What Careerist Americans Can Learn From Ike, Dorothy Day and Jimmy Buffett

For some, intense work should eventually give way to introspection. Other people should just chill out immediately.

Dorothy Day, the famous convert to Catholicism, who ministered to the poor.

Sketching Dwight Eisenhower's upbringing in Abilene, Kansas, historian Stephen Ambrose related an anecdote about the future president's moral education. Though well-loved by everyone in town for his good-natured curiosity, "Little Ike had a terrible temper," Ambrose wrote. "Anger would possess him, take complete control, make him oblivious to anything else. The adrenalin rushed through his body, raising the hair on the back of his neck, turning his face a bright beet-red." One Halloween, kept in from trick-or-treating while his older siblings sought candy, "anger overwhelmed him. He rushed outside and began pounding the trunk of an apple tree with his bare fists. He sobbed and pounded until his fists were a raw bleeding mass of torn flesh."

Up in his bedroom, Ike cried into his pillow for an hour. His mother entered the room. And then she paraphrased a Bible verse that he'd forever look back on as his most valuable childhood lesson:

He who conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.

The paraphrased quote, repeated during a meandering Wednesday conversation between David Brooks and Arianna Huffington, comes as close as any one statement can to distilling what the ideologically not-quite-opposites both regard as a flaw in the American psyche: we overvalue professional success, measured in money and power, and undervalue introspection and the life well-lived*. "There's a moment for striving and achieving," Huffington said, but also a time for serving others, or for simply being -- cognizant that most earthly problems are revealed as inconsequential when we step back and ponder them in the grand scheme of the universe.

Brooks cited Dorothy Day as a role model in that respect. "She had this incredible career creating the Catholic Social Worker, then a bunch of soup kitchens for homeless people, a bunch of hospitals. She'd built this tremendous empire doing good," he said. "But one of the precious moments comes at the end of her life. She's a brilliant writer. She's been writing her whole life. She's giving an interview. And she says, 'I thought at the end of my life that I would write a memoir. So I sat down and I wrote at the top of the page, A Memoir. But I didn't feel like writing much. I'd sit down and start thinking about God, and how glad I was that he'd been on my mind. And I decided not to do it.' For such a great writer and an ambitious person, it was a moment when she decided not to write, not to create. Just to enjoy what she had. And it's a nice moment of surrender at the end of a life, when the ambitious side of her kneels down to the spiritual side, and she has that moment of tranquility. It's a beautiful end to a tremendous life."

As I listened to this exchange, I suddenly recalled a piece that went around the blogosphere back in 2011, when David Roberts, who also believes Americans focus too much on money and power, came up with a very different solution: rather than intense periods of achievement followed by introspection, why not just insist on a significant degree of chill in your life at all times?

He called it the medium chill:

"Medium chill" has become something of a slogan for my wife and me....We now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the "next thing" on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools.

All that stuff people with more money than us do.

But ... meh.

It's not that we don't think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don't want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.

So why do it?

There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don't need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it's a good life, we've already got it, and we're damn well going to enjoy it. That's the best thing about the medium chill: unlike the big chill, you already have it.

It's available today, at affordable prices!

Tyler Cowen talked about the same sort of attitude in economic terms:

A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to "get by" in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure--whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person's income will never rise much above the threshold.

I wonder what Brooks and Huffington would think of the "medium chill" lifestyle. They'd perhaps argue that, if Dwight Eisenhower or Dorothy Day had adopted that attitude, we'd all be worse off. Hell, if Brooks and Huffington themselves had adopted that attitude we'd be worse off. But not everyone can lead the D-Day invasion, or approach saintly status, or even publish columns or Web sites that reach millions. So maybe Day's "a time for achievement, a time for reflection" is the right approach to life for some people... and "the medium chill" for others?

That's what Reihan Salam once gestured towards:

My own view is that a fairly large number of people are believers in "medium chill" and that a relatively small group of people -- I call them "killers" -- constitute a neurotic, ultra-productive minority that drives our economy forward, and sometimes backward. Roberts might see these people as deeply mistaken about the sources of the good life. I think of them as differently wired, like the sleepless elite, and their tireless efforts account for many of the things the rest of us enjoy.

Killers are the people who found high-growth business enterprises and who work crazy hours staring at spreadsheets or running regressions. Sometimes they do it in the often false belief that it will improve their status, thus winning the affection of members of the opposite sex, etc. There are also killers who just like the thrill of competition. Killers can be found in non-profits and the public sector, though not quite as often as they are found in lucrative slices of the for-profit economy. I'd like to see more killers in the public sector, which is why I favor more autonomy for public sector workers and more dispersion in public sector compensation.

I haven't any answers for you on this subject, but given a research grant to study it, I'd work very hard to gain access to the enigmatic Jimmy Buffett. Is he the most successful medium chill American ever? Or the "killer" who most persuasively plays a medium chill person in public?


*By mastering himself, Ike was able to get through frustrating situations early in a career that didn't seem like it would end in glory, Brooks explained, and to be ready when his opportunity came. Mastering oneself emotionally and making peace with the chill lifestyle arguably require similar kinds of discipline.