ESSENTIALism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Sounds blasphemous in this day and age. The art of separating the trivial many from the vital few. A few years ago, I came across this fascinating book and after a gentle outreach and gracious response from Greg McKeown, the author, had me falling for the content Book, Line and Sinker.
Turn the caption statement around: Working is Not Productivity. The message once(and even now) was loud and clear. Relentless self-optimisation was a way to cope, but is it really? Humans are NOT search engines !
There has been always something obscene about the cult of the hustle, the treadmill of alienated insecurity that tells you that the moment you stop running for even an instant, you will be flung flat on your face.
Productivity is not a synonym for health or safety or sanity. I will go onto add that frantic productivity is actually a fear response. It’s a fear response for 21st-century humans in general and millennial humans in particular.
Productivity, or the lack of it, has become the individual metric of choice for coping with the international econo-pathological clusterfuck of the Corona Crisis. Talk about self optimisation: how do we do that and meet deadlines amidst settling our fighting kids, demanding colleagues and handling our screaming inner critics in the name of introspection? You are fortunate to have a roof over your head and you are also expected to use ‘ this time ‘ to write blogs, launch your podcast and personal kept in the back burner projects and life-hack our way to some cargo-cult pastiche of normality, and if not, are we somehow letting the side down?
Arbeit Macht Frei. Meaning work sets you free. These words first appeared in an 1873 German novel. And later got adopted by Nazis as a slogan. The mantra of work as freedom or a magical route to happiness has proved incredibly resilient. But,as the corona virus crisis is exposing all over again: for billions of people work is none of these things.The reality is that for billions of people around the world , work is a tightrope walk oscillating between indignity and survival. Happiness as the byproduct of the work you do will come across a masterful con job for many.The task on hand now and onerous at that, is to push for a new narrative for work based not on happiness but humanity.
Questions have an in built audacity to be more interesting than answers. And in the febrile weeks that have followed the advent of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the one question that went unabashedly viral was: how do we stay productive when the entire world is going to hell? The virus has upset the human micro biome in an epochal act of strategic surprise.
A whole generation leaned on the fragile learning that relentless work was the way to cope with a rolling crisis with the mood of imminent collapse and economic insecurity that was the piped elevator music of the youth- the relentless tug of war between trying to save yourself and trying to save the world, between desperate aspiration and actual hope.
There could be multiple reasons that we are panicking about work: about to be furloughed or sidelined; or already lost a job. And you are playing catch up(sounds familiar?). Or if you have managed to retain one, you are apprehensive about the long term. And if everything is hunky dory, you are battling at the coat tails of ‘ survivor’s guilt ‘.
We now have a packed schedule: washing up, cooking, cleaning, being a sounding board, lending a helping hand, community work, countless video conference calls with people you have ever and never met and at the end of it hiding in bed hoping that history can’t hear you breathing.
People are working harder than ever but a lot of the work does not fall under the traditional sense of the term ‘ productive ‘. They just don’t count on the ledger of human worth because the economy refuses to value them in its reckoning of what does, because most of it has been done in private, by women, for ages, for free. Making breakfast, making the beds, making sure your friends and family aren’t losing their absolute minds is work that matters more than ever and will continue to matter in the coming decades as crisis follows crisis. It is not “productive,” in the way that most of us have learned to understand what that word means, but it is work, and it is really really worthwhile.
WFH(Work From Home) has seamlessly and unapologetically moved onto W(Work). Geography has become history!
For all those who flaunt their workaholic badges of honour and condescendingly accept the various neurotic flavours that comes with it, let’s come to terms with the fact that we have been conditioned to think that work in the laissez faire zeitgeist is about hyper vigilance. It’s about what happens to people when they are trapped in abusive circumstances and cannot escape. Psychologist Judith Herman observed that “the ultimate effect of [psychological domination] is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance.” We haven’t been able to shrug of the mega legacy of the Industrial Age: Compliance. Phew!
The idea that hustling can save you from calamity is an article of faith, not fact—and the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to shake the collective faith in individual striving. The doctrine of “workism” places the blame for global catastrophe squarely on the individual: If you can’t get a job because jobs aren’t there, you must be lazy, or not hustling hard enough. That’s the story that young and young-ish people tell themselves, even as they have spent the whole of their brief, broke working lives paying for the mistakes of the old, rich, and stupid. They internalised the collective failures of the ruling class as personal failings that could be fixed by working smarter, or harder, or both—because that, at least, meant that they might be able to fix them themselves. Unfair!
After the quarantine, after we count the lives lost or ruined, recession is coming. A big one. For many, especially millennials, it’s the second devastating economic calamity in their short working lives( the first being the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-9), and they are still carrying the trauma of the first. This time, though, they know it’s not their fault. This time it’s abundantly clear that they don’t deserve it. And this is exactly the sort of crisis that gives people ideas about overturning the social order.
The cult of productivity doesn’t have an answer for this crisis. Self-optimising will not save us this time, although saying so feels surprisingly blasphemous. There is nothing counterrevolutionary about keeping busy. But right now, we have a finite opportunity to rethink how we value ourselves, to re-examine our metric for measuring the worth of human lives.
Time for ESSENTIALism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.