On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture is a book manuscript I’ve been working on, sporadically, for over ten years. It is still in progress and not under contract, so I do not yet have a publication date. Here you’ll find a summary, chapter titles, and the full introduction.
Cultivating leisure. In a culture held in thrall to the Protestant work ethic, the concept of consciously cultivating a leisure ethic and a culture of leisure sounds suspect to many people, and conjures up images of frivolity and uselessness. One of the objections to unconditional basic income, for example, is the notion that too much leisure will lead to degeneracy. If people aren’t made to work for a living, so the argument goes, they’ll waste away in front of the computer or TV. The prevalence of this sort of rhetoric leaves us ill-equipped to understand what leisure time is, and why it is so valuable.
Leisure is much more than free time, and can in fact serve as a vital and oft-overlooked form of resistance to an ecocidal, genocidal, white supremacist, misogynist, homophobic, ableist, work-til-you-drop culture in which millions are structurally coerced into wage labor jobs for lack of viable alternatives.
Among the many reasons leisure has inherent value is that it provides freedom to do things that matter – things that we care about – whether or not they pay. What many of us call “work” is actually wage labor: selling our hours to employers in exchange for money to survive. A culture of leisure, by contrast, would provide freedom to work on our own terms, and to enjoy ample leisure as well.
On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture is my in-progress book manuscript about the importance of consciously and deliberately cultivating a culture of leisure, and some of the tools and methods we can use to help us along the way:
- dismantling and unlearning the Protestant work ethic
- countering get-a-job nonsense and lazy-bums rhetoric
- properly valuing care work, housekeeping, and other unpaid work
- making emotional labor more visible
- supporting the unconditional basic income movement
- decolonizing time
- exploring gift culture
- philosophical inquiry into the nature of “doing nothing”
- creating ecologically and spiritually inspired alternatives to conventional employment
- building a culture of leisure that includes women and marginalized people
…and other cage-rattling to help build a world beyond ‘earning a living’.
Introduction: My Story
“I Need a Job, But I Don’t Want One”: On Earning a Living as Structural Violence
Paths of Least Resistance: Conventional Employment and the Lie of Financial Independence
Do What You Love, Lazy Bums Who Refuse to Work, and Other Lies of Job Culture
Decolonizing Our Time: Un-Jobbing and Unlearning the Protestant Work Ethic
“Is Nothing Sacred?” On Doing Nothing and Leisure as Resistance
Emotional Labor: A Feminist Valuation
Working in the Gift: Gift Culture, Basic Income, and Listening to the Land
Toward a World Beyond Earning a Living
On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture
by D. JoAnne Swanson
“Perhaps the most powerful way in which we conspire against ourselves is the simple fact that we have jobs.”
— Curtis White
I spent much of my young adulthood working at a fast-food job I hated. I would distract myself from the drudgery by mentally protesting the notion that people should wake up every morning to an alarm clock, then go to their jobs and spend the bulk of their days doing something they don’t like to earn money. Who came up with this crazy system, anyway? The idea that I, and everyone around me, would be expected to continue doing this until age 65 or higher filled me with utter despair. There had to be a way out of the work-consume-die treadmill. There just had to.
Work, in and of itself, was never the problem for me. In fact, I observed that whenever I could freely choose an activity, work on my own time, and pace myself according to my own inclinations, I quite enjoyed it. But put me in an office or factory where I earn a paycheck for doing the very same activity at the behest of an employer, and inevitably I would learn to hate it.
This situation baffled me at first. Love the work under certain conditions, hate it under others. What were the larger implications? I was particularly dismayed when I realized this applied even to creative writing, an activity I had loved with every fiber of my being since childhood. Love notwithstanding, the moment that the prospect of jobs and remuneration entered the picture, the vitality would drain out of my writing as if it had been sucked dry by a hungry vampire.
Consistently I found that stubborn avoidance of paid jobs, especially writing jobs, was the only way I could preserve my ability to write effectively about the things that really mattered to me. Though I didn’t understand why doing it for money sucked the life out of my writing so reliably, I knew this much: writing was my Work with a capital ‘W’. I was often ridiculed for my utopianism, but I sensed deep in my bones that there was something sacred about it. I wasn’t about to make it my job.
