“Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:6
“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep.” Eccl. 5:12
“Do not overwork to be rich; because of your own understanding, cease! Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven.” Proverbs 23:4-5
Americans are known to be a hard-working, industrious people. Our productivity ranks ahead of the vast majority of countries in the world. We have the highest GDP and we are truly the engine of the global economy.
But all this comes with downsides, and I write this essay is to help us consider these downsides and think outside the box on how and why we actually overwork, meaning to work harder than is necessary. In some parts of the country, like Maryland, people pride themselves on how hard they work and how late they work. Working hard is, in and of itself, a badge of honor in Maryland. It doesn’t matter what you were working on as long as you worked hard. Career is everything in Maryland, so working hard is a way of standing out in a competitive talent marketplace.
For native central Marylanders, the typical life script goes something like this: You are born into an upper middle class family to two degree-holding parents who work. In fact, they both have to work in order to afford to live in the best school district. You go through school alongside the children of other upper middle class families, and then you go to an expensive college like University of Maryland, during which you have a (probably unpaid) internship at a government contractor/consulting firm because your parents paid for at least some of your college, meaning you didn’t have to work for the period of time of your internship. You graduate from college and either start working right away at the place where you interned, or somewhere similar, especially if it’s somewhere your parents or friends have contacts.
Now that you’re working full time, your next hurdle is to buy a house. If your work is close enough to your hometown, you might even live with your parents for the first several years of your career to save up money. I saw this all the time in Maryland. Once you are established and making enough money to afford rent or a mortgage, you get your own place. Now, if you didn’t already meet someone in college, you’re ready for a serious relationship. You’re about 26 by this time. You date off and on for a few years and get married around 30-32. You wait a couple years and have a kid, finally fulfilling anxious parental expectations. Both of you are working and will continue to work, daycare bills notwithstanding. This is of course assuming you actually choose to have one or more kids, in which case the cycle begins anew. You might just get one or more dogs instead, which is not uncommon. Having dogs will then let you fulfill your care-giving instincts without having the responsibilities of a child.
To a native Marylander, this life script must seem normal, and I imagine it’s the same for anyone living in New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area. However, not being from Maryland or any place like it, I see some glaring holes with the typical central Maryland life script that need to be pointed out. And by the way, even though I say central Maryland, it’s generally the aspiration of young people all over Maryland to move to central MD/DC area to go to the top colleges and get the high-paying jobs. At that point, they put down roots there, and their one or two kids will then join the central Maryland life script. Not to mention all the people coming from other parts of the country, and even other countries, for high-paying government and government contractor jobs. So what’s wrong with this script of a successful life?
The biggest problem with Maryland’s life script is that there is no room for error. You have to stay at the top of your game from ages zero to retirement or you will fall behind and never be back at the head of the pack like you’re supposed to be. Disciplinary problems in grade school? Repeated a grade? Family problems? Family moved around within the state and you lost touch with your childhood friends, whom you might have relied on later to help you get a job? Partied too hard your freshman year of college and never recovered? Moved somewhere else after college and came back but lost touch with your contacts? Health problems causing problems for your career?
These are all examples of things that could put you at a permanent disadvantage in the Maryland rat race. Because everyone idolizes the perfect life script, there is no real sympathy for people whom it doesn’t go perfectly for. It is expected that everything goes perfectly, and people are primarily interested in associating with people who have had that perfect life, because they know such people have the best chance of helping them climb the ladder. So, those who have fallen behind in one way or another are subconsciously viewed as some sort of “inferior human product” of human debris. There is no benefit to associating with such people, especially since the need to have a social life in Maryland is under-acknowledged. Everyone is so busy with work that they’ve become numb to the need for true, deep social interaction. Sure, you may go on a Saturday hike with some people you don’t know very well, and photos on Facebook show the world that yes, you have a social life. But if that’s the extent of things, you are socially unfulfilled. But in Maryland, people don’t admit to that, because having any kind of problems is seen as a weakness and a sign of an imperfect life script. The whole situation is one big pressure cooker, and many don’t survive very well.
You can look around and see the spoiled kids of dual-income suburban parents, acting out in their own ways like crazy-colored hair, piercings, tattoos, or all three. These kids think they’re rebelling, but they don’t question the system around them—the pressure cooker that is Maryland careerism—that has led them to act out this way. It’s like rebelling without rebelling. That’s how effective and self-reinforcing the whole thing is. If you were to complain about it, you’d likely be viewed as someone who “just can’t cut it” in career, or else you wouldn’t be complaining. But that’s the most effective brainwashing of all, if you think about it. So many people in Maryland have little inner life because career takes up so much time and energy—and that’s just in order to maintain a baseline level of existence. You don’t get anything extra for it. What a waste of time and energy!
I mentioned earlier how the main problem is lack of room for error. The second problem is the stress level. Marylanders undergo a level of stress that is simply not natural, between social pressures to be successful, neurotic expectations of upper middle class parents, relationship difficulties due to women who avoid men to focus on career (following the script), the soul-killing daily commute, and the hyper-competitive, antisocial mood of everyone around you. But if you let it get to you, if you slip up, you will fall behind and probably never catch up. It’s a double whammy, and most people in Maryland are somehow mollified into thinking this is a normal way to live. They let off steam by binge-watching Netflix, drinking, and complaining about politics on social media. What creativity might these people otherwise be providing to the world if they weren’t so busy being wage slaves?
In light of all this, what is normal, you ask? Well, all I can say is that most of the country doesn’t live the way Maryland does. For instance, take my home state of New Mexico. It’s often called the “Land of Mañana,” meaning land of tomorrow, as in, “don’t worry about it today, we can do it tomorrow.” People here understand that life is not about career. It is about family, relationships, experiences, and even faith, depending on who you talk to. Career is necessary, but it’s not an end unto itself. People here don’t just work hard for the sake of working hard.
Sure, New Mexico is one of poorest states, but the people here are way, way nicer and less judgmental than in Maryland. There is no “perfect life script” here that everyone is expected to follow like in Maryland. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone here. People make more time for social experiences because they don’t see other people as an inconvenience like Marylanders often do. In Maryland, hanging out with others is OK, but it must be on a strict schedule because they have to get up super early for their commute tomorrow. People’s schedules during the week are so jam-packed with commitments that there is no room for socialization on a weeknight, and weekends are the only option. That is a sign that your job controls you instead of you controlling your job.
I don’t say this to exalt New Mexico but to show that there are other options besides the way Marylanders live. Often, you cannot understand the flaws in something without seeing alternatives. The differences between the two states is a topic I plan to write more about, but my main message in this essay is this: Marylanders, think outside the box you’ve been raised in or transplanted into. Think for yourself, and take control of your happiness by simplifying your life. Don’t be a cog in the Maryland Perfect Life machine.
Oh, and there’s plenty of space out here in New Mexico.