‘Yeah I’m going on holiday after this work season finishes. Then I will return to my productive labours at the office. How about you Tim? What are you doing with yourself’? asked William.
‘Oh…I’m currently “between jobs”.’
William looked at him with a slight edge of disdain. Tim wished he could shrink and vanish into a crack in the pavement.
A large source of my anxiety and self-worth problems have historically come from the w-word.
I used to not do it much. Not doing it much was not very good for my soul, which vegetated in front of the computer, or in front of blank, white walls. At around the age of twenty-three, I stopped playing computer games or staring at walls, and started being more creative. A little bit every day – of writing, music, and game design. I remember a quite specific moment when this rhythm started to sink in. Even though a lot of the writing and creativity didn’t go anywhere, and wasn’t cohesive, creating something every day gave me some direction, self-worth and helped hone my skills.
This ‘work ethic’ is still with me today. However, it is not so useful as it once was. When you are creating things for the necessity of filling some ego-void, it is very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The work is not always directed toward any goal, and small accumulation doesn’t always get you anywhere.
Doing tiny bits of work every day is like building a sand-castle, where every time you add a bucketful of sand, half a bucketful has been lost to the laws of entropy, decayed and misshapen. Stepping away from the sand-castle, you can reconsider how it is going, or see it from different perspectives. You could even say fuck this sand-castle, and go do something else!
It is deeply neurotic to feel a severe compulsion to do things. There are days when you cannot create something, when you fall ill or just feel plain uninspired. Is it legitimate to hate yourself and feel deflated on these days? If so it shows a ‘living in the present’ which definitely isn’t mindful or healthy.
So as you can tell, my ‘work ethic’ can be quite destructive and self-negating, a double-edged sword. It is also not necessarily productive. In this sense it has a lot in common with another work ethic.
That of the capitalist world.
There is this destructive belief that we should always be active. We should shun the hours of night and live for the hours of day, scrambling around, doing things. Endlessly doing things. Always doing things.
I have heard many people say ‘I am currently between jobs’, as if all of life was to be contained within the boundaries of work. As if not having a ‘job’ was something to be ashamed of, and required a euphemism.
Yet always being active does not mean one is being productive. A short-sighted measure of productivity misses the much important bigger picture. A busybody might work every day, and think that everyone else has to. In a vigourous rhythm of work, our busybody could easily fail to take care for themselves (I’ve been there), and carry resentment for others who do not share their ‘burden’ (there also). They might think that those who do not share their busybody attitude to work and perpetual industriousness are lazy and in need of ‘motivation’.
But other people might work at a different rhythm. The artist who paints one meaningful brush stroke per week is no less creative than the contracted musician who writes ten advertising jingles a week. In regards to productivity, one person may mindfully achieve more with a single hour of clever labour than a fusty busybody achieves in a week of running around keeping themselves busy.
Because those who stop to consider things can change fundamentals which save everybody time and energy, or which sets us on a better direction.
If a farmer spends ten days sowing ten acres with a shitty plough is he more productive than the farmer who spends five days sowing ten acres with the much better plough he took the time to improve and re-design? One who measures work in days and hours is bound to think that the longer one spends on something, the more productive they are being. This is simply time-filling, not meaningful, praiseworthy labour. Industriousness is no bedrock of pride or productivity.
The idea of a neurotic work-ethic is stopping us from pausing and planning for the precarious future. The more we run on the treadmill, the more we fear to step away, even if the end result is a disastrous collapse. The ceaseless juggernaut of capitalism is literally driving our society blindly over a cliff toward climate catastrophe.
There are essential labours which must always be performed. In the twenty-first century we could make these comparatively few, thanks to technology, human wisdom and the bountifulness of nature. These essential labours do not need a work-ethic to promote them: if they are not done, people will starve and die, buildings will rot and collapse. Nor do they need particular praise or ‘bigging-up’. They get done because they should get done. Those who are able but refuse to perform these essential labours, or create extra work for others, should rightly change their ways, or go away. But to expect everyone to be ever-active is the great folly and conceit of our times.
If someone voluntarily spends their time grinding away at their craft to be the best that can be at it, I have much respect for them. But if someone expects others to always try their hardest, always be active, and be forced into involuntary work, then they can go and sod off.