From my New Age upbringing, I had absorbed the idea that if I could just find a way to do what I loved, the money would surely follow. I wanted to believe it, but it never seemed to work for me the way I thought it would. What was in dispute was not the notion that people should do work they love — that seemed obvious enough — but the idea that they should try to make a living at it. But why was this a problem?
Determined to get to the bottom of this, I put this theory to the test. I would find a way to do what I loved, and see if the money followed.
In my mid-twenties, a couple of years after I finished my first baccalaureate degree, my fiance and I made arrangements such that I could quit my boring office job. His job as a software engineer would pay all of our bills for a year, and I could devote myself to writing. Lack of money to pay bills, I was sure, was the only thing standing between me and a finished book, so this would be just the ticket. Freed from the obligation to have a job for money, I could throw myself wholeheartedly into my work, and write to my heart’s content. For years I’d claimed that all I wanted was to write, and my partner’s financial support had finally offered me that chance. At long last, I had been graced with the opportunity to plunge right in and shape my days completely at will. I could do exactly as I pleased. No rude alarm clocks, no regimented job routine, no 2-hour bus commute, no expensive restaurant lunches, no pointy-haired boss breathing down my neck. Sweet freedom! Elation flooded over me. I showered my beloved with gratitude, and promised him I’d credit him prominently in my finished book. I didn’t want a sugar daddy; I just wanted a chance to concentrate all my attention on my writing until I could make a go of it.
So I was hardly prepared for the next baffling predicament: I couldn’t write.
Just as baffling, though, was the vigilance of the mental dictator — that critical voice that had stayed mostly in the background as long as I had a job, but immediately commandeered a good portion of my thoughts and emotions once I mustered up the audacity to actually quit my job. At first its exhortations were subtle, but as the allotted year for writing quickly elapsed with little sign of a finished manuscript on the horizon, the voice grew progressively harsher and more insistent. There were endless battles between the “good” (productive) me, and the “bad” (goofing off) me. Dealing with these battles thoroughly sapped any emotional energy I might have had for serious writing.
The constant din inside my head sounded something like this:
You didn’t do much writing today, the voice would point out oh-so-helpfully, as if I didn’t already know I’d been a bad girl. Nor yesterday, nor the day before that. Why not?
Well, I was tired from running errands and cleaning house. Then I had to catch up on e-mail. Before I knew it, the day was gone.
A flimsy excuse indeed, replied the guilt-tripping voice. You’re not making much of a financial contribution. You’re just being a freeloader and living off the earnings of others. You need to concentrate harder on making a paying career of this writing stuff, or you’ll eventually have to take a boring office job you don’t want so you can earn a paycheck again. Why aren’t you being productive, hmmm? Do you really want to write, or are you just using writing as your excuse for avoiding a real job?
The implication being, of course, that real writers get paid for their work; the rest of us are just dilettantes.
A week passed like this, then two, then three. Then a month. Then six months. The relentless mental dictator never let up. Guilt set in: Where had the time gone? I honestly didn’t know. Sure, I had taken over all the housework and cooking, which seemed fair enough since my partner had agreed to pay the bills…but we didn’t have kids or pets to care for, and it’s not as if I was swamped with chores. Yet there were still a million things that seemed to occupy my time. It wasn’t conscious avoidance. Though I couldn’t articulate it this way at the time, I felt as if my attention had been hijacked, minute-by-minute, by some unseen force. I had been corralled into fighting this battle, entirely without my consent. Why else wouldn’t I be writing, given this immensely luxurious opportunity? But there was laundry to do, errands to run, a dental appointment, phone calls, car repair, financial planning, a long phone call with my mother…the list was endless, and the days seemed to fly by. Once I finish this next project or errand, I would say to the guilt-tripping voice, then I’ll sit down and do the serious writing. But first, I need to look up some information on the web about publishers. I need to do more research to understand my topic better. I need to figure out how to deal with writers’ block. I need to find a writers’ group to help me get past this. I need to answer important e-mail. I need to straighten up the house.
