Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals
and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives

(Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) by Jeff Schmidt


This book is stolen. Written in part on stolen time, that is. I felt I had no choice but to do it that way. Like millions of others who work for a living, I was giving most of my prime time to my employer. My job simply didn't leave me enough energy for a major project of my own, and no one was about to hire me to pursue my own vision, especially given my irreverent attitude toward employers. I was working in New York City as an editor at a glossy science magazine, but my job, like most professional jobs, was not intellectually challenging and allowed only the most constrained creativity. I knew that if I were not contending with real intellectual challenges and exercising real creativity—and if I were not doing anything to shape the world according to my own ideals—life would be unsatisfying, not to mention stressful and unexciting. The thought of just accepting my situation seemed insane. So I began spending some office time on my own work, dumped my TV to reappropriate some of my time at home, and wrote this book. Not coincidentally, it is about professionals, their role in society, and the hidden battle over personal identity that rages in professional education and employment.

The predicament I was in will sound painfully familiar to many professionals. Indeed, generally speaking, professionals today are not happy campers. After years of worshiping work, many seemingly successful professionals are disheartened and burned out, not because of their 70-hour workweeks, but because their salaries are all they have to show for their life-consuming efforts. They long for psychic rewards, but their employers' emphasis on control and the bottom line is giving them only increased workloads, closer scrutiny by management and unprecedented anxiety about job security. In this way the cold reality of employer priorities has led to personal crises for many of this country's 20 million professionals.

Burned-out professionals may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, because typically they stay on the job and maintain their usual high level of output. But they feel like they are just going through the motions. They have less genuine curiosity about their work, feel less motivated to do it and get less pleasure from it. The emotional numbness inevitably spreads from their work lives into their personal lives. According to Herbert J. Freudenberger, the New York psychologist who coined the term burnout in the mid-1970s, the personal consequences are wide-ranging and profound: cynicism, disconnection, loss of vitality and authenticity, decreased enjoyment of family life, anger, strained relationship with spouse or partner, divorce, obsessive behavior such as "workaholism," chronic fatigue, poor eating habits, neglect of friends, social isolation, loneliness—and the list of symptoms goes on. Freudenberger tells me he has seen a big increase in career burnout among professionals in the past twenty years. Ironically, such depression is most likely to hit the most devoted professionals—those who have been the most deeply involved in their work. You can't burn out if you've never been on fire.

The problem shows no sign of easing. In fact, the ranks of troubled professionals are swelling as members of Generation X finish school and rack up a few years in the workforce. Many Xers, having observed the unfulfilling work ethic of their baby boom predecessors, want their own working lives to be fun and meaningful from the get-go. Starting out with priorities that took boomers a decade to figure out, but in no better position to act on those priorities, Xers are simply having career crises at an earlier age. Clearly, there is an urgent need to understand why career work so often fails to fulfill its promise.

I argue that the hidden root of much career dissatisfaction is the professional's lack of control over the "political" component of his or her creative work. Explaining this component is a major focus of this book. Today's disillusioned professionals entered their fields expecting to do work that would "make a difference" in the world and add meaning to their lives. In this book I show that, in fact, professional education and employment push people to accept a role in which they do not make a significant difference, a politically subordinate role. I describe how the intellectual boot camp known as graduate or professional school, with its cold-blooded expulsions and creeping indoctrination, systematically grinds down the student's spirit and ultimately produces obedient thinkers—highly educated employees who do their assigned work without questioning its goals. I call upon students and professionals to engage in just such questioning, not only for their own happiness, but for society's sake as well.

This book shows that professional education is a battle for the very identity of the individual, as is professional employment. It shows how students and working professionals face intense pressure to compromise their ideals and sideline their commitment to work for a better world. And it explores what individuals can do to resist this pressure, hold on to their values and pursue their social visions. People usually don't think of school and work in terms of such a high-stakes struggle. But if they did, they would be able to explain why so many professional training programs seem more abusive than enlightening, and why so many jobs seem more frustrating than fulfilling.

I decided to write this book when I was in graduate school myself, getting a PhD in physics, and was upset to see many of the best people dropping out or being kicked out. Simply put, those students most concerned about others were the most likely to disappear, whereas their self-centered, narrowly focused peers were set for success. The most friendly, sympathetic and loyal individuals, those who stubbornly continued to value human contact, were handicapped in the competition. They were at a disadvantage not only because their attention was divided, but also because their beliefs about big-picture issues such as justice and social impact caused them to stop, think and question. Their hesitation and contemplation slowed them down, tempered their enthusiasm and drew attention to their deviant priorities, putting them at a disadvantage relative to their unquestioning, gung-ho classmates. Employers, too, I realized, favored people who kept their concerns about the big picture nicely under control, always in a position of secondary importance relative to the assigned work at hand. Thus I saw education and employment as a self-consistent, but deeply flawed, system. I wrote this book in the hope of exposing the problem more completely and thereby forcing change.

