Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

What is a Career Anyway?

Ever since I finished my MA in Media Studies, 16 years ago (!), I have resisted the idea of having or pursuing a career. I have merely been playing a lot, messing around, doing stuff I found exciting and potentially helpful, but I never thought about any of that as constituting a ‘career’. It somehow always felt too self-indulgent. After the PhD, I have yet again been confronted with my reluctance to think of all my perpetual experiments in those terms.

I’m not sure not why, but I vehemently dislike the term. A quick glance in a dictionary might help me grasp my skepticism. Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary, suggesting that a career is ‘the job or series of jobs that you do during your working life, especially if you continue to get better jobs and earn more money’. That is not a life I want.

The dictionary also point to the familiar idea of a ‘career ladder’, or taking a job because of ‘career prospects’. Everything in that image describe things I loathe and try to avoid at all costs.

In Tim Ingold’s words, I am an amateur, ‘one who studies a topic not – like the professional – in order to stage a career, but for the love of it, motivated by a sense of care, personal involvement and responsibility’ (Ingold, 2020, p. 11).

But why is this so important to me, I wonder. Why do I feel a need to be this explicit about it, when merely ignoring it would undoubtedly be easier?

First, I don’t find personal ambitions to be particularly interesting. Quite the contrary, they are almost always rather dull and insignificant. We become so obsessed with our own little schemes and celebrate our triumphs, yet whatever you and I hope to achieve is of little consequence. What we – human and more-than-human alike – can do together, on the other hand, is far more promising. In fact, it’s all that matters to me.

In my thesis, I worked with the idea of a ‘relational ontology’ to suggest that ‘all existence is radically interdependent’ (Escobar, 2020, p. 4) and further that ‘things and beings are their relations; they do not exist prior to them’ (Escobar, 2020, p. 71). Biologists (and many, many others) have argued that we all exist in ‘a world of complex and intermingled relationships’ and, even more radically, that for ‘animals, as well as plants, there have never been individuals’ (Gilbert et al., 2012, p. 336). It was simply an illusion and a narrative that served certain individuals (read: white, Western men) well for a while.

For too long, we have celebrated the ideal of the rational, autonomous individual – and look where that got us, right to the brink of utter ruin. In that light, insisting on the centrality of personal ambitions and careers risk perpetuating the Modern, colonial narrative of ‘modernisation and progress’, as Anna Tsing argues:

A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. The only reason all this sounds odd is that most of us were raised on dreams of modernization and progress

Anna Tsing, 2015, p. 20

A career evokes exactly the kind of individuality I am so fed up with, where we are all made to the these isolated, lonely critters roaming the earth, always in competition with one another. Or as Judith Butler put it,

It is as if under contemporary conditions, there is a war on the idea of interdependency, on what I elsewhere called the social network of hands that seek to minimize the unlivability of lives

Judith Butler

The idea of ‘looking back on a brilliant career’ (from the dictionary above) maintains the stubborn focus and celebration of individual achievements, when all careers, and our very existence, are always messy assemblages of things that are both tangible and intangible, including coincidences and shifting fortunes.

Some might argue that I can take this position because I already have a career, that I am privileged and fortunate to do work I love without having to worry about putting food on the table. You would be right to make that argument, of course, and I acknowledge the irony of only being able to critique the concept of careers because of the career I have come to rely on myself. There is a strong sense of ambivalence. Nonetheless, I find the critique and the discussions worthwhile and important – also and not least if that critique should someday move into direct conflict with my ‘career’. I hope that I would always stay with the former over the latter, should it come to that.

I find that whenever I think about my own career (and of course I do that from time to time, however much I try to avoid it) I disappoint myself. As I wrote recently, ‘the less I can think about myself, my own needs and entirely unimportant achievements, or that obnoxious idea of a career, and the more I can appreciate the enchanted moments and small wonders () of everyday life, the better off I am.’ On LinkedIn (of all places) I wrote that ‘we are expected to be these walking calculators who always compute our return on investment in real-time, always considering how to make the most of everything, to harness potentials, exploit resources and to triumph’.

As a broken record, I can only repeat myself: that is not a life I want.

All I hope for, all I ever hoped for, is to be present in the now, utterly entangled and interdependent, to embark on exciting adventures, to do good work in assemblages, to enact lives and worlds that are more joyful and loving than the one we know.

I may exaggerate the issue, but I have a strong feeling that contemporary ‘career fetishism’ regularly gets in the way of ‘collaborative survival’, of creating better ways of living together and enacting other possible worlds. Just like we have to decenter the human in our collective imaginaries, we have to destabilise the taken-for-granted, ontological necessity of individual achievements and incessant competition.

‘There are other ways of making worlds’, as I’m sure Anna Tsing would say.


2 responses to “What is a Career Anyway?”

  1. What a wonderful reflection! I have often come back to the idea of value – both my contribution to an ecosystem and the broader world, as well as whether I’m valued – and found interesting projects or roles. Yet it (all of it) is something I question, as collective effort is required to achieve – whether it’s the partner or family that chips in, the colleagues that elevate a project or person (e.g. in academia), or the janitor that cleans up. Interdependence is rife everywhere and appreciation of it more beyond the individual would serve us all better.

  2. Mathias Poulsen avatar
    Mathias Poulsen

    Hi Kris,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and kind words!

    I agree, for sure, that it is a balance, and a delicate one, between what we might consider (more or less) individual and collective contributions. In no way am I saying that we shouldn’t make an effort, or do our best to make the world a tiny bit better. We should stand on our toes and stretch to reach a little bit higher, to do a little bit better. I’m all for that.

    However, I am only becoming ever more aware of the impossibility of purely individual contributions. We are always-already entangled with each other, also beyond the human actors, and I find the contemporary obsession with individual achievements and triumphs to be detrimental to attempts at making things better for everyone. We risk becoming far too preoccupied with our own little project, where are framed as competitors, when, in most cases, we need not be that. And yeah, we should learn to appreciate the webs of interdependence we are all enmeshed in – not as a necessary evil, but a necessary good.

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