A film-maker and a professional

The season is fall, it’s the weekend, and homework calls.  Recruiters are here.  Students with “practical” majors have career aspirations on their minds.  I like to think that economics sits on the line dividing the two classes.  We, the students of the discipline, do aim to be professionals at last.  But in character with the history of the discipline, my instinct is to give a theoretical treatment of a practical problem.  Namely, what is professionalism?  We have to distinguish between professions — an attorney is different from a clown.  But in general, I assume professionalism means putting on a certain “hat” when you go to work, giving up your natural standards of judgment and behavior and assuming the standards given by your industry and profession.  You play by the rules.

I was reading about this guy, Saeed Taji Farouky[1].  He films documentaries, photographs, writes for news firms.  He also climbs mountains and runs, but the former are his means of making a living.  On documentaries, he says —

When you go to Morocco, everyone tells the tourists “We love Morocco, it’s beautiful.”  And it is beautiful, and yet, thousands of people every month are trying to get on to tiny boats and cross to Europe.  So something must be going on.  And I wanted to tell that story.

And originally I said, “Ok, I’m a journalist, I’m a documentary filmmaker.  I have to be totally detached from the subject and just tell the story as it unfolds in front of me. At that time I had swallowed the mainstream documentary filmmaking ideology whole.  Of course, three or four days into the film, I realized it was absolutely impossible.  What do you do then when the guy in the film turns to you and says, “I see you as my brother now.  I think you and I are on this journey together”? [2]

For Farouky, the stakes in this game of labor against leisure are in plain sight.  He does all these things, climbing, writing, running and so on out of some internal motivation: by the nature of his constitution, he will not be denied.  So he begins to make documentaries and of course finds himself petitioned to play by some extrinsic set of restraints.  But if he assumes that role, the removed professional, he loses the very thing which drove him to make documentaries.

On the authority of happiness research, the psychological states of humans are very elastic with respect to time and circumstance.  So I suspect that most aspiring professionals adjusting into professional norms are pretty indifferent to breaking in that new “hat” they wear to their jobs. You didn’t become an accountant to enjoy the subject and practice of accounting, so your career satisfaction probably has little to do with the adjustments you make to your behavior to play by the rules of the game.  Maybe Saeed could have adapted to the practice of censoring himself from his work and gone on to have a rewarding career in documentaries.  And maybe not.  The best contra argument is that his work would have necessarily been qualitatively different, and moreover, specifically not what he set out to make.

Like I said, economics is a discipline with roots on both sides.  It is in part this application of methods and theories to data which is analogous to accounting and in part this probing for answers to questions of policy, development and behavior which is like making sculptures on the very face of the earth.  As for that final, open question…

*****   *****   *****  *****

[1] http://www.taji.co.uk/
[2] http://blog.ted.com/2010/09/24/fellows-friday-with-saeed-taji-farouky/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+TEDBlog+(TEDBlog)

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