“Being Productive”


I travel a lot. A few years back, in the midst of a yearlong trip, the father of a friend of mine took a shot at me on social media for travelling instead of “being productive” — ie, having a job.

Nevermind of course that my travelling, even in the frugal, low-key way that I usually do, puts significant amounts of much-needed money into the local economies of the places that I visit. The feeling that drove his argument was much simpler and more visceral than all that: if you’re an adult, you need to be “participating in the economy”, and that means working and consuming.

I’ve always found this incredibly pervasive way of thinking strange. You spend your entire childhood and adolescence in a highly controlled institutional setting (“school”), and then virtually the minute you’re out of it, the expectation is that for the next fifty years of your life, save for at most one to four weeks out of the year, you will spend most of your daylight hours, most days of the week, as an economic machine  earning money, grinding along and “being productive”.

Most people, of course, do not find self-actualisation in their jobs, despite the implict assumption frequently put to children in the all-important question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And yet, despite the fact that purchasing managers and sales reps and barristas and accountants the world over do their jobs mostly just to earn a crust, we all still participate in the deception that our jobs really define us — the first question you ask any new person is almost always, after all, “So, what do you do?”

Put aside for a moment that we — absurdly — spend our entire lives not living, not forming memories, but working, where work is so often a procession of days so much the same that they defy remembering. Instead focus simply on what “being productive” means, what “contributing to the economy” means.

See the endless factories in China, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, running ceaselessly, producing shoes, computers, clothing, mobile phones, kitchenwares, appliances, furniture, plastic toys, sporting goods, televisions, microwaves. See the trucks and container ships crossing the oceans and the land, spewing exhaust, bringing these things to people who consume them, tire of them, and within a few months or years throw them away. See the landfills overflowing with our purchases, no longer new enough to bring a thrill of satisfaction to people zonked and numbed by the endless grind of earning enough money to maintain the lifestyle that demands these purchases. See the “economy grow” in these endless cycles of production and consumption and disposal, the land stripped bare for coal and oil and metals and wood, the oceans vacuumed of fish and full of plastic, the world getting hotter and hotter and the weather stranger and wilder and “the economy” growing like a cancer, and all the while no one willing to say that it is madness to expect or desire unlimited growth in the context of a completely closed system.

I think that the world is poisoned and that we are all in the grip of madness. The orthodoxy of “productivity”, this debasing of the relationship of human beings to work and consumption, to themselves and to the Earth and to each other, is the emperor without his clothes, and everyone too beholden to the orgy of endless overabundance to say that the party is over.

The takeaway from this, I suppose, is simple: you do not need to spend your life producing and consuming. You do not need to feel bad for taking the time away from work to go travel for a week or a month or a year. You do not need to have home ownership as a major life goal. It’s okay to grow your own vegetables and to spend your weekends out in the woods rather than shopping. Your kitchen does not need to be redone. Your clothes don’t matter, and owning a car is often more of a burden than it is a form of liberation. Downsize your life, downsize your needs. Seek satisfaction in what you are, rather than what you have.

No one on their deathbed wishes that they had worked more.


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