods, wealth, luxury, and status.
I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Los Angeles. My father was a lawyer at a big bank. All things considered, my brother and I didn’t want for much. We lived a nice and comfortable life. But in my town of Pasadena, there were many who were far wealthier, including several of my best friends.
As I got older, pressure intensified to do well in school. This was always framed as something that would enable a better future. I needed to do well in junior high to get into a good high school, well in high school to enable a good college, etc. Suffice it to say that I was always looking three steps down the road.
Without any conscious awareness whatsoever, I had internalized a mental framework of success during these years. Every time that I achieved a milestone of success (say getting into a good high school), I received external validation and an immediate reminder to keep my eye on the future.
The goalposts were constantly moving down the field. Any happiness that I felt from achieving my goals was fleeting and soon replaced by the anxiety of needing to achieve something bigger and better. I brought this mindset to my career. Ever since the first day I entered the workforce, I was intent on climbing as high as I could, as fast as I could. Early on, I set my sights on becoming a senior vice president, managing people and making good money.
If I just achieved all those things, I thought, then I would finally be happy, content, and feel accomplished. Then I could finally stop reaching for the next big thing.
So, I worked. I worked hard, long, grueling hours. I outworked my colleagues. I took on the extra assignments. I volunteered for the difficult projects others avoided like the plague. I was so laser-focused on my goals and the track I’d created for myself — that I was blinded to anything else. I didn’t consider a need to build up my life outside of work.
I climbed faster than most. I made SVP. I reached a high salary for my industry. I managed the corporate reputations of massive Fortune 500 companies. I had achieved all of my goals. But something was wrong. I wasn’t happy, satisfied, or fulfilled at all.
I was absolutely miserable. The if “work hard,” then “very happy” equation was a sham.
The pressure of my role was unmanageable. My life outside of the office was in shambles. I couldn’t hold a relationship. My anxiety was through the roof. I had begun to abuse alcohol. I had become a chameleon people pleaser and lost track of who I was and what I stood for.
My need to constantly achieve more never went away. By following the social norms I’d absorbed as a child, I had doomed myself to chase a fading horizon. I had raced through my life for over a decade completely oblivious to how I felt about anything I was experiencing.
I’d forgotten to stop and ask myself if I was happy, if I was fulfilled, if I found what I was doing meaningful, if I should even endure more client abuse. I’d sold myself a lie, and my decisions had become automatic. A terrible job became: “that’s just how it is — everyone hates their job.”
I’d completely forgotten about the water.
Coronavirus Wake Up Call
For those of us taking our nation’s current dire outlook seriously, the fallout from coronavirus does have a silver lining. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been bad.
Job loss, death of relatives, months of isolation, financial insecurity, media hyperbole, mass social unrest, and outright political terrorism have all been panic worthy each individually.
It’s shaken us out of our rut and afforded the opportunity to sit up and take a look around. Many of us have been asking whether or not we like where we are today.
Is what I’m doing making me happy? Do I even value the goals that I set before? Should my priorities shift? Do I focus enough on the development of my personal life? Should I pursue my dreams while I can?
That’s what I did. That’s why my business card is crumpled up at the bottom of a garbage can. Life is too short to waste chasing a promise that doesn’t pay off.
I’m responsible for making my own happiness, and that means constantly paying attention to how the water feels. If I don’t like it, then it’s time to go find another patch of ocean.