I frittered away astonishing amounts of time this way, doing just about anything. Anything but write, that is. Why wasn’t I doing what I loved? Many people would give their eye teeth to be in my privileged position, and yet here I was, passively resisting my own stated goals. It made no sense. How could I just shirk this golden opportunity? And how did I manage to get myself trapped in an ongoing adversarial inner debate in which I felt the need to justify my own inaction to myself, and then felt resentful about it? It’s not as if I had a boss who was tracking my every move.
Much later I would come to realize that without the structure of a job with a built-in schedule, I had nothing concrete to rebel against. It seemed I had nothing and no one to blame for my dissatisfaction but myself. No convenient scapegoats. Nothing to allow me to maintain the strangely comforting illusion that only the lack of money stood between me and a finished book. I found this profoundly unsettling. I only had a year to get this writing thing all sorted out so that the money would follow, so the pressure was on. Had I been sold a bill of goods with the do-what-you-love line of thinking?
Increasingly it became obvious that, despite any appearances to the contrary, I was not truly free to write. But was it the circumstances that held me back, or was it me? Could I handle real freedom? The truth wasn’t obvious.
But what other options were there? The thought of forfeiting my artistic ambitions and going back to life as a corporate wage slave was abhorrent. Waking up to an alarm clock every day, dragging myself reluctantly to a job I hated, and coming home too exhausted to do anything but veg out in front of the idiot box — the thought terrified me, and all the more so for seeing those around me doing the very same thing for ten, twenty, even fifty years.
So if I couldn’t write when I had a job, nor even when I had been temporarily freed of bill-paying responsibility, then just what, exactly, would it take for me to live in freedom such that I could do work I loved and not have to worry about money?
According to the books I had read, having financial independence, lottery winnings, trust funds, or a wealthy spouse would be sufficient to free me up to do work I loved. But I was suspicious of this line of thought, as I had already been freed from the immediate need to earn money, and still I felt enslaved — not by a job, but certainly by the dictator in my mind. Where were the books dealing with that subject?
Eventually it became clear: Like all wage slaves, I would have to learn how to be free. I would have to take on the mental dictator, and figure out how to win. And that’s just for starters.
I doubt very much whether anything could have adequately prepared me for the shock of this realization. Like many folks from white middle-class backgrounds, I grew up believing I lived in a world of fundamental freedom — a world where I could use my gifts to make a difference. Failure to show sufficient gratitude for this freedom by using it to get a nice respectable well-paid job, in fact, was looked upon with thinly veiled disdain. Yet regardless of how free I might have appeared to an outsider who took note of my reliance on my partner’s financial support, I was still a wage slave on the inside. I didn’t want to get a job; I just wanted to write, and I wanted to control my own time. There was a pesky book manuscript sloshing around inside me that insistently prodded me to get off my duff and write the damned thing already. But there was a problem: I hadn’t developed a shred of the fortitude and responsibility I might need for the life of freedom-to-write that I lusted after. All I knew, in fact all I had ever been trained for, was a life of making money and getting a job. I had been conditioned to consider it normal that my time would never really be my own. My time would always be structured by external factors beyond my control, such as school and making a living. Here I stood, faced with a mule-headed sense of job resistance inside myself that refused to be ignored, yet unaware of any other suitable options. Gotta pay the rent!
Finally face to face with myself and the burden of all my cultural conditioning, I cringed. Apparently I couldn’t write the book when I had a job, which was one thing; now it seemed that I couldn’t write the book even when I didn’t have one. But it didn’t matter anyway, because my year of freedom was up, and I would have to set aside my creative inclinations and earn a living just like everyone else. Disheartened and thoroughly disillusioned, I sank into a deep depression.
It would be many long years and one devastating divorce before I emerged.
Whatever else you can say about a shitty job that pays the bills, one thing’s for sure: as long as you have that job, or are busy looking for another one, you’ve got a built-in, airtight, socially acceptable excuse for any lack of progress toward your dreams in life. All but the most inquisitive and perceptive of your friends and acquaintances will probably believe you when you say you aren’t doing what you love because you have to make a living. You might even fully believe it yourself. I know I did. For some people, I’m sure it is true. But for someone in my fortunate circumstances, it was a convenient excuse that hid a deeper and more insidious problem.