A system that turns potentially independent thinkers into politically subordinate clones is as bad for society as it is for the stunted individuals. It bolsters the power of the corporations and other hierarchical organizations, undermining democracy. As I will explain in detail, it does this by producing people who are useful to hierarchies, and only to hierarchies: uncritical employees ready and able to extend the reach of their employers' will. At the same time, a system in which individuals do not make a significant difference at their point of deepest involvement in society—that is, at work—undermines efforts to build a culture of real democracy. And in a subordinating system, organizations are more likely to shortchange or even abuse clients, because employees who know their place are not effective at challenging their employers' policies, even when those policies adversely affect the quality of their own work on behalf of clients.

This book is intended for a broad range of professionals, nonprofessionals and students, and for anyone interested in how today's society works. It is for students who wonder why graduate or professional school is so abusive. It is for nonprofessionals who wonder why the professionals at work are so often insufferable, and who want to be treated with greater respect. It is for socially concerned professionals who wonder why their liberal colleagues behave so damn conservatively in the workplace. (Chapter 1 explains how professionals are fundamentally conservative even though liberalism is the dominant ideology in the professions.) It is for individuals who are frustrated by the restrictions on their work and troubled by the resulting role they play—or don't play—in the world. It is also for those who simply find their careers much less fulfilling than they had expected and aren't exactly sure why.

Disillusioned lawyers, doctors, financial analysts, journalists, teachers, social workers, scientists, engineers and other highly educated employees are looking for a deeper understanding of why their lives are stressful and feel incomplete. My hope is that readers will find such an understanding in these pages, along with effective strategies for corrective action. If you are a professional, coming to understand the political nature of what you do, as part of an honest reassessment of what it really means to be a professional, can be liberating. It can help you recover your long-forgotten social goals and begin to pursue them immediately, giving your life greater meaning and eliminating a major source of stress. It can help you become a savvy player in the workplace and reclaim some lost autonomy. And, ironically, it can help you command greater respect from management and receive greater recognition and reward, without necessarily working harder.

If you are a student, understanding the political nature of professional work can help you hold on to your values and moral integrity as you navigate the minefields of professional training and, later, employment. For students trying to get through professional training intact, this book can serve as something of a survival guide, explaining the frightening experiences and warning of what lies in store.

If you are a nonprofessional, you experience even more lack of control, unfulfilling work, insecurity and other sources of stress than do professionals. As a consequence, the toll on your physical and psychological well-being is even greater than that suffered by professionals. If you want to act individually or collectively to improve your situation, then it pays to know what makes your professional coworkers tick. Such awareness can help you figure out which people you can trust and how far you can trust them. When professional and nonprofessional employees maintain solidarity in the workplace, they can cover for each other and get more concessions from their employer. But any alliance between unequal partners is doubly risky for the less powerful party—in this case the nonprofessionals, who are at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy. By understanding professionals, you reduce the chances of being double-crossed by them. You'll be treated with more respect, too.

Whatever your occupation, you have to deal with a variety of professionals when you are off the job. Most of these professionals work for others, not directly for you. Whether you visit an HMO, send kids to school, request a government service, see a counselor, get assistance from a social worker, deal with a lawyer, file a consumer complaint or contact a local TV station or newspaper, understanding the political nature of professional work will help you get better service. If you are involved in an independent organization working for social change, you have to contend not only with professionals in the corporations or agencies that your group confronts, but also with professionals advising your own organization. Groups that simply trust professionals without truly understanding them are very likely to be misdirected or sold out by those professionals.

And, of course, everyone deals with professionals indirectly, too. For instance, newspapers, magazines, radio and television are filled with supposedly objective news reports, analyses and studies prepared by professionals. What should you believe? To truly understand the output of these or other professionals, you first need to understand the political nature of the professional's role at work.

The political nature of professional work is this book's unifying theme. To make the case that the professional's work is inherently political, I examine not only professionals and what they do (part one: chapters 1 to 6), but also the system that prepares them to do it (part two: chapters 7 to 13) and the battle that one must fight to be politically independent (part three: chapters 14 to 16).

My hope is that whether you are a professional, a nonprofessional or a student, you will find here an unsettling but empowering new way of looking at yourself, your colleagues, the institution that employs or trains you, and society as a whole. This book strives to arm you with a very practical analytical tool that you can use to your advantage in whatever individual and collective struggles you find yourself in as an employee, student, organization member, consumer or citizen.

A note on pronouns. To avoid overuse of phrases such as "he or she," I will use female pronouns in part one and male pronouns in part two (the problem doesn't arise in part three). Today most professionals are women, and the female majority, which stood at 53% in 1997, is growing. Women have long made up large majorities in professions with relatively low social status and salary; thus teachers, social workers, registered nurses and librarians have been said to labor in the subprofessions. But today the proportion of women is increasing throughout the professions. Nearly half the students now in medical school and law school, for example, are women, up from about 9% in 1970.

A note on references. Many of the references listed at the end of each chapter make for fascinating reading. I encourage you to look further into topics in this book that interest you, and so I have given lots of references and have spelled things out to make them as easy as possible to look up. Time spent with these materials will surely be thought provoking, informative and entertaining.