Exactly one week away from returning to America, I found myself restlessly awake through much of last night. My anxiety boiled down to one thing: going back to doing meaningless work in the U.S.
To be fair, by most metrics, I had a fantastic job in the U.S. I lived just over 3 miles from my office, meaning that I could ride my bike to work everyday and had commute that was the envy any city-dweller. I had easy-going co-workers who appreciated my often random sense of humor and respected and requested my input in serious moments. I got to lead a couple of interesting projects where I was working to solve systemic problems with the department or the company. My boss was a cool guy who turned out to become a friend, seeking out my thoughts on matters both professional and personal. The corporate hierarchy thought well of me, and seemed to care about keeping me happy. I had a company cell phone. I could check out a company car to travel to my projects, meaning that I didn’t have to own a personal car. I sometimes even flew on the company plane, getting a tiny taste of what if feels like to live in the world of the super-rich where rules don’t apply, including pesky airport security rules :-). I had every other Friday off, and five weeks of vacation a year, plus another week in national holidays, and potentially another two weeks in sick time. Pretty good health benefits, and some interesting corporate benefits. In the grand scheme, my salary was downright mediocre by Bay Area standards, but was still many times what I needed to live a cush lifestyle. Who wouldn’t be happy with that?
The problem was that at the end of the day, I didn’t feel that my work served some higher purpose. If my projects didn’t happen, someone’s lights might go out somewhere someday. If my projects happened poorly, Californians would pay some tiny fraction of one-cent more for their electricity, and if they went well, that fraction of a penny would be saved. While learning about how to manage people without any authority was very useful (in fact I still could learn a lot about that), I found the normal course of my work rather repetitive and redundant. Within months of taking the job, I had achieved a mastery that seemed to reinforce some notion of myself as a star cog in the corporate machinery, rather than something far more versatile and valuable. To be fair, there was both a mental game I could play with myself to add meaning to my work, and some sort of role that I could have had that might have felt more meaningul, but none of those manifested very well. Even if I pulled either one of those things off, “maximizing shareholder value to earn our authorized rate of return” just doesn’t inspire one very much. Besides, the predictability and lack of challenge was making me stupider by the day.
In the West, the push of our economic system is to manufacture needs to keep people working and to keep the economy ‘growing’. You have a CD player, but do you have an iPod? You’ll need one if you want to (fill in the blank) so spend your money, and in effect your time to get one. By extension, the sum of the material things we desire enslave us to keep mindlessly working with the notion that the next iPod will make us happy.
In this way, millions keep chugging along to make rich people richer while ignoring their own enslavement to manufactured notions of happiness and success. The rich are in fact more heavily enslaved in that system simply by virtue of having a greater stake in it, and often much less happy that your average Joe. On a subtle level, people are aware that despite having almost all of their wants satified, happiness eludes them. There’s a desperation that comes from recognizing that– the realization that everything society told you about how to be happy is a lie. There’s a reason that super-famous, super-rich celebrities often destroy themselves with drugs and dangerous lifestyles. There’s a reason that 1/3 of America is on some sort of mental health medication, and any serious look at the country can’t ignore this. Why go back to the asylum?
In contrast, India has real needs. Countless millions lack clean water. Clean water. How can I, and why would I, go back to enhancing shareholder value when I know thirsty people? I can guarantee anyone that the joy in giving a thirsty person a liter of clean water that might save them from dysentery, cholera, or typhoid is more satisfying that listening to all 20GBs of music on their iPod.
In America, I have a handful of (competitive) potential options that can keep me involved with meaningful work. I also have some things cooking on this end in India. None of it is a sure thing. While this trip has revealed ever more deeply that exactly the right thing is happening all the time and that there’s a subtle law governing that magic, things like “faith”, “trust”, and “love” are dirty words in an economic and military superpower, and so people try and make them mean different things when they can’t be ignored altogether. These words don’t fit on a balance sheet or an income statement, nor as a line item on the Congressional budget next to the hundreds of billions for our war coffers. Yet life without them is sad and suffocating. Yes, the polluted air in Ahmedabad is suffocating too, but inspiration is found in abundance and that has been my oxygen.
Next to someone whose problem is clean water, my problem is pathetic and he’d trade places any day. Knowing that, and remembering the subtle principles that are always at work tends to keep the superpower blues at bay. Yet its still with mixed feelings that I look towards my return to America.
The reality is that we’re half-crazy in the East just as much as we’re half-crazy in the West. Both places have tremendous advantages and disadvantages, and by having access to both places and cultures, it becomes my privilege to find a more sane balance. My ‘superpower blues’ was a response to the apprehension felt before any big change, similar to what I was feeling when I was leaving America in Nov and thinking “How crazy am I to leave behind what so many people are chasing after?”