I didn’t know how to be free.
Where, exactly, would I learn such a thing? No school or culture I’d ever heard of taught people how to be free in the sense I was contemplating, and even if one existed, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize it. I knew no one who seemed to even perceive the need for this kind of radical freedom, let alone anyone who could offer insight on how to achieve it. Experience had taught me that quitting my job and having access to money — at least in the sense of knowing my bills would be paid for the foreseeable future — was insufficient to free me from the grips of wage slavery. Underneath the surface lurked a deeper kind of slavery: slavery of the mind. Yet when I tried to explore the implications of this truth more deeply in conversations with others, most people were unsympathetic at best, and quite a few didn’t even take me seriously. I was dismissed as a lazy trust fund hippie or a chronic whiner. After all, it’s easy for someone with access to money to say “hey, money isn’t enough.”
Discouraged, I stayed underground. I gave up on getting paid to do what I love, and decided to keep the two domains — work and money — entirely separate. At the end of my year of “freedom,” I began looking for a paying job that was low-stress, suitable for my introverted self and unrelated to writing, and would leave me time and energy to write just for the love of it. As it happens, I didn’t find a job like that. In fact, except for some brief temp assignments, I didn’t find a job at all, although not for lack of trying.
Eventually, however, I found something better, or at least more amusing: an appreciation for the irony of it all. Here I was, devoting my time to figuring out what kind of paid job I could get that would pay the bills yet still leave me adequate time to carry out my calling: writing for love. Yet the paradoxical message seemed to be that my calling, and therefore the purpose of my writing, would be to help free people from the confines of jobs. Whose bright idea was this?
The gods have a sense of humor, all right. It just took me awhile to get the joke.
Okay. So I’d figured out that something was deeply wrong with the job culture as I knew it, in part because I had observed its tendency to turn any activity I enjoyed into drudgery when done at a full-time job for the sake of earning money. But could I still work for love within these limitations anyway? I had my doubts. Most folks I knew who took jobs with the best of intentions had found themselves slipping, caving in again and again to the immense pressure to uphold the status quo against their own best interests. If I took a job like that, I was sure I’d be no different. I recalled the days of my first marriage, which I had gone ahead with at the age of 20 in spite of my reservations. I had naïvely rationalized my marriage the same way: Our marriage will be different. Maybe I’m young, but I won’t cave in to the sexist wife stereotype. Our relationship will be successful and last a lifetime.
Two years later and one divorce wiser, it became clear to me that the power of my individual intentions are no match for the entrenched systemic power of culture and institutions. I learned that regardless of how individually determined I might fancy myself, I am thoroughly shaped by my society and culture. I learned that my individual choices, and even my perception of which options are and are not open to me, are constrained in very real ways by my cultural milieu, educational background, and various other factors.
I reasoned that if culture shapes me this profoundly and intimately, then if I took a normal 9-to-5 job in a culture that considers money-making a much higher priority than doing what I love, eventually I suspected I’d find myself doing, and then justifying, things that troubled my conscience and my ecological sensibilities. I’d find myself trapped in a system that rewarded people who cut corners in their work and were good schmoozers, but penalized people who were more introverted yet cared deeply about doing quality work. I’d rationalize away the questionable things I’d done on the job, and it would be easy enough to believe my own rationalizations, since I’d be working within a system that insulates workers from the larger consequences of their work. Surely, sooner or later, I’d find myself tempted to say I was just following official orders. Or perhaps I’d just plain find myself too tired to even think about the broader implications of my actions, let alone take the risk of voicing any ethical concerns. And surely, even if I got lucky enough to work for an ethical employer, the deck would still be stacked against me. Part-timers aren’t taken seriously, and they’re left to fend for themselves with no benefits. I’d be forced to give up 40+ hours a week of my time, and I’d end up spending far too much of my “free” time using cheap, mindless entertainment to distract myself from a creeping sense of malaise and despair, just like most of my friends.
Over and over I asked myself the same question. Could I find a way to do work I loved anyway? How much freedom could I carve out from within an unfree context — a sick system?
