I started my first professional librarian job fifteen years ago this week. Fourteen years and nine months ago I was already making plans to leave either it or the profession, mostly in response to one person who seemed determined to destroy my happiness and career. Fortunately for me, the tiny number of people who have tried that over the years have underestimated my resilience. Professionally, I’ve had such good fortune overall that I don’t even think badly of them anymore when I bother to think of them at all, and their small number is overwhelmed by the many great librarians I’ve enjoyed working with.
When I started drafting this post, it was meant to be a reflection of where I see myself now that I’m a middle-aged, mid-career librarian. However, as the draft progressed, it became as much about how my career has been influenced by the two philosophical traditions that have personally affected me the most–existentialism (esp. Nietzsche) and Daoism–and how they have shaped my career and my satisfaction with it. I’m not sure the two philosophies are completely compatible, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
I first encountered existentialism when I was 18 or so, and I generally credit my engagement with it for saving my life, since I was one hopeless, depressed, semi-suicidal mess who didn’t mind believing it was all the world’s fault. At its most basic, existentialism teaches that people are “condemned to be free,” that our very existence forces us to make choices, those choices define who we are and give meaning to our lives, and ultimately we are responsible for those choices, even if we choose not to choose. People often find this anxiety-provoking and they seek to avoid being responsible for their own choices or they believe something else defines them instead. They’re living in bad faith. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a grand ideology, often religious or political, that they believe relieves them of choice. Sometimes they reduce themselves to a limited role where they deny they have choices. Sometimes they conform to the herd, desiring the right job and the right house and the right car and the right clothes and the right lifestyle to impress their fellow sheeple on whose opinion they base their self-worth, or else feeling sad or angry when they don’t achieve those things. Sometimes they believe that they are essentially a certain kind of person (e.g., good or smart or nice) and that this imagined essence defines them regardless of their choices and actions. Sometimes they seek to blame something or someone for their condition: it’s God’s fault, or the Devil’s fault, or the government’s fault, or society’s fault, or their parents’ fault, or their spouse’s fault, or they were just following orders. They believe it’s always someone or something else’s responsibility for their situation and the consequences of their choices, when really it’s the choices we make and continue to make that define our characters.
Everyone faces limitations, and sometimes those limitations can overwhelm us, but we still choose how to respond to our situations. If I’m in a bad situation, and I choose to do nothing to change it, then I’m in effect choosing to remain in that situation, or at least choosing to live in it without protest or without adapting sensibly. Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre lived under the Nazi occupation of Paris. They couldn’t overthrow the Nazis by themselves, but they could damn well join the French Resistance. We’re thrown into existence and the world owes us nothing, and no amount of wishing, hoping, or magical thinking will change that. Regardless, whatever happens, the ultimate responsibility for how I react to my situation lies with me. Do I choose to commit suicide, or to continue living (which Camus considered the only serious philosophical question)? Do I become overwhelmed by a meaningless universe that owes me nothing, or engage in creative projects that give my life meaning? Do I remain depressed about the state of the world and my place in it, or do I accept that life and the world will never be perfect and then suck it up and do what I can? Do I retreat into comforting illusions, or face hard truths? Do I live like “they” want me to live, or do I go my own way? Do I wallow or do I act?
Do I choose to remain a miserable slacker and blame other people for not recognizing my supposed inner worth, or to ignore the herd entirely, to overcome myself, try to “give style” to my character as Nietzsche puts it in this famous passage from The Gay Science (Kaufmann trans.):
One thing is needful.— To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it.
Because whichever I choose is up to me, and the choices I make create the person I am, whatever comforting lies I might otherwise tell myself. While some people find this freedom terrifying, I found it invigorating. I could no longer blame the world for my being in it or indulge some magical hope that everything would suddenly be better someday. It took a while, but eventually I realized it was up to me to become who I am, and instead of killing me it made me stronger.
Professionally, freedom and bad faith play out in various ways. For example, in that first job with the adversarial colleague I had several choices. I could silently submit and believe someone else’s low opinion of me meant I was worth less than I believed, or I could just quit, or I could sit home complaining all the time and blaming that other person for my misery, or I could fight back, or I could try to get a better (and not just a different) job. I chose the latter two (although there was definitely some complaining at home as well). I fought back vigorously and I started looking for a better job. With several criteria for what sort of library I wanted to work in, I applied for only three jobs that I thought suitable, and after three interviews and eleven months of fretting later I got the job I have now, or at least a previous version of it. I have definitely faced some adversity along the way in this job; such is inevitable. However, instead of just sitting around complaining (although I’ve done some of that as well), I’ve tried my best to take action to improve my situation. Sometimes I’ve taken risks, including at least one that could have seriously derailed my career had things gone differently, but if I hadn’t taken those risks I’d have been responsible for choosing not to take them and remaining in a situation I didn’t like but could try to change. I’ve known librarians (and non-librarians) over the years who spend a lot of time complaining and blaming other people for their situations who haven’t done much to change themselves or the situation. Those people are living in professional bad faith.
Sometimes we make all the changes that we possibly can, though, and then we have to decide how to live in the world that remains. Do we keep complaining, or do we just let it go? Do we rage against the world or wander free and easy? That’s where the Daoism comes in. My yellowed copy of the Penguin Classics Tao Te Ching [I use whichever transliteration the edition I’m referring to uses] was with me in college as much as volumes of Nietzsche or Camus, although not as well understood until the last few years. Numerous passages can be related to work, but I’ll try to be brief. Here’s one chapter from the Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell trans.), chapter 24:
He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. He who has power over others can’t empower himself. He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.
