You are Bigger Than Your Career — The Stalin’s Chicken
The Soviet novelist, Chingiz Aitmatov recounted a story in one of his articles written near the end of the failed Marxist movement in Soviet Union.
In 1935, Stalin invited his trusted senior advisors and some media henchmen to a meeting with intent to make a point using the most evocative of methods. When everyone was gathered at the barnyard, he called for a live chicken and vigorously clenched it in one hand. With the other hand, he then began to pluck out the chicken’s feathers in handfuls. The poor bird squawked under the torment but Stalin kept at denuding the chicken until it convulsed with agony. Remarkably unperturbed by the feeling of disgust obvious on the faces of the people too afraid to express their unease to the dictator, he continued until the chicken was completely unfeathered.
He then put the bird down by a small heap of grain and stood up to finish the last act while the people curiously observed the chicken move towards the grain. As the chicken started to peck, Stalin put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out another fistful of grain, putting it out in front of the wounded bird. To the utter surprise of the transfixed spectators, the chicken managed a weak-kneed stagger back to Stalin and started to peck the fresh grain right out of the hand that moments ago had inflicted unbearable pain on it. Stalin had made his point — loud and clear.
He turned to the people and said, “People are like this chicken. It doesn’t matter how much pain you inflict on them. The moment you offer them what they need, they will still follow you and turn to you for their survival.”
To me this anecdote has another, slightly different meaning. It is not ‘despite’ the pain that Stalin inflicted on the poor bird, but ‘because of it’ that it followed him. This explains the working of weak minds — animals’ as well as humans’. Our minds become slaves to those we see as having total power to control us and to cause pain to us. We are quick to give up control of ourselves to those who have the power to rule us as long as they also have the power to feed us. This is the fundamental construct of a feudal society.
The series of events that transpired since the industrial revolution determined the dynamics of today’s social and economic hierarchies. The world saw a polarizing division between the powerful and the weak. It got divided into those who controlled the factors of production and those who worked for the former and depended on them for survival; the employer and the employee — the haves and the have-nots if you will.
The private control of capital coupled with a liberal new structure for the free-market made the poor rich and the rich richer. Private enterprises boomed and commercial ownership got decentralized, but something else happened as well. Amid the much-ballyhooed advent of private business ownership and birth of the ‘corporation,’ a parallel layer in the economic hierarchy was created — those who controlled the owners of private businesses. Paradoxically, it was the centralization of decentralization, the former being invisible to the masses. This was the new face of feudalism.
This made the working class dream a mere fantasy. There was no way you could rise up the ranks to be among the top economic powers by working for the private enterprise. That was simply not part of the deal. Instead, you would be given a certain dollar amount for the time you spent away from your family at the cost of your holistic wellbeing; and with that money, you may buy whatever you wish to buy — goods produced by the same private enterprise — in order to survive and stay healthy enough to turn up for work the next morning. But you dare not demand anything more. Capitalism was born.
With that, we all became salary slaves — too afraid to raise our voices against our providers and oppressors, lest we be laid off. We had willingly given up our freedom in exchange of economic security. Our inner calling and our human purpose took the back seat because for us a more pressing issue was to put food on the table for our children. We did not control the land, nor the industry built atop the land, nor the labour who worked there. We were that labour, and we did not control ourselves. We did not control our time, or our actions. The dream of finding our inner calling was lost forever. And we were so busy surviving that we forgot to live.
People started defining their self-worth by the name of the corporation they worked for. The more reputable the brand name, the more accomplished they felt. And then they were nothing more than what they did between 9:00 to 5:00 in order to survive; it became their identity as their real human identity got lost somewhere in the smoke of the chimneys from all the factories. This breed of employees comprised of millions of educated and uneducated individuals, men and women, who were so ignorant of the potential of their minds and spirits that they had proudly set the bar low for themselves.
The truth is, we are like Stalin’s chicken, pecking the grains out of our tormentor’s hand in order to barely survive. We call this our ‘career’ and adorn our chests with it like shiny badges of chivalry. It is a great complement to call someone career-oriented, not worrying too much about what the tradeoff involves. The truth is that the very definition of modern career is an exchange of one’s freedom for sustenance.
For some among us, the measure of a successful life is more than a career. I call them the first dancers. They are bigger than their careers, and their true self is unshackled not when they have figured out how to best meet his physiological needs, but when they don’t have to worry about their physiological needs anymore. They can put the incredible faculty of their minds to more productive and meaningful uses than to make a living. It surely helps to be economically independent, but such a person does not need to be outrageously opulent to make the transition into a career-free life, he merely needs to be reasonably self-sufficient and content with his material wellbeing.
An additional complexity may arise even after you have insulated your financial position from the ups and downs of your career. That complexity is over-reliance on your knowledge and skills to earn your income. Recall how earned income is essentially based on the work you do — your active employment of your skills, education and talent. This unfortunately is dependent on the demand for your skillset which may change with time, thereby affecting your ability to generate earned income.
As I have explained in my book, there is a good rationale of diversifying your sources of income (whether earned, passive or portfolio) into primary sources of value. That would include natural resources like land, energy sources and minerals. The kind of financial independence that arises from such diversification is far more sustainable over the long run and helps you concentrate on achieving your true human potential without needing to worry about building a career. Over the long term, this freedom gives you the leeway to experiment with your talents and to focus on what you think is truly meaningful in life. Using your mental and physical faculties to achieve your purpose in turns helps you improve your health and wellbeing. So all it takes to get your life back is to stop being a chicken.
Majid Kazmi is an author, social entrepreneur, banking professional, and board member based in Toronto, Canada. He is the Founder & CEO of Valu Ventures Inc., a unique social enterprise that helps immigrants start and grow their businesses in Canada.