It wasn’t clear. But I knew I had to try to find out.
To start along this path, I had to devote many years to re-thinking a good chunk of everything I thought I knew. I had to uncover and re-examine assumptions I had unwittingly picked up along the way that were causing me to conspire against my own best interests.
Quite a tall order. However, if the alternative was resigning myself to a life of job drudgery until I reached retirement age, I knew I could find it within myself to figure something out.
Never have I desired a career-oriented life of the sort for which I was groomed. What I wanted, and continue to want, is a life, lived to the fullest. Money is simply a means to an end. What I want is to control my own time, as much as possible. My best creative work takes place under conditions where I have large blocks of unstructured time available for introspection, self-driven research, and exploring ideas. The work of a creative writer doesn’t lend itself to steady, predictable, easily quantifiable output between 9 and 5; it’s more like digging deep inside, giving and giving until you empty yourself, and then patiently waiting to be filled up until you are overflowing with words again. Finding blocks of time to work like this on a regular basis is next to impossible in our culture, where we are supposed to devote our attention to making a living rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by frivolous notions like pursuing a calling or fully enjoying our leisure. Things we love to do are to be relegated to the realm of hobbies done in our “free” time (if there’s any of it left over after recuperating from our jobs, that is).
Time and again I was told that I’d just have to suck it up and resign myself to getting a normal job like everyone else. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective), some mule-headed force within me refused to accept this. Instead, I kept asking questions:
How did survival come to be equated with wage-earning capacity, and why do so few people question this state of affairs? Why do so many of our important life choices (like, say, moving, or whether to leave a bad relationship) revolve around jobs — what they pay, where they’re located, what kind of hours we work, and so on? Why do people hardly bat an eye these days when a friend or family member says they are too busy at work to spend quality time with loved ones? People conduct job searches all over the world, basing decisions about where to live on the job market, disconnected from any meaningful and lasting sense of place or community. There is something deeply wrong with this picture…but what is it?
When I first began exploring these questions as a defiant adolescent, I didn’t even have a clear idea of how to frame them, let alone answer them. I groped about in the darkness for something without clear shape, color, or dimensions. Yet somehow I knew, without knowing how I knew, that it was there nonetheless. I knew intuitively that there was something destructive woven into the character of daily life, and I knew I must keep trying to understand what it was. Somehow, I hoped, the very process of learning how to properly articulate the questions I had would open up new vistas of inquiry, allowing me to continue until I eventually hit upon something solid.
I still didn’t know if I could find a way to do the work I wanted to do within the confines of the job culture, but I knew this much: I was highly motivated to seek out information on ways I might move toward having a job-free life. One way to reduce my need for job income would be to cut down my expenses. So I began to read books on frugal and simple living. One day I stumbled upon this gem from Amy Dacyczyn in The Tightwad Gazette:
“I prefer the luxury of freedom from a job to the luxury of material goods.”
Even as a lifelong voracious reader, I had never before encountered any book that put forth the idea that freedom from jobs was possible or even desirable (except in jest), so such candor was refreshing and encouraging. But were material goods strictly a luxury? Past a certain point of basics, I found them a burden. The things I owned eventually ended up owning me. They consumed time, storage space, money, and attention, and thus lent themselves to a vicious circle that resulted in the need for more money and more time on the job. More and more I found myself wanting to rid myself of the burden of too much stuff, to help further my long-term goal of a job-free life.
And what about the burden of having a job? Should freedom from having a job rightly be considered a luxury? In a system where money rules, it seems that only those who have accumulated some money can buy their freedom from jobs, so it made sense that under those conditions, freedom from a job should be considered a privilege.
But there were deeper questions. Questions like: Why couldn’t freedom from jobs (not from work, just from jobs) be the natural state of all beings, rather than just a privilege available to the rich? Why was everyone expected to earn money at a job by working 40+ hours a week just so they could have a roof over their head, food to eat, and clothing to wear, no matter what the cost to their emotional, spiritual and relational lives, and to the environment? Why did it seem like everyone I knew accepted the work-consume-die treadmill so uncritically? And why was it that even those who did live simply and criticize the rat race couldn’t seem to find a permanent way to live without a regular income? These were questions I had learned not to ask, lest I hear the same kinds of non-answers every time: “Well, because that’s just the way the world is,” or “Everyone has to work.”
