I went to Mexico and read a book by a Canadian author that made me think about work in America.
My vacations tend to be kind of weird that way.
With a week off, I felt the need to unplug from the screens that dominate our working lives, so I settled in on the beach with a good old-fashioned novel, "Waiting for the Man" by Arjun Basu. The book is fiction, unlike most that I bring up in this space. It doesn't deal with the workplace, per se, but it does involve a worker, a successful ad man named Joe Fields who, despite great career success, realizes he's not happy.
His inexplicable dissatisfaction consumes him and before long he starts seeing a person – "the man" – who gives him a simple instruction: Wait. Against all logic, Joe listens to this imagined person no one else can see, sits down on the front steps of his building in New York City and waits for the man to tell him what to do next.
Joe reflects on how he got to this point: "For over a decade, life seemed to me something other people did. They lived. I watched. The rest of the world was television to me. Things happened to me but did not touch me. I was free from the kiss that life supposedly bestows upon us."
Joe's wait, of course, becomes a news story and the country is soon gripped by the concept of "the man" and who he might be, what faith he might represent.
The man eventually tells Joe to head west. I won't ruin the story, but it is two things: a fascinating dissection of the media world we live in, a place where everyone, Joe included, is a brand; and a thought-provoking road-trip tale that forced me to ponder my path just as Joe pondered his.
"It was emptiness that got me into my situation. I needed something. Someone perhaps. And I went out in search of it. My need was so strong I was willing to follow its dictates, despite the risks. Which is brave. I can see that."
That notion – the bravery behind forcing yourself to examine your own life – is why I bring this work of fiction up in a workplace column.
We are all brands now, whether we like it or not, and our careers and working lives are narratives writ large on LinkedIn pages and in Twitter and Facebook feeds. The very connectivity that allows work flexibility – email, Skype, instant messaging – and personal branding can, I believe, cloud our perception of what we're actually doing with our lives.
So it's important that we step back, at least occasionally, and ask ourselves some difficult questions. That's what Joe does – in an admittedly over-the-top fashion – in Basu's novel.
In an email exchange – I don't believe they have phones in Canada – the author said the story is about the pursuit of happiness: "I think Joe needed to figure things out. To figure out his own story. Who he was."
I asked Basu a few other questions:
Q: A lot of working people don't give enough thought to what it is they're doing and whether it's what they're meant to do. A journey like Joe's is unrealistic, but do you think people can benefit from at least taking a mental journey, spending some time thinking about their place in the world and perhaps paying attention to "the man" in their heads?
A: I think everyone can use a "reset" every once in a while. In other countries, I believe this is called "a vacation."
Q: Did you ever hit a point in your career where you questioned the path you were on? If so, how did you resolve those thoughts?
A: I have. You have to push through it. And talk about it with people. While sipping some fine bourbon. Seriously, we're lucky to live in a time where you can choose your path. Hey, I believe happiness is more important than money. But I'm a dumb Canadian.
Q: Will you sponsor my cross-country journey of self discovery?
A: I will. But first let me round up some sponsors and get a TV deal. And a full media plan. And a content marketing team together. Hold on.
There's much to be learned from books about the workplace (and columns!), but I think we forget how much can come from the simple act of looking inward. Does my job line up with the things in life that make me happy? Are there small ways I can modify my career that might put me on a better track? Or is there a leap I need to take – within practical boundaries – that will get me where I'm meant to be?
This gets rather philosophical, I know, but that's what happens when you sit on a beach without any form of electronic distraction. You think about things. You relate a work of fiction to the reality around you and find there's value in letting your brain go briefly unwired.
It's an exercise we should all do more often, even if what we might learn scares us.
Joe says in the book: "Most people are happy being what we are and letting things happen ... But they stop to study their lives and realize, suddenly, it's not good enough. And then you need the courage to follow the path. And luck. We all need some luck."
Here's to courage, and luck, and to Basu for writing a book that should make any working American stop and think.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.
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