Working Undercover for the Man

Work is an endlessly rich subject for reflection.  I devote my time, energy, creative output, emotional bandwidth — essentially, a huge chunk of my physical and cognitive space — towards the advancement of some enterprise, and in return I receive currency that I can trade for essentials that it would be less efficient or impossible to produce myself and, if I’m fortunate, non-essential items and experiences that I can enjoy. I tend to think I’d be at best a pretty mediocre subsistence-farmer, but instead I can spend my days manipulating abstractions, persuading and being persuaded by people, engaging in organizational blocking-and-tackling, and generally participating in the ‘knowledge economy’ and then go out and buy all kinds of food that someone else has produced.  How amazing is it to live in a world where this is possible?

As an investment professional, my work is both impersonal and highly personal.  It’s impersonal both in the sense that good decision-making often demands a degree of objectivity, and in the sense that certain norms exist that (theoretically) distinguish the conduct of agents acting on the behalf of institutions from that of the agents themselves.  As Sonny put it in The Godfather, “even shooting your father was business, not personal.”

At the same time, my work is highly personal because the analysis I perform and decisions I make may bear directly on the success or failure of a project or an investment.  It is difficult not to internalize failure under those circumstances.  Even if I were perfectly good at maintaining emotional distance from the output of my work, the ‘personal’ would find other ways to intrude.  In many lines of work, it’s difficult to avoid developing some kind of relationship with coworkers — perhaps some of them become friends, mentors, allies, rivals, saboteurs, or countless other variations.  At times I would prefer to work in an environment where no such relationships existed and where everyone functioned on the basis of a cordial objectivity; but I’m also grateful for the friendships I’ve made with colleagues, and at times those relationships are my only proximate motivation for clocking in.

In short, I feel broadly and deeply conflicted about working in general, and my work in particular.

I’ve been in the process of transitioning to a new job for the past several months.  Superficially, this shouldn’t be particularly stressful.  I’m taking on a role that’s extremely similar the one that I’ve had recently, and will even be working for the same manager with whom I’ve worked for the past two years and whom I trust and admire.  And yet, as the transition date approaches, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to sleep when it’s bedtime, to stay awake during the day, to take care of minor errands, to stay in touch with people I care about; basically, to act like a normal human being.  Could a relatively modest change in my work environment potentially introduce stress on a subconscious level, even if I don’t experience any real concern on a purely rational basis?

Perhaps.  Psychologists have examined the links between life changes, stress, and illness for decades, and in so doing have attempted to quantify the stressfulness of various life events.  Predictably, experiences of death, marriage/divorce, and physical trauma rank highly.  But several work-related events, such as being fired or experiencing a change in work conditions, apparently rank alongside pregnancy or the death of a close friend on a well-known scale of stress. This suggests that I ought not be too surprised that I’m having some trouble functioning at the level I’d like.

But… isn’t this somewhat disturbing?  That it’s considered normal that I could be experiencing a comparable level of stress right now (even if not consciously) as if I had lost a close friend?  Perhaps I am misinterpreting the logic of this scale, but I’m happy for the dose of perspective it has given me as I prepare to sleep poorly again tonight.


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