Via Negativa: Learning What You Love by Learning What You Hate
“I’ve looked under chairs
I’ve looked under tables
I’ve tried to find the key
To fifty million fables
They call me The Seeker
I’ve been searching low and high
I won’t get to get what I’m after
Till the day I die.”
— The Seeker, by The Who
It is difficult for me to write about jobs. I feel the way about jobs the way some people feel about ex-partners. I‘m like John Cusack in High Fidelity. I want to go back to old jobs and let them know what I really think, and find out what they thought about me. My career has left me battered, bruised, cynical and melancholy.
This article is an attempt to redeem those dark feelings. Indeed, I think frustration, disappointment and despair are essential to flourishing in our working lives.
Via Negativa means The Negative Way, and it has a long history in theology. It suggests that God can only be known by what God isn’t. This was the idea behind Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — we cannot know the figures, only the shadows which they cast.
My career has been varied and highly storied. It’s taken me to Dublin and Nairobi, Chicago and Kalgoorlie. Like John Cusack’s past partners, my jobs have been a varied lot. I’ve had a chair thrown at me, appeared in Hansard and bribed public officials. I made my Dad drive a forty-two seater bus to help balance a budget. I’ve dined with Liberals and gotten arrested with the Greens. It was six or seven years before I quit a job on good terms —until my mid-20s, everything I quit or got fired from involved at least some amount of shouting (not mine).
It goes on and on.
My jobs have been experiences of bottled frustration, humiliation and despair. They have been lessons in what I hate. I have done a lot of jobs, and discovered that I hate a lot of things. I hate the dun professional emotionality of work. I hate personal branding and self-styled thought leaders. I hate swipe cards, name tags and any form of ID that isn’t my face. I hate tucked-in shirts on hot summer days and buildings without bike facilities. I hate any idea that can be satisfactorily explained using only a venn diagram. I hate day-long ideation sessions in airless rooms. I hate over-catered events, corporate travel accounts, and international conferences. I hate work that is making somebody I’ve never met richer. I hate petty bureaucratics, government inertia, “No but,” and “We’ve always done it this way.” I hate power plays and cushy jobs. I hate technocratic solutions to moral problems. I hate delivering pizza, stacking boxes, making sales calls, booking caterers and having to ask my Dad to drive a bus. I hate that the sum total of all our frenetic jobbing is the slow murder of the future.
I’m mostly a happy person.
We’re implored to find our passion. Perhaps more accurately, we are implored to have our passion found. The work really is in the finding, in being able to inhabit the contradictory and uncomfortable spaces that define a career before passion. These spaces are full of anger, frustration, and compromise. They are full of bad bosses and dumb projects. Our jobs-without-passion belittle us. They ask us to become less than what we are.
Our vain hope is for something more than a “job.” We hope for a lifelong vocation, a productive way of being in the world that improves the state of things — in camaradarie and collaboration with our kin.
Using this definition, we must admit that our passionate vocations are unlikely to ever be found. To suggest everyone can find their passion is to suggest that the market aligns perfectly with everyone’s interests. Such is clearly not the case. We cannot even employ everyone, let alone in a meaningful and satisfying job — many of those who are employed must sort shoes, manage disgruntled callers and perform the various boring tasks that have been deemed renumerable by our imperfect and worsening liberal democracy. We often do not admit that the choice is often between purpose and food.
For the stuck majority, we must not allow our cynicism to ossify us. You are allowed to both do your job and hate it. You are allowed to do your job and not fully identify with it. You may never find your passion as Plato’s prisoners never saw the figures creating the dancing shadows. However, like the prisoners you can know that a passionate career is possible by the shadows it casts.
This is the troublesome space of growth. The space wedged between the intolerable present and the unimaginable future. We must hope for a better future without a clear vision of that future. It may be that we can only know our vocation, know our futures, by what they could not possibly be.
I do not know what I love, but I do know that it will not involve collared shirts on a hot summer’s day.
You are allowed to seek your passion knowing it may never be found.
Just like The Seeker, just like Plato’s prisoners.