Consider this my resignation letter
Valentina left to work for an NGO specialising in refugees’ rights. “I’ve realised there are more important things than my career”, she told me. Mathilde decided that she wanted to spend more time with her family. Benjamin moved to the south of France to join a wine start-up. In his goodbye email, he wrote that he’d always dreamt of having a garden and a dog.
My colleagues are not alone in reassessing their work lives. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic (albeit in fits and starts) many are thinking about their future. People laid off from service jobs are wondering whether to go back to them. Essential workers who carried us through the crisis might be considering less stressful careers. Entrepreneurs who got their start during lockdowns are doing cost-benefits analyses.
Me? I’m exactly where I started.
I should count myself lucky, I know. Nothing more infuriating that a straight white guy complaining that he kept his well-paying consulting job while society fell to pieces, right? Yet, here we are. As the Great Resignation happens all around me, I’ve been increasingly nudged towards rethinking the role of work in my life.
For years, I was happy in my little corporate microcosm, vigorously participating in the race to the bottom that is unbridled capitalism. My friend would buy a new bike, and I’d get a better one because I worked more hours and made more money. I’d take trips throughout the world, and be pleased when comparing my life to others’, who did not have the privileges my well-paying job granted me. I’d miss weddings and birthdays, but at least sent exceptional gifts. Every extra week-end worked was worth it, because I knew that it meant one more Michelin-starred restaurant or one extra day in Barcelona. All of which I would then post on Instagram, obviously. I was a wage slave with Stockholm Syndrome and, at the time, that was OK.
Then came lockdowns and shuttered office buildings. And all that was left was Zoom.
Diversion and entertainment were stripped down to their most basic forms, and it became difficult to spend more than the cost of a Netflix subscription or a few bad Robinhood trades to keep oneself occupied. The absence of the mindless performative circus that is social media reinforced the value of real social connection. The constant presence of video conferencing and e-mail enhanced the Kafkaesque superfluousness of many of the activities that dominated my pre-pandemic work life. Yet, the mad hours continued. Relentlessly. I didn’t work from home: I lived from work, with little to show for it except an increasing contempt for my wife’s colleagues.
This destruction of eudaimonia has made me realise that I’ve had my priorities backwards for most of my professional life. I shouldn’t try to pursue happiness through what countless hours at work could bring me. I should aim to find a sliver of meaning in said work, thus reducing the need for empty distractions. One should not seek to maximise positive emotions and minimise negative emotions, but should instead thrive to connect and contribute to something bigger than oneself.
With that in mind, I’ve tried to look for 3 meaning-making attributes within my work, which consists of advising people with too much money on how to make more.
Firstly, do I feel part of something bigger than myself ? This is not to mean that I’ve found my life’s calling within my work, but do I at least feel like I contribute to the betterment of society ? If I twist the narrative enough, there is a world in which the answer could be yes. I advise my clients on how to improve their businesses, which leads them to be more competitive, which means they can continue employing thousands of people. The issue with this narrative is that I’m rather convinced that by essentially optimising capitalism, I may actively be precipitating the end of the world, both economically and ecologically. As such, I’m left to conclude that I do not become part of a whole through my work, and it thus does not give my life meaning, regardless of what I post on LinkedIn.
Secondly, am I able to invest in other meaning-making activities outside of my work? For example, I know many people who love their job for the sole reason that they’re able to be back to their family every day at 5pm sharp. That is… not my case. If I stretch the truth as much as possible, I could say that my many days at the office sometimes allow me to regularly find some time to write (usually in a packed airplane or in the back of a taxi) and travel. However, I find it hard to justify working 80 hours a week just to produce one article per month, or to see American tourists snap their fingers at service workers in Dublin. So there too, it turns out that my work is not providing meaning.
Which leaves us with the last question I’ve been asking myself : can I create meaningful human connection through my work ? It’s no secret that having a work bestie makes the days go by faster, and that bonding with others can give us more meaning than any physical good. Sadly, the life of a consultant is a rather lonely one : we come, we advise, we leave. It’s like being the new character arriving during the 7th season of a dying show — everyone’s got a backstory but you. As for the colleagues we work with… the industry has a 20% churn rate, so friendships can be hard to come by. Case and point : I haven’t spoken to Valentina, Mathilde or Benjamin since they left.
The conclusion cannot be eschewed : my work does not give me meaning, something which I now feel I need more than happiness. Yet, there’s hope. This new world into which we’re today emerging gives us an opportunity to reflect to reset, to question how we work and why.
And this is exactly what I’ve just done.
This is my two week’s notice.