By Patrick McGaugh
The story, of unknown origin, goes something like this: An American investment banker, visiting a small village in Mexico, encounters a Mexican fisherman. The fisherman describes his life: "I sleep late, fish a little, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."
The American scoffs at the fisherman’s lack of ambition and goes into great detail about how he could expand his small business and make millions. "Then what?" asks the fisherman.
"Then you would retire," replies the American. "Move to a small village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."
Increasingly, the American ideal of success is being questioned, propelling at least two streams of thought about jobs and work. One is a critique of "busyness" itself — summed up most succinctly by Bertrand Russell’s 1931 essay "In Praise of Idleness" and given some cachet by the growing voluntary simplicity movement.
It’s a point of view starkly portrayed by Mike Judge’s screen satire "Office Space." In a workplace where his bosses clothe cynical micromanagement in phony politeness and "teamwork," antihero Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) makes a decision to drop out of the rat race — on the job, that is. As he assumes a surprisingly invulnerable chutzpah, a friend asks him what he would prefer to do with his time. "I would do nothing," he asserts.
Yet not everyone who hates jobs also hates work. A second emerging trend is one in which some would say, "I would do everything." These are folks who demand work they can genuinely get excited about and doesn’t conflict with their values. Broadly speaking, this might be called the "right livelihood" movement, although the social import of individual choices is open to different interpretations. "Erin Brockovich" is one example of following one’s activist passions; "Billy Elliot" — the story of a boy pursuing his dream of dancing — quite another. One’s right livelihood may also be a product of time freed up for nonpaying pursuits, as opposed to jobs per se.
I swim in the streams of both "nothing" and "everything." For the past 18-years I’ve had one of those Rodney Dangerfield jobs, substitute teaching ("I get no respect..."). I’ve spent many years beating myself up over my failure to get and keep a "real" job. However, lately my research and reflection have led me to turn common conceptions of "success" and "failure" on their heads. I’ve come to see that time often means more to me than money, as a low-pressure work situation has allowed me to pursue political activism, spiritual practice, a healthier lifestyle (knock on wood), and the life of an insane media junkie (I must know everything). Another part of me is a real romantic about work, provided it’s something I genuinely want to do. Still, money wouldn’t hurt.
These tensions are hardly unique to me. And as technology alters the pace and face of work in the infancy of this new century, "love work" and "hate work" each bid to remake labor — and by extension, remaking society — as each point of view both competes with and informs the other.
To read this article in its entirety check out: Conscious Choice.