I’ve come to accept the yearning and melancholy that arises whenever I wake up late and ride the El after 8 AM—that’s rush hour for all the girls with fun, interesting (and ostensibly low-paying) jobs. They’re all so freaking happy and healthy looking, with their Equinox memberships that they actually use and the kind of tastefully applied makeup and deliberately chosen Yurman bracelets that bespeak never having to rush into work. Did I forget to mention their endless parade of sparkly two-carat engagement rings in varietal platinum settings?
Needless to say, I didn’t board the El this morning until 8:20 and was already struggling antecedent to the existential crisis I received by a phone call that drove me deeper into my morose and introspective state. Specifically, a law school girlfriend called to report that she’s contemplating an offer that would mean leaving the practice of law and following a long-deferred dream to work in fashion.
In keeping with our neurotic predilections, we fervently analyzed every aspect of the issue. The dead horse didn’t get beat, it got dismembered, burned and buried.
She made a spreadsheet establishing that she could weather the pay cut, we examined the health and long-term growth potential of her prospective employer and the position, constructed hypotheticals involving worst-case scenarios. We realized none were insurmountable, and we defeated the entries on her “con” list because each led to a logical conclusion of invalidity or insignificance. So if two of the highest-strung, most-risk-averse girls on the planet couldn’t sniff out any concrete threats, it must mean that my friend is hammering out the details of her new fashion job as I write this—right?
Absolutely not. When my phone battery died and the call ended, we were deadlocked. Apparently there’s an almost intangible aspect to the golden handcuff that imprison us in the miserable world of BigLaw, and it’s more insidious and pervasive than the need for a Van Cleef Alhambra Vintage necklace, a midsize Cartier Tank Francaise, or even a 3BR condo along Lincoln Park West.
For lack of a precise term of art, we referred to it during our conversation as a fear of “fake jobs.” We defined “fake jobs” as any that lack: (i) six-figure starting salaries; (ii) established and strictly adhered-to promotion paths; (iii) transparent, lockstep salary and bonus structures; (iv) objective means to measure aptitude and proficiency; and (v) any unpredictability whatsoever. It goes without saying that careers of artistry, creativity or fun miss the prerequisites and are immediately disqualified.
Since we identified the fear, I figured I needed to know where it came from so I could help nudge my friend towards a new, better life. Augusten Burroughs introduced the concept of using the Bible like a Magic Eight Ball (“Bible dips”) in his memoir Running with Scissors. “[O]ne person held the Bible while another person thought of a question to ask God, like, ‘Should I get my hair cut short?’ Then the person holding the bible opened it at random, and the person asking the question dropped his or her finger on the page. Whatever word your finger landed on, this was your answer.”
Personally, I prefer Google dips. The answers are much less cryptic.
Coincidentally, a desperate Google dip last summer involving the search phrase “What should I do with my life?” led me to the Po Bronson book bearing the same name, which stirred up all sorts of “fake job” fantasies. The stories of the people in the book left me with the impression that a fulfilling career begins with identifying an interest that stimulates you and then finding a way to make that how you make your living. Of course, I distanced myself from the people in the book because, unlike me, I saw them as having a definable calling.
Now I understand that my complaint was misplaced. I’ve always had a calling (photography and writing, if anyone’s keeping track), but I just haven’t embraced it as such because it is a calling that would lead to a “fake job.” My law school friend wasn’t the only one who had deferred a dream in order to secure something “real.” Ergo my crusade to identify the source of the “fake job” fear and thereby eradicate it became personal.
I returned to the almighty altar of Google and entered the following search phrase that seemed to sum up our “fake job” fear: “Pathological need for self-affirmation.”
I kid you not, the very first result linked me to Google books, which contained a page from a book called Paul Tillich and Psychology. It could not have been more precisely on point. It explained that “existential anxiety” can’t be eliminated and therefore “must be absorbed into the courage to be.” Attempting to avoid it causes it to resurface as pathological anxiety—which leads to “an insatiable need for security, an unrealistic expectation for perfection, and a misguided need for certainty.”
Whoa. I felt like I was reading my bio.
I returned to our list of real job prerequisites and realized they were really just ultra-specific ways of saying that a “fake job” is anything that feels insecure, imperfect, and uncertain. All of which I find intolerable—not because they are, but because of my demanding pathological anxiety.
Thankfully, this Paul Tillich person also prescribed an antidote. Rather than fixating on trivial concerns in order to avoid an encounter with full reality and the inevitable doubt built into the human condition, we just need to accept that existential anxiety can’t be eliminated. Never mind that I have no freaking clue how to even begin to do that, but I was buoyed by the comforting legitimacy of locating both a cause and a cure.
Overcome with excitement, I redialed my friend. I didn’t even let her finish saying hello.
“YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT THE FASHION JOB,” I shouted.
But she interrupted me before the words “existential anxiety” could even leave my mouth.
“I just accepted! I totally realized it was a no-brainer,” she squealed.
“Wait—WHAT? What was the deciding factor? Tell me everything!”
“Well, right now I’ve got two options. Either stay in law or pull the trigger on the fashion thing. And all along I thought it was a choice between a ‘real job’ and a ‘fake job’—but then I stopped and thought about how bad the economy is right now and how it has practically shattered the legal market. Think about it. Half of our friends have been laid off, and, let’s be honest, there are more coming. It’s just like in finance! Investment banking used to be like the quintessential ‘real job,’ and now half of our banker friends are unemployed! I mean, it finally dawned on me that being a lawyer isn’t even a ‘real job’ anymore! And if I’m picking between two ‘fake jobs,’ then it’s like the easiest decision I’ve ever made!”
So much for embracing the courage to be. Looks like I won’t have a companion for my upcoming exploration. I congratulated her and promised that we’d celebrate as soon as I could figure out a night when I’d be able to leave the office before 9:30. Sighing, I returned to my laptop, Googled “existentialism,” and settled in for a lifetime.