I’ve just read David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which expands on his essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (found here). The book’s theory is that a large proportion of jobs today are pointless make-work and don’t benefit society (and the person in the job knows it). It’s a provocative argument, and some people will disagree; putting that aside, though, I found the book useful in challenging some of my natural assumptions about the value of work, and this has helped me to overcome some anxiety I’ve been feeling about my career break.
For example, Graeber believes our deeply-ingrained attitudes towards time and work are one reason many people accept their bullshit jobs rather than searching for greater fulfilment. In some BS jobs, he claims, the employee doesn’t have enough to do – perhaps because their job only exists to tick a box or make a manager look impressive by boosting her number of underlings – but since it’s taboo to acknowledge this, they’re given pointless tasks to perform. (I once had a summer job in a shop where in the absence of customers we were expected to walk around with an air of purpose, moving displays one centimetre to the left and dusting spotless shelves.) Why not let the employee spend their downtime doing their own thing? The answer is that during working hours the employee’s time belongs to their employer, and so time spent on non-work activities is essentially considered theft.
But Graeber explains that the concept of a person’s time as a commodity to be bought hasn’t always been the natural way of looking at things. In past societies you could own the goods made by a person, or you could actually own the person, but the idea of owning their time would have been bizarre, since time is an abstract concept. This changed because of economic but also religious reasons; the Puritanical mindset that hard work is virtuous and character-building whereas idleness is sin pervades. Our modern conception of time as money means that instead of talking about simply passing time, we talk about spending it, wasting it or losing it – language that I’ve used without ever giving it a second thought!
This was really helpful to me. I’ve always seen life as a race against the clock; if I don’t have any deadlines set for me by other people, I’ll pointlessly impose deadlines on myself. I claim this makes me more efficient, but really, am I just trying to prove to myself that I’m not a waste of space? Why do I feel the need to prove this? In addition, if I miss those self-imposed deadlines, or don’t complete my to-do list, I’ll feel not only that I’ve wasted time but that I’m somehow morally deficient. What a bizarre and needless way of punishing myself…
Now that I’m not in paid employment, it’s all too easy to think of myself as a slob, an unemployed loser, a spoiled brat who can’t handle an office job, and so on. Yes, I’m working on my writing, but since nobody’s paying me for it and I’m not sitting in an office doing it from nine until five, I can fall into the trap of thinking it’s not ‘real’ work but a self-indulgent hobby. For the first three weeks of my break I spent an awful lot of time in my pyjamas, feeling bad about my attire. I’d look at myself in the mirror, still in my dressing gown at midday, hair askew, and think: what am I doing? Isn’t this meant to be my golden age of creativity? Is this what a great writer of the future looks like?
Now, though, I’m thinking about things differently. My time belongs to no-one but myself, and I’m choosing to pass the hours – not spend or lose them – being creative without any self-condemnation. (I’m not complacent, though; I appreciate that I’m very fortunate to be able to have this break.) I’ve stopped trying to calculate how I can justify my own existence, and am focusing instead on how I might use my writing to express things that are important to me. And there’s nothing in the rule book that says I can’t do that in the comfort of my pyjamas.
I worked hard at my office job for five years while trying to write a novel, rushing from one place to another in a hectic city, and burnt myself out. After all that, it’s okay for me to want to sleep in occasionally, to take a long bath, to sit in the garden listening to the birds. Ironically, removing that mental roadblock of self-judgement has meant that over the past few days I’ve felt more inspired, and been more productive as a result. I’ve learnt and grown a lot through the various jobs I’ve had, but I think this new phrase in my life is going to be the most ‘character-building’ of all.