“In [the child’s] universe of definite and substantial things, beneath the sovereign eyes of grown-up persons, he thinks that he too has being in a definite and substantial way. He is a good little boy or a scamp; he enjoys being it.” – Simone de Beauvoir
I wrote almost half of my undergraduate thesis on Beauvoir; aside from learning a great deal about ethics from her, I also learned a lot about being a student and a worker. Beauvoir wrote about a fundamental tension within human beings created by the dueling desires to be free and responsible (a subject) on the one hand, and to be defined and chosen for (an object) on the other. Like many who care about their work, I wrestled with this tension constantly as a student. Essentially, I had an “overachiever” mindset, one that ran counter to the ethical principle of authenticity I admire in Beauvoir’s work.
When Beauvoir describes the child’s universe as one of “definite and substantial things,” she indicates that, to children, the world appears to have ready-made rules, values and authorities. The grown-ups are solidified in their role of authority and the child is solidified by the judgments of grown-ups. He can enjoy being a good little boy or a scamp because he has definite being, which means he’s an object with a defined essence. There’s comfort in being reified – made into a thing. For the underling in any work or academic relationship, the temptation to be reified is palpable.
For Beauvoir, reification disburdens the individual of the frightening freedom to create herself, to make choices and be responsible for them, to dig deep for values and answers rather than seeking them ready-made in the world outside her. The child fails to account for the fact that his role of “scamp” or “good little boy” depends on his behavior. Once he grows older and sees the fallibility of adults, the arbitrariness of certain rules and his own (at least partial) responsibility for how he’s esteemed, he’ll face the burden of acknowledging his freedom. For Beauvoir, this burden isn’t a bad thing. Though heavy, it’s essential to authentic and dignified existence. Having the courage to be unsettled, indefinite and always in process – that’s one of the things that struck me in Beauvoir’s work. This courage, however, doesn’t come naturally to me.
The Student as The Child
When I first read Beauvoir’s description of the child, I saw myself – then a full-grown 27 years old, returned to school after a long hiatus to finally finish my degree. I’ve always been a bit of an “overachiever,” particularly when it comes to things I care a great deal about. I’ll spend twice as long as expected on an assignment; I’ll worry twice as much about the result. It’s easy to praise these approaches as signs of a solid work ethic. But Beauvoir got me thinking that there might be something else behind my overachieving ways, something problematic and, in her ethics, inauthentic.
I’m prone to consider the products of my work to be extensions of myself. To a degree, I stand by this; if my work is hasty, incomplete and careless, that speaks poorly of me. However, the sentiment becomes problematic when I go beyond seeing my work as an extension to treating it as an embodiment of myself. At certain times in my thesis writing, I found myself staking my entire worth on the quality of the project.
By over-identifying with my work, I put myself in danger of over-relying on external authority to define my project (and, by proxy, me). The grown-ups beneath whose eyes I existed were my professors; I became conscious of myself looking to them for confirmation of my project’s worth (and, by proxy, my own). Unlike the child, I wouldn’t enjoy being a scamp; I wanted to be reified as a good little student. If I had taken the standards and values upon which my project was based as ready-made outside myself, I might have guided the direction of my project and made edits to it solely for the approval of my professors, even though this may have severed the project from my own values and desired direction. Luckily, the grown-ups under whom I worked didn’t conduct themselves as “sovereigns” and strongly encouraged student autonomy.
I think I achieved a balance between attending to the views of my professors and attending to my own. I never stopped respecting their input and considering their advice, since they had tremendously valid, useful and insightful feedback. Being a subject doesn’t mean asserting oneself over and against others; it means not relying on others exclusively. This, I think, is an important balance for us students to maintain.
For all that, my experience as a student was not as authentic as it could have been. I continued for much of the process to over-identify with my work. I wasn’t being reified by the gaze of my professors, but I was trying to reify myself in that project, under my own gaze. If, like Beauvoir, we see human beings as always becoming, then we’re not what we do; none of our undertakings can embody us. We’re the capacity for making choices, the freedom behind our undertakings that was there before them and goes on after them. I wanted my worth to be set in stone by that project, rather than facing the fact that my life will go on outside its confines and I’ll need to continually establish my worth to myself and in this world in many different ways.
Whether I’m pursuing a degree, a career or a particular project, I’ll keep trying to resist the temptation of false reification. While the burden of constantly becoming and creating demands more work of us overall, it also helps to alleviate some of the anxiety that comes from a myopic focus on one aspect of life. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard or value our work. It means we accept that, contrary to the child’s perception, the universe of identity is not so definite or substantial.
Are you an overachiever? Have any tips to encourage a healthy orientation toward work? Share your stories and advice in the comments below.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1948), 36.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Smith, Flickr