The Good Life, and Why It Feels So Bad

By Tom Gilson Published on December 14, 2021

Man, was he angry. Unrestrained, too, which is why I won’t link to the page. It’s a long, long rant, and it’s all about how hard it is to find a *#@*#a%! job.

It wasn’t so much about the dismally low number of employers who will call back after you apply. He mentioned it (7% pre-COVID, based on a good source he refers to), but that’s not what bugged him most. The worst part of it was how perfect he had to be.

You need a perfect elevator pitch, he said. You have to use all the right buzzwords, but since everyone’s a self-described “creative free thinker” these days, it’ll take forever to come with a way to say that doesn’t make you sound like a “copycat plagiarist” (or a total dork) talking about your “passion.” So count on hours spent perfecting that pitch.

You need a perfect cover letter, too, fully researched, so you can sell the company on how “committed” you are to its “mission.” You have to do everything the company’s way, and you have to get it right, or you’re toast.

The Good Life?

I didn’t read the whole screed, just enough to get the point: Perfection or else. And despite the profanity, my mind flashed on common sayings like, “We promise to be the best.” “Only the best is good enough.” “We deliver excellence.” Funny thing: That’s exactly what this guy was dealing with.

These are great slogans for selling to consumers. That’s you and me, right? We get to buy all this great stuff. So welcome to the good life! Who wants anything less than the best?

Quality work on the job can be every bit as fulfilling, but does it have to be so scary?

“Nothing but the best!” How many times have you said that when you were out shopping? You buy the shirt, and on Christmas morning the person you gave it to finds a loose button. “What!?” you cry. “I didn’t see that! I’m not paying for that junk! Give it here, I’ll go back and swap it out tomorrow!”

If Only It Weren’t So Bad

Doesn’t happen very often, you say? That’s right. Factories don’t ship shirts with loose buttons, or at least not factories that stay in business. They can’t afford it; not when competition is so stiff, and every wasted expense is one more way to get killed in the market.

So we get great shirts that way. Welcome to the good life! Great cars, too, especially compared to the years before the 1970s or so when Japan showed up and nearly killed Detroit — with quality!

And when’s the last time you saw a bruised apple or an overripe banana at the grocery store? It’s what we’ve come to expect as consumers. It’s what HR people expect in hiring. It works, too. We get the very best.

So once again, welcome to the good life. If only it weren’t so bad.

What Consumers Expect, When They’re Not Producers

It’s bad because whatever we expect as the consumer, someone must provide as the producer. Someone has to package and distribute it, maintaining that same high quality, and then the retailer has to keep the thing in perfect condition until you’ve bought it.

Those are other people, thankfully. Except they aren’t. They are us. Analysts and reporters talk about “consumers” and “producers.” Have you ever met a “producer” who wasn’t also a “consumer”? Don’t “producers” ever stop to pick up something at the store on the way home? Don’t “consumers” go to work to produce goods or services?

The Quality Demand Cycle

There’s a cycle running here. It’s hard to see because we can fool ourselves into thinking it’s about someone else, but it’s about us. America demands the very best, so America has to deliver the very best.

Granted, there’s a well-known rule that says there’s cheapest, fastest, and best, and no company should try to do all three at once. Just two, no more. No less, either, though, if you want to survive. Pick whichever two you want, but they all end in “est,” and there’s no escaping the pressure.

Consumers demand what’s cheapest and/or fastest and/or best, and they won’t settle for less. “Consumer” is a hat we wear only part of the time, though. We demand the best, someone has to deliver the best (or else!), and ultimately that someone is you and me.

The “Best In You” Shouldn’t Have to Be That Anxious

Business writers and leadership experts spin the cycle nicely: It “brings out the best in you.” Some workers thrive on it, of course. When I was traveling as a musician, I knew every concert was a chance either to be great or to make a total fool of myself in public. I learned to make the most of that sense of risk danger, letting it kick my energy up another notch. It became part of the fun for me.

But I can also remember how fear paralyzed me through the first few moments of a solo recital I played in college. (This piece. I love it.) Those first bar few bars are the easiest part of the whole thing, but I muffed them. Pressure can hurt, too. I’m sure I don’t need to repeat the statistics on stress at work.

Think Capitalism is the Problem? Try the Alternative

You expect a public performer — musician, actor, athlete, speaker etc. — to feel that mix of fear and energy and excitement. Quality work on the job can be every bit as fulfilling, but does it have to be so scary? What drives this quality-demand cycle? Is it consumerism? The profit motive? Maybe capitalism is to blame?

Sorry, socialists, but that won’t work. This cycle may be a hard one to live with, but yours is pure fantasy, a fairy tale with a very bad ending. I hear you saying you want lower prices (or better yet, free!), plus shorter working hours and higher wages. That is, you want money to buy what you want, you want time to enjoy it, and you want it to pop into existence magically without anyone going to work to make it. Or you want Congress to legislate it into reality, which is exactly the same.

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A capitalism-driven quality-demand cycle may lead to harried, anxious people, but at least it works. Socialism in contrast ends in long, long lines waiting for rationed goods, and when you finally reach the front of the line, you’ll accept those black, squishy old bananas because that’s all that’s left. Or you’ll live (you hope) with months of delay before that crucial surgery, because that line’s long, too.

So what do we do? Maybe try having some fun. (Enjoy the sidebar here, folks.) Kudos to those companies that know how to keep life a little lighter on the job.

Meaningful Work

And when that doesn’t work, or even when it does, remember there’s a reason life on earth isn’t perfect. God started it good enough —”very good,” He called it. He gave Adam meaningful work to do, and the work didn’t fight back at him, not until he and Eve rebelled against God. That’s when it became onerous, and nothing we do can make that go away. There’s a perfect state, a perfect condition coming, but we won’t bring it, only Jesus will.

Drive for Excellence in Christ

In the meantime, Christians, reframe it. I hurt for that angry job-seeker, because it’s a fair guess he knows nothing about the life God offers us in Christ. Through Christ we really can do better. Tough times give us new ways both to see and to show the glory of God in Jesus Christ. So, for, example, maybe you’re feeling anxiety to produce. Maybe by His grace you could see your drive for excellence instead as a way to do good for the person who will receive it.

If we trust in God, the Holy Spirit will empower us and bring His fruit of “love, joy peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22).

And finally, a word for us “consumers.” Let’s relax a bit, and remember that “producers” are people, too. And especially worth remembering right now: retail store workers are people, too. Even the most impersonal big box store has employees you can greet with a smile and treat with patience.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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