Two years post-Carleton: musings on life path and choices

It is coming up on two years since leaving Carleton, and already it seems so much longer than that. I feel old now – not as though I am aging (though losing my hair doesn’t help) – but old in the sense that I would feel awkward at a Carleton party or a gathering of undergrads. Carleton provided a limited number of choices: which three classes to take the next term, what to major in, which comps topic to consider, but beyond that the structure was set in place, so that any possible combination of those choices would lead equally to success, or at least to learning, intellectual stimulation, and satisfactory progress toward graduation. Now it seems that there are an infinite number of options available, most of which are not specifically made known to me. And while I have more or less enjoyed the things I have done since graduation (BLM job in Wyoming, part-time homeopathic mint packing, prescribed burn work, bird surveys, prairie plant surveys, and now molecular biology in pursuit of biological hydrogen), I have not yet found the thing that matches my soul desires. Partly, I don’t know exactly where to look, and partly our modern society has partitioned tasks into ever-smaller subsets and specializations such that very few jobs contain sufficient variety that I would enjoy them in the long run. I will find out in the next months whether I enjoy molecular biology work, but I already know that I will not want to make a career of it.

While I am excited about alternative energy, I am less excited about working in a lab indefinitely. Perhaps my career will be related to energy, perhaps not, but anything that I am to enjoy doing for many years must satisfy all of the following criteria (the first twelve are about work, the last five are about where I live):

1. Low-stress/non-competitive. I have had enough of stress and competition in school and college. I am tired of having to prove myself in order to get recognition/admission/grant money/etc.

2. Discrete, reasonable time requirements. The work cannot require an unreasonable time commitment such that I am unable to lead a balanced, somewhat self-sufficient life. Ideally it will be structured such that there is a clear delineation between work time and my own time, so that I do not feel pressured to work during my own time.

3. Environmental benefit. I will absolutely not work in a position that is harming the planet, and anything I do needs to make a noticeable difference in regard to improving the natural environment or our relation to our environment, ideally both.

4. Tangible product. I need to be able to see what I have done, at least some of the time. This rules out positions that produce only ideas or involve transfer of abstractions (e.g. banking). My Arb guide was perhaps my best example of this, and I thoroughly enjoyed that project.

5. Permanent or first-time product. I do not enjoy fighting entropy. Of course some maintenance is always necessary, but I do not want the majority of my work to be renewing something old that must be renewed on a regular basis (e.g. road construction). There is no creativity in that.

6. Not in a category. I do not want to fill a position that places me in a grouping of more-or-less interchangeable people all doing the same thing. This criterion alone rules out ~90% of available work. Basically this means I do not want to work for someone who hires me to do a specific thing, and who could hire anyone else with a similar skill set to do the same thing.

7. Variety. This means either a variety of tasks or discrete projects, or perhaps the same task applied to situations sufficiently different. At least some of the variety must be unpredictable. A good way of ensuring unpredictable variety is to work outdoors part of the time, since the weather is ever-variable and provides interest to even the most repetitive work. There is way too much repetitive labor in this world. This includes, among my experiences, vegetation surveys and mint-packing.

8. Community. The environment in which I work should be brought together by common interest and managed as a collaboration between all involved. No bosses. No employees. At least not in the normal sense. No hiring people simply because they possess a skill set. Certainly different people will bring different skill sets, but the understanding must be that everyone has the capacity to be creative and to think for themselves. Ideally, financial compensation will be equal for all or at least based on a criterion (such as seniority) that does not value one type of work more than another. An ideal situation might be an intentional community united around a common goal.

9. Fair compensation for a meaningful contribution. I am rather tired of being poor. My needs have always been met, so I have been happy with little money, but I would like to be able to afford my own home and reliable, green equipment and appliances. I would also like a little extra to set up a zero-impact energy system based on solar panels, batteries, and possibly hydrogen storage. That all takes money. I see money as society’s payment to me for my services for society. Therefore my services must be valuable enough to others that they feel satisfied paying me and do not feel that they are overcharged. This means not being paid out of tax money (not working for the government or off of government-supported science grants) and contributing something to society that others find valuable and are willing to pay for.

