Basketball legend Phil Jackson is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. As head coach, he has won eleven NBA championships (an NBA coaching record), six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers; to no one’s surprise, in 2007 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Due to health concerns–including a battle with prostate cancer–he retired from professional basketball in 2011, with a near-perfect legacy, a loving family, and a personal fortune of close to fifty million dollars.
Except he didn’t retire. Not really. Earlier this month he announced that he had accepted a new job with a new challenge: president of basketball operations for the underperforming New York Knicks. The obvious question is why? As a multi-millionaire he certainly has no need to work any longer, and at age 68 no one would accuse him of indolence if he simply chose comfortable retirement. This very question was the subject of a discussion I listened to recently on sports talk radio. One by one the hosts eliminated possibilities. Was it money? Certainly not–Jackson has more money than he knows what to do with. Was it legacy? Unlikely; if anything, running a team as dysfunctional as the Knicks might hurt Jackson’s already exemplary record. They talked about it back and forth until one of the hosts simply said, “The truth is, a guy like Phil Jackson needs something to do.”
He may not have known this, but the radio host was perfectly paraphrasing the great Viennese psychologist, Sigmund Freud.
In his 1929 book Civilization and its Discontents, Freud observed that there are two pillars which form the basis of all civilizations, both past and present, and that these two pillars are not only fundamental to the functioning of society, they are also deeply woven into the human psyche. One of these pillars is love. The other is work. Simply put, Freud argued that we need to work. It gives our lives meaning and purpose; in addition to material gain and social status it also serves the very primal function of giving us something to do. Human beings are not meant for continuous leisure. We need to do something that is of value to those around us. As much as we need to love and be loved, we need to work.
Not everyone agrees with this idea, of course. Centuries earlier another great thinker, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, espoused a very different view of work.
He thought that work was harmful to human dignity and a degradation to the mind. In his view of things the ideal life would involve independent wealth allowing one to never work again and instead devote one’s time entirely to philosophy, the pursuit of knowledge and the perfecting of reasoning. Now in Aristotle’s case this may well make sense; after all, he was a legitimate genius in every sense of the word and made countless contributions to human knowledge in the fields of mathematics, science, ethics, medicine, and philosophy. In a sense, Aristotle *did* work at this fields, his entire life. He just didn’t like using the word.
I find Phil Jackson’s story to be quite fascinating and there are many other stories like his, stories of rich and powerful people who could relax into a luxurious retirement, free to pursue whatever interests they desire, yet who shun a life of leisure in favor of a new or renewed vocation. Think about Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who, at the age of 85, still works full-time in finance and industry.
What on earth for? Almost twenty years Jackson’s senior and with a fortune that dwarfs Jackson’s own, surely Pickens is entitled to just retire and spend the rest of his days on a yacht off the coast of Hawaii? Jackson and Pickens have what every average person who squanders their salary on lottery tickets dreams of: enough money to never have to work again. Yet they continue to work, longer hours and with more demands and pressure than most people face throughout their careers.
When teachers inevitably talk to students about jobs and careers I hope they remember that salary and job security, while of obvious importance, are only a small part of vocation. Schools should not be career preparation centers, but institutions dedicated to helping students find and achieve their deepest, fullest sense of who they are, a sense that must and will involve meaningful work. Because life is empty if it is just about the weekend. The five days in between are the majority of our time, and it is there that we can potentially find something of tremendous value and abiding worth.
Because I am convinced it was Freud, not Aristotle, who was right.