I have lived most of my adult life with the persistent notion that what I do daily must be productive, contain value for other people, and lead to eventual commercial success. In this there must be recognition from others, and, of course, an exchange of legal tender, otherwise it's hardly worth doing. This popular narrative is dominant in our western industrialised culture, and it permeates our thinking and worldview to dramatic extents.
Arguably, it preys on and stifles creativity suggesting that to be a valued member of society your daily activity, be it under your own command or that of others, must be saleable. We kill our creative urges to write books, draw, learn a new profession, or make something new because of the apparent absence of commercial viability. Of course, you've got to eat and find a home where you and your family may be safe, warm and dry. But to achieve that, you must meet the needs of others first. Not only that, but you must qualify for this privilege, measured by the product of your psychological blood, sweat and tears.
This afternoon as I sit at my kitchen table staring out the back window, fingers paused over the keyboard, I wonder if living under this binary idea of value disconnects us from one another and makes robots of people. Whatever you do, leave your emotions at home. Don't show you care because if you do, you don't get paid. But don't worry, suggest our invisible maniacal overlords, we'll put in place initiatives to help you not forget who you are.
To be under direct employment requires you to adopt a certain persona, one that is acceptable within the workplace, one that matches the idea of the perfect employee. For self-employed people, this too is a requirement. You must adopt an attitude whereby “it's just business” if you are to survive and prosper. The invisible demands of the workplace encourage you not to follow your sense of honesty and integrity, but to follow the commanding voice of your paymasters.
Even though we all recognise this scenario at play, we pretend it doesn't exist. Corporations, for example, put in place all kinds of clever policies and practices to portray to us they care. But many of these things are merely smokescreens hiding the corporation's true intent. I wonder if the ones running the show know and accept that to be a part of the machine requires them to be despicable. Or maybe they have become so ingrained in the system that they cannot tell the difference.
Whether it's direct employment or working for oneself, there is a certain requirement for us to forgo our sense of humanity. “I was only doing my job” is a favourite response when the idealistic binary structure of the workplace breaks down. Akin to Stanley Milgram's research into obedience and Philip Zimbardo's prison experiments, we seem powerless to stop ourselves being absorbed by the system.
I feel it is a constant battle with myself to stay focused on what I am doing and avoid launching myself into some imaginary future or other. In these futures I have made a big win or loss and it seems everything I do now matters for the sake of that alone. But then I remember that all of that is bullshit, serving only as a distraction, and places my life in the hands of other people. Instead, the most important thing for us is to be engaged in the work right now for its own sake. Everything else we need will follow. I have had too many life experiences serve as examples of this philosophy to deny it any longer. In this there is freedom, no matter what work you decide to do, for whom, and under what conditions.
Working for its own sake extricates us from external demands and the pressure to make whatever it is we do valuable to others. It's why people take up sports and gardening and other past times that are free from commercial constraints. On the flip side, it is why suddenly the landscape changes when we decide to make a career out of that thing we do. Ulterior motivations come into play and ruin the game. Not always, but often. It's why nurses lose faith in care systems and teachers lose faith in education. It's why the man down the road who made jam for free has lost the personal touch now that he's selling for profit. He's not the same anymore, his smile is gone.
I don't need to make a small fortune from my work. Why is that even a goal? All I need is a decent living and what I do has always provided that. Why do I need any more than that? Why do you? What are you after? What's missing?
Instead, use more of your time to make for the sake of it. Sometimes the value in this act is immeasurable. Men in red ties motivated by the need to control will always be there, so we must learn to exist despite them. And perhaps at risk of being unnecessarily dramatic, I believe the very existence of humanity depends upon it.