Want-ology®

signposts

Welcome to the surreal world of today.

IN the sprawling outskirts of San Jose, Calif., I find myself at the apartment door of Katherine Ziegler, a psychologist and wantologist. Could it be, I wonder, that there is such a thing as a wantologist, someone we can hire to figure out what we want? Have I arrived at some final telling moment in my research on outsourcing intimate parts of our lives, or at the absurdist edge of the market frontier?

This opening from an article in the NYTimes, by Arlie Hochschild of Second Shift fame, really shook me up. Hochschild suggests that the professional appelation was strange-sounding to her. It’s not just the name that gets to me. It’s the very idea that we should require therapy or coaching to calm our anxieties over what to buy next. This is not the same as therapy for addiction to consumption although it comes close. Hochschild’s thesis is that so much of what we “want to have” in our daily lives comes from the market that we develop pathological symptoms by the choices and the transactional nature of the process.

I couldn’t agree more strongly. More evidence that have fallen deeper into the “having” mode of lie that Fromm writes about. How bad does it have to get before everything that makes us human and differentiates us from other animals becomes just another innovation brought to us through the magic of the invisible hand? She continues:

In the 1940s, there were no life coaches; in 2010, there were 30,000. The last time I Googled “dating coach,” 1,200,000 entries popped up. “Wedding planner” had over 25 million entries. The newest entry, Rent-a-Friend, has 190,000 entries. . . And, in a world that undermines community, disparages government and marginalizes nonprofit organizations as ways of meeting growing needs of working families, these are likely to proliferate. As will the corresponding cultural belief in the superiority of what’s for sale. . . The bad news in this case is the capacity of the service market, with all its expertise, to sap self-confidence in our own capacities and those of friends and family. . . Consider some recent shifts in language. Care of family and friends is increasingly referred to as “lay care.” The act of meeting a romantic partner at a flesh-and-blood gathering rather than online is disparaged by some dating coaches as “dating in the wild.”

The story continues with a turn to the emotional and concerns about this “outsourcing” trend on emotional health.

As we outsource more of our private lives, we find it increasingly possible to outsource emotional attachment. A busy executive, for example, focuses on efficiency; his assistant tells me, “My boss outsources patience to me.” The wealthy employer of a household manager detaches herself from the act of writing personal Christmas-present labels. A love coach encourages clients to think of dating as “work,” and to be mindful of their R.O.I. — return on investment, of emotional energy, time and money. The grieving family member hires a Tombstone Butler to beautify a loved one’s burial site. [This one sounds so cold and crass, and has to be about the most inauthentic action possible. Is care really present here?]

I think this is more serious than simply a psychological issue. It is an ontological issue--fancy words for saying we have lost our understanding of what makes us human. We are caring creatures, and caring means acting out of a sense of attachment or connection to whatever is at the other. The market is fundamentally impersonal and amoral. I am fond of quoting Robert Heilbroner, so apologies to those who have already seen this often in my blog: "A second, less familiar but no less serious objection is that a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content."

But others see this trend as a very positive move, like the Wall Street tycoon in my recent post, who argues that more inequality is good for us. One of the many comments that Hochschild’s column produced came from Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for their website. He writes, not surprisingly for a business editor,

It seems to me that we should want, if not desperately crave, the kind of affluence that makes food so cheap, and shelter so available, and medical care so affordable, that we have money left over to pay people to help us meet our "higher" needs. Rather than fear the anxiety economy, I welcome it with anxious and trembling arms. It's a badge of wealth and something of a miracle that today, uniquely within the sweep of history, we finally have the time and cause to debate whether we're spending too much money nursing our neuroses and investing directly in our happiness.

I think he missed the point entirely, something that business commentators so often do. Hochschild, as am I, is lamenting the disappearance of “non-market” activities that historically were delivered by two or more persons in the context of a caring relationship, and their reappearance as impersonal transactions in the “market” where they eventually become commodified by the inexorable workings of competition and efficiency.

Finally, today, I wanted to see how long this term has been around and tried a web search. Of the roughly 5000 hits on the word, wantology, I found only a few that were not triggered by Hochschild’s article. The earliest I found was a pointer to Jean Slatter, who has been consulting and giving lectures on wantology since 2005 or so. She is the author of Hiring the Heavens. Hochschild cites her in her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, on which the Times article was based.

The other that caught my attention was an ad for courses and a handbook from “The Organization Zone.” They have already branded the name. Fast work. The organization and handbook, Want-ology Workbook: Really Get What You Really Want, are the work of Kevin B Kreitman. Here’s a few words from their website.

To get what you really want, you have to know what you really want. Feel really secure that your dream job won't trap you in a nightmare. And feel confident that you can avoid jumping "out of the frying pan into the fire" when you decide to go for it.

Want-ology® is the fundamental course that will focus you on what you truly want in a way that will enable you to make your dreams come true.

I guess I am way behind the times. My children have done all right in their lives with names plucked from a book of names, but mostly out of conversations with family and friends. My spouse and I were the nameologists, but we missed knowing that. But then we were also not worried from the moment we discovered them in utero about the nursery school we “should want” them to go. The professional potty trainer that Hochschild mentioned would never have had the patience we brought to the process and would have created an entirely different bond with the kids, but maybe that would have been a good thing. I doubt it, as I doubt that any of these outsourced human-centered activities can be provided by the market without costs that far outweigh the profits they provide to the economy.

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