Career Guidance à la Heisenberg

When The Economist referred to Breaking Bad as one of the "best studies available [on] the dynamics of modern business," I became more comfortable drawing career guidance from the show and its fictional characters.

In this blog piece, The Economist compared the fully-loaded cost of obtaining an MBA -- $90,000 in tuition as well as opportunities missed by spending two years out of the workforce -- to the $80 one could spend on the entire DVD set of all five Breaking Bad seasons, suggesting that the latter might train one as well or even better for success in "real-world business."

I'd argue that someone with the desire and even a basic level of Internet savvy could procure high-quality downloads of the series online for free, or close to it, though my proposed alternative would require folks to test their own moral compasses when it comes to obtaining something of value illegally -- the first part of an MBA education à la Heisenberg.

Even knowing my own risk-averse tendencies, I'd still consider the free option; however, I'd draw the line there and eliminate most would-be similarities between myself and Walter White turned Heisenberg. As Breaking Bad adapted across the seasons, so too did Walt's ongoing motivation to remain in what he referred to not as the "meth business" or even the "money business," but rather the "empire business." Furthermore, his commitment to his alternative career choice seemingly grew with his growing proficiency in the trade. Along with his evolving motivations, Walt's name even evolves for a time to "Heisenberg" borrowed from Werner Heisenberg, the author of the Uncertainty principle and another educator who fell ill with cancer.

One moment in particular from Sunday's series finale almost perfectly encapsulated Walt's altered motivations. As had become his M.O., Walt remained one step ahead of most everyone on his trail, including his sister-in-law Marie who warns her sister to be on the lookout for him (though too late, as he was already standing in her kitchen by that time). By this point in the season and series, Skyler has made it abundantly clear (as has her and Walt's son, Walt Jr.) that they want nothing to do with Walt and especially want no part of his dirty "drug money."

Despite her obvious anger and stress (we see her furiously chain-smoking cigarettes), Skyler grants Walt five minutes to speak. In the exchange, Skyler warns that if she has to hear one more time how Walt did "all of this for the family," she'll explode. However, Walt finally admits to her what so many viewers, including myself, had been waiting to hear:

"No. I did it for me. I liked it. I was really good at it. And I was really, really alive."

Walt's honesty provides reassurance to those fans and viewers who can no longer believe that Walt (or Heisenberg, depending on the day and headgear) could possibly have gone from cooking meth in an RV in the New Mexico desert, to eventually leaving Jesse's girlfriend for dead after an overdose, to then finally poisoning the son of another one of Jesse's love interests, all under the auspices of "providing for his family."

Although Walt's story didn't inspire me to take off and find my own way of "breaking bad," the conviction he displayed in describing how truly alive he felt after devoting the latter part of his life to something for which he discovered an unparalleled competence and eventual love, struck a major chord with me.

Prior to the final episode, I discussed predictions for the conclusion with the small group of friends and family with whom I'd gathered to view it. At one point, our conversation turned to Tim Ferriss -- the famed author of The 4-Hour Workweek and several other personal efficiency-focused self-help guides.

While I have found some useful tips and takeaways from the bits of Ferriss' work I've read, at the core, I fundamentally disagree with his underlying premise. I want to find a career which will be built around a 40-hour work week (give or take) and which will lead to more moments of satisfaction than not. This contrasts with the "ultimate goal" as described by Ferriss, in which people become efficient enough to condense all of their regular "work" into four hours so that they can then go off and live the "rest of their lives."

For some (like Ferriss), perhaps this means bungee jumping and skydiving and then for others, maybe it means building an international drug empire? If that segmentation works for some folks, more power to them. However, I hope that a large part of the satisfaction I'll find in my own career will stem from really liking and respecting the people I work with, whether clients or co-workers. Then, I'd also like to see enough extrinsic value in what I do and trust that it is helping to improve the world in some way. Finally, I'm also looking for intrinsic value by way of the personal satisfaction I'd derive from a challenging career, something Walt was lucky enough to find and which we see in his eventual love for "baby blue."

While much of the final season focused on Walt, Jesse's major supporting role in the show never completely dropped off. Interestingly, one scene from Sunday's episode revisits an anecdote Jesse had recounted much earlier in the series. In the scene, we're shown a younger-looking Jesse carefully putting the finishing touches on a fine, yet simple wooden box.

The scene, not quite a flashback, actually depicts visually for the first time a story Jesse had told to a group counselor back in Season 3 in "Kafkaesque" (Season 3, ep. 9). When asked "If you could do anything you wanted, what would it be," Jesse hesitates, but eventually responds "I'd make something." When pressed even further, he describes a memory from a high-school vocational class in which he was assigned to make a wooden box. Jesse explains that at first he rushed through the work as quickly as possible and was perfectly content taking a D and moving on.

However, he was caught off guard when the teacher simply asked "Is that all you got?" As Jesse went on to describe:

"Maybe it was the way he said it, but... it was like he wasn't exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, "Is that all you got?" And for some reason, I thought to myself: "Yeah, man, I can do better." So I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane...I sanded it for days, until it was smooth as glass... It even smelled was... it was perfect."

The counselor, clearly interested and pleased to hear Jesse open up, asked what he did with the finished box. At first, Jesse claimed he gave it to his mom. However, when the counselor inquires further, attempting to use the anecdote as a point of motivation, Jesse plays into the stereotype and explains: "You know, I didn't give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed."

This seemingly intrinsic pride and value Jesse found in really applying himself to the box could certainly have ties to extrinsic factors. Jesse, a "troubled" youth and pothead at the time, who eventually graduated from being a low-level drug dealer to the right-hand man in Walt's empire, certainly struggled to impress his own parents (demonstrated through the fabricated moment of presenting the box to his mother). Perhaps the dedication to finishing the box was his answer to the age-old wish for high-school dropouts from both parents and chemistry teachers alike - "if only you'd just APPLY yourself, you could ____" - filling in the blank with whichever goals interested bystanders often force on the so-called underachievers in their lives.

However, the intrinsic excitement and pride Walt finds in the empire he "built" is just as likely rooted in a deeper desire to impress and eventually disprove those around him. Again, in Sunday night's episode we return to an early scene in which Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, publicly taunts the then nerdy chemistry teacher (at his own birthday party, nonetheless) about how maybe he'll let Walt ride shotgun on a drug bust someday and show him a little "excitement." Furthermore, Walt's own son Walt Jr. on several occasions indicates how much "cooler" his Uncle Hank's job (and therein Hank himself) is than his own father's and it'd be hard to believe that this display wouldn't add to Walt's insecurities about his career choice and accomplishments.

Though Walt's pride -- or hubris, as many commentators have labeled it -- may have done more harm than good at times, I still can't help but aspire to find a passion and life pursuit which makes me feel "alive" in the same way running a drug empire did for Walt. While most of us will fortunately never have to experience Walt's extreme situation, in which his diagnosis with severe, terminal cancer numbered the days he had left with family and friends, our time will always be limited by something. However we decide to spend what's left of it, it's as important as ever that we're doing something that makes us feel truly alive.