Work, Poetry, and… Universal Basic Income?


Trying something new this time – finding connections among things that I have seen recently in seemingly totally unconnected contexts.

First, I came across this fun meme on Facebook last week:

marine engineer

I would say that this is probably true of most professions. When we are in school, many of us tend to have very idealized / romanticized visions about the world of work. This starts early on of course, with our fascination with police officers, firemen, truck drivers and so on. Schools help to perpetuate these visions further because they are basically sanitized / controlled environments where a lot of the complexities that one might encounter in the real world are hidden from students. This is further amplified these days because schools are becoming more and more like businesses, and we get to see their ads on TV and on the internet where they show smiling students looking sharp in the careers that were made possible by their education. This of course isn’t too bad because, after all, education is hard work and any motivation you can provide to a student is definitely worth it. Unfortunately this sets up many of us for a shock when we graduate and enter the world of work. Reality hits hard when the fresh graduate finds himself / herself in the typical job environment, even in the best-run companies, with messy working conditions, constantly changing priorities, hard deadlines, tough bosses, and a mixed bag of coworkers. Not to mention taxes and other deductions from your wages. I still remember the shock I got when I received my first paycheck – it was nearly half of what I thought I was going to get!

Of course, as time passes, most people learn to deal with it. Many of them then go on to master their job, and eventually some of them even learn to love it. To the point where, if they were to take a lot of time time off, they start getting bored or antsy. They may not have realized how much they loved their job when they were still doing it, but when they stop, they start to realize it. It is kind of like the song containing the line “Only know you love her when you let her go”:

Hmm… How did we get from the picture of a shocked kid drenched in gunk to loving your job?

This brings me to another thing I saw at a local coffee house this week:

work - Gibran

When I saw it early in the morning before my cup of coffee, it was like a slap in the face for me. Wow! I have read other poetry by Kahlil Gibran, and found it very moving and beautiful. But not this one – this one is definitely a tad harsher. But then (may be as the coffee started to have an effect), I saw what it really was – moving and beautiful – as usual. I looked up the whole poem and here it is:

On Work – Kahlil Gibran

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.
But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.
Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
But I say, not in sleep but in the overwakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;
And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

Isn’t that beautiful? Of course, some people might interpret the poem as too idealistic. I mean, the most common opinion that people have of any profession anywhere in the world is that it is supposed to suck at least somewhat, and usually a lot more. Many jobs suck in their entirety. Most people consider a happy job to be one where they get to do something they love may be 20% of the time, and pay for it the rest of the time. And of course, employers pay you for your drudgery, not your love. Love is free – for you and for them as well.

But I think may be what the poet is saying is that you can see things to love even in the 80% of your job that you think is drudgery. It is not like your job has to perfectly fit some romantic image you have in your mind of what it should be like. It might fit only 20% initially. But as time passes, you may start seeing the beauty even in the 80% that you initially hated. And eventually fall in love with all of it. Just like any good relationship.

But may be not every job can be like that. Typically such jobs are either repetitive or dangerous or dirty and thus hard to love for most people. Luckily, such jobs are prime candidates for automation. And we all know that more and more such jobs will get automated in the near future.

More importantly, not everyone may be able to love their jobs. This could be because there is a mismatch between the job and their skills or talent. May be they don’t have the aptitude or motivation or circumstances to learn to do them. But they continue to do those jobs, unhappily, because they are afraid of what would happen if they were to leave. How will they support themselves and what if they can’t find something better? This is of course a very common situation everywhere.

Moreover, this is happening more and more as the easier jobs get automated and the remaining jobs require a higher level of education and continuous learning abilities. Technology keeps disrupting various job markets and people who lose their jobs as a result are finding it harder to get retrained for the jobs that remain because they require drastically different or much higher level of skills. Today, a lot of people are continuing to do some of these jobs even when they don’t love them, while there are others who might be able to love those jobs but are either jobless or in some other jobs that they don’t love either.

Also, there are some “jobs” that are easier to love but have low perceived commercial value. And of course there are people who are good at them and love them. These are usually things like (non-commercial) art, music, poetry, literature, basic scientific research, non-partisan journalism, and so on. Some might even put high quality education and medical care in this category. Going beyond that, entrepreneurship, which involves delayed gratification and risk of failure, can also be considered to be a part of this category. Particularly when you are talking about entrepreneurship involving ideas that have a long term payoff. While it is possible for human beings to survive without these things, history tells us that societies that can not (or choose not to) support these activities eventually lose their vitality, their “soul”, and die off. One could even argue that the existence and flourishing of such activities is an essential aspect of any successful civilization.

What do we do about people in these two categories? Well, one possibility is the emerging idea of Universal Basic Income. This is basically some low level of income provided to everyone whether they have a paying job or not. (This idea is still very controversial but various countries are already experimenting with it. It remains to be seen how well it works in reality. I came across this idea myself only recently and I am not at a point where I can say whether it is good or bad or even practical but it is certainly worth studying further.)

Anyway, getting back to my narrative, what does this have to do with the poem above? Well, look at the line “And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy”. One can interpret that essentially as some form of a Basic Income mechanism for the people in the first category i.e. those who can’t or are unable to find and love a job – not always due to their own choice of course, but true nonetheless. Harsh, I know, calling Basic Income as “alms”. But one can certainly see the possibility. Plus, the same mechanism can benefit the people in the second category also – those who love their jobs, but their jobs are not considered to have sufficient economic value to allow them to live off of them.

The important point is that it is best for everyone when the people who are most qualified and motivated (and thus capable of loving) a job are the ones who get to to do it. And those who happen to be in a situation where this is not possible for them for whatever reason, they can still live peacefully and continue to work on things they love, enabled by some form of social support or “alms”. Exactly as described in the poem!