Why a passion economy will save us

Introduction to this project:

My name is Fié, I’m an artist. At the end of 2020, I enrolled in a business course to try and understand why we are stuck in a financial system that’s broken. My assumption was that corporate cultures are toxic, people hate their 9 to 6 jobs, it’s a power game that cares for one’s own self interest first and foremost without much consideration of ethics, fair treatment of staff, environmental consequences and the inequalities in the world. I looked at the business world from the outside as this greedy machine that exploits natural resources and cheap labour without any morality because the profit maximising mantra is highest above all. I figured the key to systemic change lies in the business world that, like it or not, also provides many jobs for people. So I decided, why not challenge these assumptions and use socially engaged processes of openness, active listening and empathy to try and understand the other perspective? My Business Diaries is a creative project that documents my learning over the months. This is a series of diary entries, so read it as such. There might not be a start or an end, maybe just a thought, a reflection, a scene in my memory that’s captured but maybe in some bits you will find resonance and when you read the entire series, it will make much more sense. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

8.4.21

My Business Diaries #1: What is a career to you?

When we think of career, what comes to mind first is often the position and title we hold at an organisation or a company. How big or small or recognised the institution we work in makes all the difference in status and power. How fat our pay check is determines how successful we are. But does this necessarily translate to wellbeing?

We see so many parents busy and caught up with their careers they barely have time for their children. Child caring and child rearing becomes something that can be outsourced to nannies, maids, centres… To compensate for that and to quench their guilt, they pamper their kids with gifts and give in to their wants. Perhaps what the child needs most is less affluence but more time and care.

The higher up the hierarchy, the more the responsibilities and work load. The pay might be higher but time also becomes a scarcity. When we think about wellbeing (the alone time we need for ourselves, the social time we need for communities, the family bonding time we need for parents, partners or children), how much of a balance do we strike between that and work?

Relationships take time and effort to maintain. The need for community is our need for social bonding; to support and be supported. Any plant that isn't watered enough withers and dies. So do relationships.

When we think about career progression and the career ladder we climb, is it worth it to be at the top only to realise that so many close friends and family have been neglected in that endless pursuit?

I get it but I'm busy.

Now, let's think a little deeper about the social structures we live in and the narratives that have been built to make us hardworking, productive and efficient minions for the economy.

Singapore is a small country, a city state with little natural resources and depends on our population and labour to keep the economy going. For the longest time we've been on survival mode, keeping this small country going post independence. We invest a lot in our people because the higher the quality of our population, the higher the tier of services we can offer to continue growing. We excel and strive to stay at the top of rankings to keep ourselves relevant and useful to the rest of the world so that we can continue being the compelling option for businesses. Competition is built into our culture so that a small country like us can compete and excel on a global stage. We cannot afford to have political issues, it's bad for business. If it's bad for business, jobs are affected and people suffer. So we censor and stay away from difficult topics in fear of tensions and social unrest. We prioritise education and seed into our cultural narrative that studying hard will lead you to good places. But only in these certain subjects because the most money can be made from them.

The idea of a career is also largely influenced by our economic needs and social recognition or respect for these jobs. There is a hierarchy among jobs. A corporate job in the big four? Yesss. Teaching at MOE? Not bad. A hawker? Erm… Is your business doing well? Are you going to franchise? If it's famous good for you. An artist? Is that even a career? We don't need you here. As social creatures responsive to social cues and norms, we tend towards what is socially acceptable and deemed respectable. If we've built cultural narratives that caters to our nation's economic and social needs (these needs largely determined politically), then in Singapore's context, whatever builds the economy, directly or indirectly, will be advocated and respected in this narrative that was written.

If we don't leave space for quiet introspection, critical reflections and open conversations, we end up missing out on important social and emotional needs that have yet to be identified or decided as important enough to promote in society.

Have we, as a society, paused to consider what we are passionate about, what our dreams are, what we enjoy doing, what we love, what brings us fulfilment?

"Sometimes you take the job you don't like and do the work for the pay because you have to be responsible for family. That's the sacrifice to be made."

"Was it worth it?"

"Yeah, it was for me. But that depends on each person's value system and what is important for them."

The above conversation is so pertinent, not just on a micro personal level but also on a social macro perspective. People sacrifice to provide for family. As a nation we are expected to sacrifice our dreams and passions (if they don't bring in economic value). People hit a midlife crisis when they realise they don't enjoy what they are doing and find their work meaningless. By then decades might have passed, many years lost. They look back on their lives and don't know what they've been doing. We've not built a society that encourages individuals to become the best version of themselves, to live passionate and fulfilled lives. We've built a structure that sees individuals as parts that are needed to keep the economy going. The system isn't serving us. We are serving the system.

For some, maybe what they really want to do is gardening or cooking or making music. But there's not much prestige or money in there so people sacrifice their dreams and what they love to take on a job that pays the bills.

What if we let our fears of uncertainty stop us from discovering the potential of growth and job opportunities in dreams and passions? When we look at the climate crisis, materialistic consumption is driving us towards humanity's downfall. Even if we create more eco-friendly products and recycle waste to make furniture, what is best for the planet is non consumption. Then there won't be rubbish to begin with, forests don't have to be deforested, precious metals remain underground and the environment unharmed. But there is no money in non consumption so we are investing instead on 'green' consumption. Here's the thing. The services that people can offer by teaching or sharing their passion can create an economy of growth that is untapped. It requires value shifting so that consumption habits will change. But if we spend our money supporting people in the work they are passionate about, learning gardening and permaculture, attending a music jam session or participating in a community building arts project, we increase our social capital while allowing ourselves to be inspired, reflect and grow.

Personal growth is what's going to bring systems change. Systems change is what we need to leave behind a habitable planet for our younger generations. What we need now and what you can start doing, is supporting people's passion and taking the time to ask yourself: What brings you joy and fulfilment?

Interested in discovering your purpose and learning to tell your story? Check out my website for workshops and more.

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fié neo

fié neo

Fié Neo is an interdisciplinary artist and intersectional thinker. Instagram @feeyeh_neo | Podcast: OnionsTalk