Asking questions like this quickly got me branded as ungrateful or hopelessly utopian. The knee-jerk assumption — usually trotted out before I even finished my last sentence — was that I must want others to carry the burden that should rightly be mine and mine alone. After all, only a lazy freeloader who felt smugly entitled to handouts from all the other disgruntled workers would seriously entertain questions like these. Therefore, of course, I must be out to take advantage of others who’d paid into the system without pulling my own weight. How dare I depend on others! Me, an intelligent, able-bodied adult! The nerve! What a bum. What a gold-digger. Get a job!
I knew there was a major error in thinking here, but I could not articulate it effectively. I would protest again and again: “No, no, you misunderstand…it isn’t that I want some folks to suffer in jobs for the sake of others! In fact, ultimately, I want to be able to opt out of jobs altogether, so I can do the work I love, and I want everyone else to have that option too! We should all be able to do work that uses our gifts.” But these protests fell on deaf ears — that is, whenever they weren’t drowned out entirely by the usual glib dismissals.
After countless fruitless attempts, I gave up on discussing the idea of job-free life with others at the level I wanted, and once again took stock of my situation. I wanted to write in a self-directed manner. And I needed enough money to pay for my basic needs. But I resisted the idea of getting a job working for someone else, doing something I didn’t care about. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that having a paid job, no matter how cushy, would never be able to provide the proper outlet for the kind of creative writing I most wanted to do, under the conditions I needed to do my best work. And I had high standards; I cared deeply about doing my best work.
I also knew it would not be sufficient just to get myself free. I wanted the job-free option to be available to all those who wanted it. Would that ever be possible in our culture? Maybe the goal would prove to be hopelessly utopian and entirely out of reach, but wouldn’t it still be useful to imagine and take steps in that general direction?
In search of deeper and more comprehensive answers, I decided to go back to school. I undertook interdisciplinary studies, both inside academic institutions and outside of them. I read books in history, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, systems theory, and psychology, driven all the while by a relentless desire to explore the systemic functions of jobs and work in our culture. Among many other things, I learned that the job culture, as I came to call it, exercises enormous ideological power. Its underlying assumptions make it clear who should be considered to be “working” (those who have jobs for which they receive paychecks) and who is “not working” (stay at home parents or retirees). It separates what is seen as valuable (e.g., whatever increases growth and consumer spending or creates more jobs) from what is not seen as valuable (e.g., lying in a hammock for hours.) And on and on.
The more I learned, the more convinced I became that there was something seriously wrong with this entire picture, that the problem was deep and systemic, that all of us were somehow implicated in it, and that I had somehow been given the daunting task of carefully and precisely analyzing and explicating what was wrong with it, through the lens of my own psyche and life experience.
A distinction needs to be made here, for the sake of preventing common misunderstandings. What I advocate is a systemic critique of the entirety of the job culture, as it manifests itself at all levels: psychological, social, cultural, economic, ecological, institutional, spiritual. Though I don’t want a job, I am not anti-work. I’m not anti-money, either, although I do believe that sustained, systemic critiques of the money system go hand in hand with rethinking the job culture. When I say I don’t want a job, I definitely don’t mean that I refuse to do anything that involves effort, or that I want to do nothing but watch TV and sleep. What I mean is that to the extent that it is possible, I want to find a way to use my gifts effectively without worrying about where my support will come from, and I want to help make it possible for others to use their own gifts in the same manner. The job culture is not designed to reward people for developing their gifts and working with love and joy; it’s designed, primarily, to concentrate wealth at the top.
I want to devote the bulk of my time to working — and playing, to the extent there is a difference — for my community, for the gods and spirits, and for the land that provides our sustenance. I call this Work-with-a-capital-W, and such work can hardly be contained within the framework of a job. In order to do this work to the fullest, I must trust that my support in life will come when I follow my calling — but I hasten to add that learning how to identify a calling and trust the path to which it leads is a spiritual practice, not an economic reality. I agree with the brilliant writers Miya Tokumitsu and Sarah Jaffe that “do what you love, the money will follow” is a pernicious lie for most of us. Yet I also believe that there is a grain of deeply radical wisdom buried within it. That wisdom won’t be easily found in a world where our ability to meet our survival needs depends on our ability to perform compulsory wage labor for employers, however.
