I am an idler at heart, a loafer, a layabout. I’m all for the via contemplativa, if by that we mean a life of gentle people-watching and light-reading and hammocks and conversations and such. ‘What is this life if, full of care…’
But even I will admit that this via contemplativa can only be achieved by first persuing a period of via activa. What I define as idleness, an outside eye might instead define as ruthless efficiency and wise energy management. Of taking the direct path. But I’m less fussed about this than I will be about the Soaring Twenties, towards creating the kind of life that suits my temperament.
Anyway, I say all of this to tee-up the wider, and I would hope to think, pretty obvious point that work itself is neither good nor bad. It’s the attitude you carry towards work it that is the issue. And that’s what we are going to talk about today.
Work And The Content Of Discontent
In the last issue, our resident Voice Of The People and Champion Of The Everyday Workingman Mark Allan Bovair wrote against the internet-driven scorn towards our conventional ideas about work. His instincts were completely correct.
We forget that the vast, vast majority of online content is written by a small contingent of either ‘content creators’ (imagine that being your job description) or extremely online shut-ins. The former have personal financial gain as an ulterior motive, the latter are usually pretty devoid of life experience, or indeed sanity as that term is commonly understood.
And yet these people- plus a professional journalistic class who for years have been increasingly driven into a pseudo-bipolar lather by partisan politics, social media dopamine and precarious career prospects- are the ones who dictate the direction of our discourse.
These three flavours of nutcase are the ones who shape our attitudes. So it’s no wonder that we hear so much about work being slavery and the rat race being a trap and all the rest of it. Because it is true for them. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to be able to identify this particular stripe of psychological projection.
But this doesn’t necessarily hold water for the rest of us. I have seen as many people recklessly torpedo a decent job while content-drunk on half-baked ideas of get-rich-quick entrepreneurship than I have seen have their spirit crushed by a dead end gig. There is no room for talk of Survivor Bias in hyper-optimised motivational YouTube videos.
(When I was at the height of late teen impressionability, infomercials were something that you might mindlessly watch at 3am while beer-drunk and unable to sleep after a heavy night out. Now they have been replaced by virtually indistinguishable YouTube motivational content that people watch sober and of their own volition during the daytime. And quite often for hours at a time, every single day. It is a strange state of affairs, this.)
The ulterior motive is obvious. The motivator is trying to get you pumped up and soured on conventional employment- not because he cares for you- but because he wants your money. He wants you to pay him to give you the keys out of the imaginary prison that he himself has implanted in your mind by expertly stoking up your fear, insecurity, envy and resentment. The motivator creates the disease and then bills you for his snake oil cure. It’s perversely admirable in its skill and guile, which is the hallmark of any good confidence trick.
And don’t get me wrong, many people are stuck in awful jobs. I’ve been there, many people do crave a way out. Many people do need and are willing to pay for tactical advice to accelerate their entrepreneurial endeavours and financial independence. But these type of people aren’t consuming content all day. If they are serious.
As to our second contingent- the extremely online shut-ins- there is more than a hint of sour grapes to the whole situation. They struggle to achieve gainful employment (often as a result of the long fallout of the post 2008 recession, inflation, and other factors which in fairness are out of their control) and so they mock the whole idea of it based on zero personal experience of working a job and earning a wage. Theorising without experience, expounding without earned authority- such is the Internet.
But in the world away from screens work and career isn’t necessarily an evil and life-sapping force. It can be. But it doesn’t have to be. As with everything else in life- and as Mark pointed out- it all depends on your why.
Work as Barbell
Often when the subject of the supposed tyranny of employment comes up you will see reference to the famous Nassim Nicholas Taleb aphorism from his book The Bed of Procrustean. It goes:
‘The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.’
Now, having had experience with at least two out of three of those habit-forming substances I can tell you that they are not directly equivalent, no matter how memorable and essentially useful that turn of phrase may be.
Because to use a further concept from the Talebian worldview (and yes I do mean ‘Talebian’ Mr Spellchecking software, not ‘Taliban’) a job is often the safe end of the barbell.
Barbell, if you are not familiar, is the idea that wise risk management involves having the majority of your plays be prudent and cautious and safe and then offsetting this with a small contingent of super-risky plays that will either lose completely but have a potentially massive upside. With this method, you have a reasonable degree of safety while having the chance to reap some reward from the kind of risky opportunities that many would miss out on for fear of the downside.
A cursory glance at the biographies of some great artists demonstrators this barbell in action. Take T. S. Eliot for example. By night he wrote groundbreaking, avant garde, modernist, risky poetry but during the day he worked a drab and ordinary position as a clerk at Lloyd’s bank. The stolid dependability of the latter brought the freedom to pursue the former with gusto. Had our man Mr Eliot become content-drunk on an equivalent to contemporary ‘hustle culture’ and entrepreneurial content I dare say he would have burned up that creative energy on simply trying to support himself with a venture that was less dependable and certainly more effort than simply keeping his head down at the day job.
It’s all about risk management. And truly great art must be made in a spirit of gusto and freedom and risk. It must take chances. And so to hedge against that, and to pay for that, a dull but dependable day job is the tried and true strategy for many both past and present.
And yes, the modern work environment is fraught with risk. I know that. Job security is a largely mythical creature at this point. But, the point, at least in principle remains.
So this talk of jobs, even the most dullest and driest of Office Space style positions, are categorically bad and should be avoided is nonsense. Such jobs keep families fed and marriages intact and mortgages paid. But beyond that they provide the clandestine bedrock and layer of basic financial security from which the great art of the Soaring Twenties may well emerge.