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Working for the Knife

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

By Alexis Puthussery

“I always thought the choice was mine and I was right, but I just chose wrong,” Mitski croons over thick layers of synth, electric guitar, and hypnotic drums in her single, “Working For the Knife”. The song is about the monotony of the everyday, how we end up doing things with our lives that we feel indifference or even malignance towards. It’s about how we end up “working for the knife”, “living for the knife”, and “dying for the knife” as she repeats throughout the song. Every one of the lyrics strangely seems to pertain to me right now, as if Mitski, with her nine million monthly Spotify listeners, decided to write a song for one, Alexis Puthussery, with her nine million monthly quarter-life crises.

What I would rather be doing with my life and what I am currently doing with my life is unimportant. Whether I’m a law student who dreams of the stage or a business major who desperately wants to write a novel or on the pre-med track wishing I was painting in the CFA is irrelevant. What matters is this question: Why am I not pursuing the thing that brings me joy or that doesn’t feel like work to me? This isn't a hard question to answer. It’s even easier when you’re a person of color.

In the Western world, people of color, and especially students of color, have a pressure put upon them to excel, to be successful. I have heard students of color experience the fear of being viewed as a monolith in a white-dominated society in which their failures will be taken as failures of their race or ethnicity as a whole. For others, this pressure is tied to their family and wanting to make them proud. Many students of color owe so much to their families and it’s not a fear of failure in itself, but a failure of the people you owe everything to, that can be paralyzing. If your parents, relatives, guardians, or whoever got you to this point have put so much of their time, their money, their selves into you, what right do you have to risk it all on a career path that is not a guaranteed success?

But on the flip side, why wouldn’t your family want you to be happy? Why would they go through whatever they had to go through to get you to college for you to be unhappy in what you’re doing? Isn’t the hope of every family that the next generation is better off than the last?

But what does it mean to be better off? What we are told and what is most apparent in society is that being better off means having more money. And if you’re at a respectable university, how does one do this? You pursue medicine, law, business, anything that is the most direct path to a good job that pays well.

This is a dilemma in which unfortunately, there is not one right answer. The situation won’t work itself out. Someone else can’t in good faith make the choice for you. There’s no getting backed into a corner into finally deciding. Whatever happens comes down to the final decision that you must actively make. And it's a terrifyingly definitive decision.

It’s this thought process that always sends me down a rabbit hole whenever I start rethinking things. One question leads to another question which leads to another question and there are always “ifs” and “buts” tacked on to the end of every statement. This barrage of conditional clauses for a very real problem gets exhausting fast and can easily wear one down into a state of immobility. Because once you start thinking about it too much, you realize that whinging and whining about your passions makes you more privileged than most and that maybe you should take what you can get, suck it up, and make your family proud.

But you hate it!

When you hate what you’re doing with your time you will always, always, always come back to the beginning and start rethinking what you want to do with yourself. Instead of being “Alexis, who is studying X”, it becomes, “Someone studying X, but would rather be studying Y”. It consumes your thinking and takes up more room in your identity than it should-- you end up defined by something other than yourself. Life becomes monotonous, a string of chores to get through, with moments of relief when you can merely think about the thing you’re passionate about. It’s not a good feeling when something that you don’t want to be doing sucks all the energy from you. How thin can you spread yourself?

This article is not going to tell you to pursue your passions nor is it going to tell you to stick to what you’re doing. I know better than most that someone telling you either of these things does not help at all and just adds to the stress. Because at the end of the day, it’s a problem of expectations and when one more person says what you should do, it’s just one more expectation added to the never-ending pile. And when you have this many, what is an expectation, but a chance to let someone down?

It’s easy to pose the question, “If you could do whatever you want, ignoring everything like making money, pleasing your family, having stability, what would you do?” and for a lot of people, it's an easy question to answer as well. But this idyllic hypothetical is just that: an idyllic hypothetical. For students, and especially students of color, this problem is a tangle of discordant ideals and expectations and moving parts that can seem impossible to solve.

I can’t really offer much in terms of advice on this subject. I’m still very much in the onerous process of working this problem out and figuring out what I want.

But if you truly feel stuck, truly feel like you have no idea what to do with your career or your life, ask yourself this question: what are you working towards? Are you working for yourself? Are you working for your family? Are you working for a career? Or, are you, in forcing yourself to do something grating, uninteresting, uninspired, working for the knife?