The truth is closer to “if you can find a way to do what you love under the appropriate circumstances and after differentiating it from fleeting whims, addictive urges, and passing wants, then — and only then — the support will follow, although not necessarily in the form of money.”
Eking out a way to truly use one’s gifts and do meaningful work — while staring out into the gaping maw of a toxic job culture that would readily swallow us alive without even batting an eye — is not a path for the faint of heart. I have learned that if I really want to do this kind of work, I will be asked to rethink most of what I thought I knew, confront various inner demons, and accept radical changes in my lifestyle. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I will also need to find ways to navigate through — or around — a densely tangled and intimidating thicket of cultural, social and systemic obstacles. Frankly, I am not sure I am prepared to do this. That’s another reason why “do what you love, the money will follow” hasn’t worked as well for me as I once thought it might. Psychological obstacles are one thing; social, cultural and institutional ones are quite another.
How to discern the difference between an activity that is related to my Work and an activity that is more like an addictive urge or passing whim? It can be challenging to get clear on this, but it’s possible to develop a kind of internal compass that will guide you in the right direction. I know I’m on the right track when something I’m doing produces a deep sense of joyful fulfillment and spiritual rightness, and it does so even in cases where what I’m doing is difficult or tedious. I definitely feel this way about writing. A quip I often use will illustrate. “Writing: I love it even when I hate it.” By contrast, activities that stem from addictive impulses leave me with a haunting feeling of aimlessness, shallowness or emptiness, even in cases where the activity provides instant gratification and is extremely pleasurable.
Working in the lap of the joy culture, as opposed to slaving away in the rat race of the job culture, calls for a leap of faith. It asks me to face a deeper truth: security cannot be had through money or jobs. These things are always vulnerable to market instability. When I work at a job I hate strictly for the money, I am cut off from so much of the magic in the world. The tragedy of modern existence is that this predicament is so common, and so widely and uncritically accepted. Great masses of people are so driven by fear, insecurity, and the threat of violence, dispossession, or financial ruin that they continue to hold down jobs they hate, sometimes for decades and lifetimes, just to earn a living.
Imagine the possibilities if huge numbers of us could find ways to abandon the job culture and focus on using our gifts to support one another instead. Imagine what it would be like if we were to recognize and properly value useful unemployment — in other words, people bypassing the formal wage economy altogether and working directly with one another to meet their needs for food and shelter. Imagine what it would be like to live in simple-living communities where no one was desperately hunting for a job because everyone’s basic needs could be adequately met through interdependent, local efforts: things like small-scale organic farming, backyard gardens, barn-raisings, gift circles, community currencies, and much more. There are many people who are doing this kind of work; they are unsung heroes and deserve our appreciation, as they are building the cultures of tomorrow.
I write for wage slaves who want to be truly free, whatever their socioeconomic class or financial status. I write for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the downwardly mobile, those who feel stuck in jobs they hate, and all others who just don’t fit in to the job culture. I write especially for those who, though they may be poor by economic standards, nonetheless have boundless wealth of spirit. I write to help lay bare the forces that keep us trapped in the rat race, and to help us recognize and root out the ways we’ve internalized a toxic work ethic.
This is an inside job, and it can’t be done alone. To get out of compulsory wage labor, we will have to work together to get compulsory wage labor out of us.
I am driven by a vision I cherish: a diverse, ecologically responsible culture in which people are free to use their gifts to do work of the heart and spirit, instead of toiling away in jobs they hate for the sake of making money to meet their basic life needs. (And I believe that we all have gifts, even if we don’t yet know what they are.)
I write for those who listen to that voice inside them that resists taking jobs for money under any circumstances where doing so would interfere with using their gifts appropriately and effectively.
I write for those who, given their druthers, would help create cultures in which all who want it could have this same freedom.
(Copyright D. JoAnne Swanson, 2010. All rights reserved.)
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