10. Non-repetitive travel. There is very little that I enjoy more than plotting out a course to new territory and setting out to find it. I also enjoy having a firm connection to a “home,” so I don’t want to be always on the road. But I would like it if my life’s work regularly took me to new and unfamiliar places, perhaps to teach something, to demonstrate or install something (alternative energy device?), or to collect data on something (not as good since I am not contributing).

11. Intellectual challenge. I enjoy thinking about problems and finding novel or optimal ways to solve them. This needs to be balanced with hands-on work, so that I am not over-working my mind. School and jobs related to school (e.g. professorships) provide intellectual challenge but without appropriate balance.

12. Outdoor work opportunity. I will not take a job that involves working in an office/lab/factory/other building all day every day. I have worked jobs that are outdoors all the time, and while I can do that I would prefer a balance. If the work is mainly indoors, it should at least have frequent opportunities to step outside to maintain a sense of connection to the changes in the weather and the cycles of nature.

13. No cities. I am not a fan of unnaturally large groupings of people, and I like to have my personal living space to garden, have bonfires, watch the stars, etc. Working in a town or city is fine so long as I can get there from my home in a reasonable amount of time (half hour or less ideally), and my home is in a rural or semi-rural setting.

14. Progressive, environmentally-aware, spiritual culture. I would like to live among others with similar ideas and lifestyles, in a community based on sustainability, trust and mutual respect. This could be an island within a predominantly different culture (e.g. a neighborhood or intentional community), but ideally it will be a larger community. The presence of others with similar spiritual beliefs would be a big plus, and open minds are a necessity. There are a number of such communities across the U.S. Many are in big cities where I would not choose to live, but there are quite a few small, progressive towns with farmers’ markets, hippie-types, contra dances, community choirs/opportunities to make music together, bike commuters, etc. The first ones that come to mind are Asheville (NC), Ithaca (NY), Boulder (CO), Eugene/Corvallis (OR), Bloomington (IN), and Santa Cruz (CA). There are probably many more, including some small ones like Crested Butte (CO). I suspect that more places will fit in this category as society moves in this direction (hopefully), but for now I am attracted to such places.

15. No oppressive heat. I do not enjoy being outdoors in 90+ degree weather. Folks in southern climes survive by living in air conditioned habitats. I would rather not do that. A few hot days are OK. Phoenix is not. I would prefer a climate without long winters devoid of life, but that is not a deal-breaker. I still have a love for the experience of deep cold and windblown snow.

16. Rain. I need to be surrounded by living things, and to be able to grow things. I enjoy visiting deserts but not living in them.

17. Wilderness/natural areas nearby. I need to be able to set out alone to undisturbed lands with no people, in order to reaffirm my connection to nature and to the energies of this planet. That is, some would say, my version of going to church.

So, how does my current situation stack up? All five living situation criteria are satisfied. That is good, and as expected since I chose this semi-rural spot on the edge of Corvallis precisely because it met those criteria. #14 is only partially satisfied, since I would like to be more integrated into a community of like-minded folks. #17 is also only partially satisfied, since I would prefer to have a natural area on my property (e.g. at the valley house) or a short walk away (e.g. the Arb), making it easy to visit these places daily or regularly. I can envision a living situation I would like better than my present one, but it will probably have to wait until I have more money (#9). For now, I am content where I am.

As for my work, #3, 5, 6, and 11 are fully satisfied. Given that we are so far from having a useful product, #3 is not always immediately evident. #1, 2, 7, and 9 are partially satisfied. The stress level is much lower here than at Carleton, but there are still expectations and professor-student inequalities. The time requirement is largely up to me, which is better than Carleton but will require time management skills to achieve a good balance. Most grad students work too many hours. #4, 8, 10, and 12 are not satisfied. We may have a tangible product in the future, but it is at least a few years off. The other three will almost certainly not be realized as a grad student or worker in this field. Hence my statement that I don’t plan on doing lab work forever. But at this point I can’t say I have a good idea as to what sort of career would satisfy all of my criteria, and what steps I need to take to get there.


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2 Responses to Two years post-Carleton: musings on life path and choices

  1. Pingback: Criteria, revisited | Musings from Mark

  2. Nick Riordan says:

    Mark! Yes, right, well I saw your name while reading back-issues of the Archdruid Report while mending a broken ankle. A pleasant surprise, fond memories of MN days. All the best with your green endeavors. Holler if you set a course for Alaska. You’d be most welcome.

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