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The philosophy of performance can explain why you’re rethinking your career

The idea that more people are reconsidering their choice of work has gained momentum in 2021.

Here’s the updated data so you can get the pulse of where we’re at:

Tied with surgeons and directors of religious activities and education, my former occupation of tertiary education in English comes second place on the list of most meaningful jobs. However, the jobs with the highest satisfaction rates show no crossover with this list.

Born Free?

The story of what we aim to do with our lives often begins at birth or earlier with the announcement of our sex in utero and parents often have at least some degree of preference on the sex of their babies.

It’s only normal that the pure potential represented by a newborn kicks off the imagination. Our parents dress us up as little astronauts or artists, dreaming about our potential talents, signing us up for numerous enrichment activities that may unleash that hidden "it" factor that could skyrocket us into future success. Traditionally, gender has played a large role in determining what these dreams are.

As we reach school age, our grades and academic accomplishments begin to significantly determine those hopes and dreams.

Parenting can often feel like it's made of fretting over reading and math and rejoicing or despairing over end-of-term reports.

The nature of the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” begins to change regardless of gender. No longer solely aspirational, we start to internalize that our value to society depends on our performance at school and all its set of predetermined tasks.

Even if caregivers examine their gender bias and do all they can to avoid sending the message that performance = success = worthiness, standardized testing, media messaging, and social pressure are enough to inculcate insecurity in us. We are required to face the music and very few of us enjoy this coming of age. My own highly creative 11-year-old has co-opted the acronym:







Despite our distaste for the channeling of our once lofty dreams into more realistic career paths, it makes a lot of sense since no matter how much we might want to believe that money doesn’t buy happiness, the truth is that financial security is a necessity to thrive. It’s a sign of unexamined privilege to think otherwise.

Birmingham University study by M. Joseph Sirgy, Grace B. Yu, Dong-Jin Lee, Mohsen Joshanloo, Michael Bosnjak, Jinfeng Jiao, Ahmet Ekici, Eda Gurel Atay & Stephan Grzeskowiak

How can we understand this phenomenon of advanced education leading nowhere and where does our education get us in the end? It’s an important question that gets to the heart of what it means to be an engaged functioning member of society.

When a toddler starts preschool, learning is all songs and play. The older we get, learning for pleasure alone is rare in the wider context of needing to prove our accomplishments and, ultimately, for the requirement of entering the workforce to earn a living.

We’ve heard bitter complaints from parents of less academically inclined kids who are not suited to a life of six hours of formal lessons a day followed by homework, projects, and the constant underlying pressure to perform. Laments about the education system, the tuition industry, and adolescent suicides are part of this phenomenon. They are very real symptoms of the less-than-ideal world we have built for ourselves and our children.

What about the winners?

But I want to take a closer look at the success stories…

After over a decade of teaching some of the most accomplished students in the world at two of the top Universities in Asia, I’ve come to think that those of us that have had the luck or the fortitude to make it through school and end up in decent careers are just as affected by the scourge to perform.

Gender scholar Judith Butler writes,

One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one's body.

In the context of gender, Butler brings to our attention how we act (consciously and unconsciously) as a theory of “performativity.” At the crux of her work on identity is the idea that while it may feel natural to us, everything we do is, in fact, a result of the complex condition of conscious life as programmed by our experiences.

“Performance” thought about in this way isn’t something we put on as a show for others it is an essential part of how our identity originates. We are made from our exposure to the world around us.

This idea might begin to help us understand the process of our subjecthood from the time we were playing dress up as “little princesses” or “mini-firefighters” to imagining what we might be when we grow up to… our first midlife crisis.

To follow Butler’s theory “performing” the conventions we absorb doesn’t mean we’re acting inauthentically, it's the reverse. The implication is that everything we perceive as making up our authentic selves can’t be separated from the ideologies that we take on just by existing in the world.

That’s not all, our actions in turn concretize the narratives that underpin our actions, reinforcing those assumptions we have absorbed as natural. This is because all our systems of meaning are held in language without the use of which nothing could be understood and no exchange can take place.

Butler’s thesis on gender is not the only argument of this nature in modern philosophy. Her ideas build on hundreds of years of thinking about language, meaning, and identity to comment specifically on how the queer experience of gender informs the human experience. These are topics that have been debated in philosophy since the ancient Greeks with no sign of abating.

But what’s the relevance to our ideas of ourselves as producers in the workforce?

Butler’s work on the constructed nature of gender in the 1990s showed us how what had seemed like the most natural thing in the world is an idea that is essentially a social, historical construct that has led to the rules of social engagement that we subject ourselves to.

The takeaway might be that since the rules of how we have come to think and act are inherited, they can also be challenged and changed via reexamination and by consciously choosing to act in different ways now.

What becomes useful to note as we attend to our daily crises of self is that every assumption we hold about the world is held together by an act of co-creation between the ideas that we commonly hold and pass on as truths and the actions we take because they come “naturally” to us.

This rings true whether we’re talking about the correspondence between biological sex and gender expression or the idea that we must do well in school according to the schedule set out by the “system” in order to be happy and successful. At some point, external rewards wear thin and we start looking around for better ways to live.

If you are on the long list of people rethinking what it means to live and work in today’s complex world, there is help out there for you. From career coaching to placement specialists to the plethora of recruitment experts that can help you figure out your next move.

The holy grail remains the possibility of a job that offers the convergence of meaningfulness and satisfaction. But how do we get there?

It’s often through a process of self-examination, mixed with trial and error. Some of us need to work within our zones of genius, for others doing something that makes the world a better place is paramount.

The good people at Vox ( I highly recommend subscribing to "Future Perfect" by Vox) recently brought my attention to this resource:

I certainly will be spending time with it.

There goes my about you?



Butler, J. (2006). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1st ed.). Routledge.

Sirgy, M.J., Yu, G.B., Lee, DJ. et al. The Dual Model of Materialism: Success Versus Happiness Materialism on Present and Future Life Satisfaction. Applied Research Quality Life 16, 201–220 (2021).

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