Choosing to be Choosey

Forrest Gump had just hit theatres. The special brew of optimism captured by “Life is like a box of chocolates…” would ricochet around the world.

As a fresh-faced philosophy student, my cup wasn’t just half-full — it was spilling over. Plato’s Republic had struck a deep chord with me and I was a much bigger fan of Gumpism.

A Memo to Plato and His Gang

The port of Athens, with its colorful walks of life, was the perfect backdrop to waxing lyrical on the best way to live. Plato and his gang (Socrates, Glaucon, and co.) would cruise the buzzing streets of Piraeus intoxicated by the sights and sea. It was in this serene setting that Plato began shaping the world’s most important philosophical work.

Platonic idealism (alongside the ancient Greek philosophies) was instrumental in giving rise to democracy and laying the bedrock of modern Western civilization.

‘There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those, we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers,’ is one of his finer lines.

In The Republic, the ideal state is divided into three distinct classes: the Producers, who provide material and functional needs; the Auxiliaries, who defend the state; and the Guardians, who govern it. Justice is maintained when every person within a respective class performs his or her proper function in society. This is what blew my lid.

Perhaps still disillusioned, I believe that fairness means giving people the right to make decisions about the function(s) they will fulfill. Just one look at a typical Instagram handle is all we need to demonstrate how we see ourselves.

I was hung up on a philosopher who lived some 2400 years ago proclaiming the best way for everyone to live, and in particular how I should live. Oh, the gall to speak of the desires of my soul and then exclude them from expression! Now, it would certainly be fun to see the expression on Plato’s face were he dropped into a present-day Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo.

Gobsmacked! He rubs his eyes repeatedly, not from the neon lights (although those nearly blind him) but from how technology and mankind move in unison together. With his jaw dropped well below his chiton, we could explain that the world is connected through a vast wired network, that large containers whisk us through the sky high above oceans, and from time to time we travel to other bodies in the galaxy.

The Origins of Work

The word for work in Greek is Ponos. It originates from the Latin poena, meaning sorrow. The ancient Greeks, as well as the Hebrews and medieval Christians, viewed work as a curse. At its base, work was pain and drudgery. It was the divine punishment for man’s original sin and my God were we meant to atone for it.

If we could travel back in time to Piraeus circa 380 BC, we could show off to Plato all the progress we’ve made as a civilization. As writer Tom Streithorst hints,

With an AK-47, a home brewing kit, or a battery-powered vibrator, startled [onlookers] would worship at our feet.

Imagine still yet, if we were to explain to the Greek Gang that we’ve designed machines that actually learn. They can play, paint, sing, write, dance, see, drive, fly and so much more — abiding by whatever program we set. Dearest Plato, the cherished functions of the soul are now augmented by mechanical minds that we’ve designed in our image.

As a religious responsibility, work allowed little room for self-expression. The ‘do what you love’ mantra touted by life hackers and career advice columnists today would be extremely suspect. The value that was found in work came irrespective of the extrinsic reward. You worked in exchange for a non-stop first-class ticket to heaven. Without the benefit of contemplation or control, acceptance of one’s duty was pretty palatable.

The Good Life Revisited

I concede that the monumental period of our history fuelled by Plato and his Gang —would birth Democracy and the foundation of our modern western civilization That’s pretty cool. What’s also pretty neat is how today’s age of information provides endless opportunities to express ourselves whether that be as a crafter beer brewmeister, street mime, or YouTube sensation.

Our high-discretion, personalized, and flexible knowledge work demands self-renewal. The trick is to create the time and space to fuel your working spirit.

With the computer as our paintbrush, our work lives can be extraordinary. We can all be renaissance artists. And as we peer ahead to our future selves, our pal Plato is green with envy.

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Jonas Altman

Jonas Altman

Founder, Coach & Author of the bestseller SHAPERS →