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Since it’s debut in 2005, NBC’s The Office has been one of the smartest, funniest shows on television. Although it’s easy to dismiss as a frivolous series about low-level corporate drones, the show has managed over six seasons to provide an unusually astute study of modern life.

At The League of Ordinary Gentlemen , E.D. Kain provides insightful analysis of Jim Halpert—the slacker-turned-manager—and how his character’s growth reflects the reality of the American dream.

The great thing about The Office is that it points out that wherever we strive for control in our lives we inevitably run up against the realities of compromise. Jim is able to be the slacker-in-chief at Dunder Mifflin precisely because he doesn’t care about anything. But when he starts to care, he has to make a trade. . . .

And unlike your run-of-the-mill sitcom, these trade-offs lead to changes. The characters change over time. Their motivations and relationships evolve. Jim becomes the boss he once dreaded. But he does it to get the girl. I know that in the movies you’re supposed to beat the bad guy to get the girl, or do some other dramatic thing, but what Jim does is every bit as astounding as fighting or dying for Pam. He grows up. I wouldn’t say he “gives up” which seems to be the popular take on this lately. Rather, he relinquishes the power he has over his situation – his apathy – and decides instead to care. And this only intensifies when they become home-owners and prospective parents. Somehow, ironically, caring about a girl you love and a family you desire is frowned upon as underachieving. Jim ought to be caring about his career!

I know people who decide they can do all of this without making trades, but they’re mistaken. Ambition has its price. Kids (or spouses!) can step between you and your ambition, and you often have to choose between one or the other. More school to get that next, better degree is out of the question if you want to spend time with family. Or time with your kids is drastically reduced while you scrape through law school or your MBA and then race off to your 60 hour a week career.

And here we enter the vague waters of “individualism.” In America we are all so caught up in this American dream. We run abruptly into a midlife crisis because we are unwilling to face the fact that most of us are set up to become – at least in our career path – less than historical figures. We ignore the many other ways we can become satisfied and happy and even prosperous in our lives because we are so attuned to the idea that it is our work and our work alone that is what will fulfill us.


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