The translations vary, but I picked Mitchell’s because of the emphasis on just doing your job and then letting go. If you can make positive changes to yourself, your situation, or your library, then make them, but at a certain point the ability to make positive changes will stop, and after that it’s best to just let things go. Learning to just let them go has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a librarian and a person, but a lot of times now I can and I believe I’m happier and healthier because of it. Learning to let go is also a choice, and one that can be consciously made, but it has to be made over and over again. And if you don’t want to learn to let go, then you want things to just keep nagging at you. That’s a choice, too.
It’s easier if you don’t get too wrapped up in your own importance. Here’s another translation of the same chapter from the Daodejing (Ames and Hall trans.) that emphasizes arrogance and pretentiousness more:
Blowhards have no standing, the self-promoting are not distinguished, show-offs do not shine, braggarts have nothing to show, the self-important are here and gone. As these attitudes pertain to way-making (dao), they are called indulgence and unseemliness. Such excess is generally despised that even those who want things cannot abide it.
I have many personal vices, but I’ve long tried to follow a basic rule based on this chapter: don’t be pretentious. (I’ve done less well on the arrogance, but I’m working on it.) Don’t puff yourself up or make untrue claims about yourself to make yourself seem more important than you are. A sense of importance and value based on lies will ultimately crumble and is probably already regarded as a farce by those around you. The older I get the more I try to keep in mind (and state publicly): “however externally successful you are, and no matter how great you might actually be, you’re dependent on opportunities you didn’t necessarily create and a whole network of people who enable you to do what you do.” Every moment you spend talking about how great you are is a moment not spent actually trying to be great. And the more important and entitled you think you are, the more you’ll feel slighted by a world that couldn’t care less about you.
Five years ago I wrote a reflective post like this, creatively entitled Ten Years In. In it I discussed not having a long term goal anymore of “moving up,” and wrote that “I think the goal should be mastery. Instead of thinking about the future, I want to do things well in the present and see where those things lead. For all I know, the end goal will be the same, but the path is much more interesting and less predictable.” More Daoism, which I was beginning to reacquaint myself with at the time.
The Ames and Hall translation of the Daodejing has a good critical apparatus that has helped me understand this better in recent years. This is from their introduction to the translation:
Daoism … expresses its deferential activity through what we are calling the wu-forms. The three most familiar articulations of this pervasive sensibility are: wuwei, wuzhi, and wuyu. These are, respectively, noncoercive actions in accordance with the de (“particular focus”) of things; a sort of knowing without resort to rules or principles; and desiring which does not seek to possess or control its “object.” In each of these instances…, it is necessary to put oneself in the place of what is to be acted in accordance with, what is to be known, or what is to be desired, and thus incorporate this perspective into one’s own disposition.
Without a goal, I still accomplish things. Although I have no destination in mind, I go to good places. There’s nothing in particular I want, but I have ended up with abundance. Without preconceptions and prejudices, I can understand more than I do now.
The Daoist classic The Book of Zhuangzi (Burton Watson trans.) has a famous story about Cook Ding, who is praised by a lord for his superior carving skills. When asked his secret, Cook Ding replies,
A good cook changes his knife once a year—because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month—because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the place is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then they’re plenty of room—more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
I’m not quite sure exactly how the particular talent of Cook Ding applies to library work, but there would be worse things than to be Librarian Ding and work as effectively as possible with what’s there, skillfully avoiding resistance while achieving appropriate outcomes. If I have a goal, that’s it, even though it’s ultimately unattainable.
What this means in practice might not look any different on the outside from the actions of an anxious striver, but from the inside it feels different. After I reached the last explicit professional milestone I had set for myself, I took a while thinking about what I do, making some changes, and trying to come up with another one. What do I want to achieve and by when? That dreaded question in so many job interviews: where do you see yourself five years from now? (To which I always wanted to answer: “um, your boss?”) Eventually I decided that any such goal at this point was unnecessary and I just started working on another project. There doesn’t have to be a larger goal to motivate acting and reacting appropriately to the situations I find myself in. I have some big things I’d like to do, but if they don’t work out, that’s fine, too. Mostly, I want to do whatever I do as well as I can.
Some people inspire themselves with motivational sayings or by telling themselves things like, “I want to be great! I want to do big things!” But you can be great and do big things by just responding to situations as they arise to the best of your ability. If you want something done, do it. If it just can’t be done, let it go. And if you never achieve greatness? Well, few of us do. The world keeps going anyway. As a friend once told me, the library I work in was there before I was born and it’ll be there long after I die.
Professionally, if a better opportunity comes along, I’ll seize it. If it doesn’t, I won’t worry about it. If I achieve greatness, so be it. If not, that’s okay, too. At some point I reached the state where I rarely ruin my present contentment by dreaming about some future where everything would be better if I could just do this or get that or be someone or somewhere else. For most of my young life, and then again for my first couple of years as a librarian, I was that way. Perhaps part of the reason I’m not now is that I’m in a better professional position than I was fifteen years ago, but I know librarians in similar situations who are still unhappy in their jobs or with their lives. For now I just do what I do as well as I can and see what happens. Fifteen years in, it’s a good place to be.