Workers of the World, Relax!

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All I know is that I know nothing.” –Socrates

This phrase has somewhat been a sort of motto for me for the past couple of months on the road. I’m not sure I understand it correctly, but the way it’s formulated sure made me understand some weird stuff. It made me start to question everything. Literally everything, even the fundamentals, like – and these are true questionings I’ve made to myself – “Is racism a bad thing?”, or “Is it our goal to pursue happiness?” or even “What’s my sexual orientation?” Almost all of us will answer these questions without second thought, “Of course racism is bad!”, “Duh!” and “I’m heterosexual [or fill yours], dude!”, as if these answers were obvious, as if they were already known. Well, my approach after reading this quote is to say that, no, I know nothing; instead I’ll start from zero and ask myself how I feel and what I think – but mostly how I feel1– about it.

The fundamental question I’m going to talk about today is: “Do we have to work?

Of course you need to work! Where do you get your money otherwise? How do you survive without money?

Ok, children, let’s read that Socrates quote again. Do we really have to work? I could imagine a society without work. This documentary advocates a society without work, and, by the way, the title of this blog post is stolen from it.

But let’s not talk about utopias, let’s talk about our modern western society. I gave in some thought on this matter. And I agree with you: unfortunately I don’t see any easy way to eradicate work in our today’s world society.

But there’s a but. My but is that I do believe we accord way too much importance to work. To career. To success. Hence the title.

Work is draining us

I’ve always had – and still have – what I call “life projects”, like personal growth missions I’ve always wanted to do, totally unrelated to work, which would bring me closer to the perfect me I want to be. Some of my recent life projects include: learning salsa, reading more, meditating.

See, nothing extraordinary. I already had these life projects while I was leading my 9-5 regular Joe working life in San Francisco. I didn’t manage to do any of them. I tried. But every time I wanted to go to a salsa class, there would be an absolutely-not-to-miss meetup about that new technology; every time I wanted to read before bed, I would just prefer to close that book and get some rest instead; every time I wanted to meditate, I would think: “I’m in San Francisco and there’s a bunch of crazy fiestas happening out there right now, why are you here wasting your time in your bedroom?” I would come home from my 9-5 job tired, passive, with only 5% of motivation left in my body, even though I liked the job. I was unambitious outside of work.

Since I started traveling, I’ve managed to accomplish all three of these life projects, and even more of them. And guess what, I believe this current type of lifestyle is way more fulfilling for me than the 9-5 routine life I used to have. I have more time, less money, and surprisingly a happier life.

Buy buy

I remember while I was working, I was significantly more careless with my money. I wouldn’t hesitate to take out a $20 bill to buy something I like, telling myself “What do I care, I’ll be rich some day, and in 10 years these $20 won’t have any significance at all.” I’m not only talking about big, excessive purchases. I’m talking about small-scale, spontaneous expenses on random stuff.

We buy stuff to boost our ego, to keep up with our friends, to celebrate, to kill boredom, to elevate our status to the world, and for a lot of other psychological reasons. Since kids we’ve been secretly wired to obey to this lifestyle: ready to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and vaguely discontented with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have.

The real reason of the 9-5 workday

It may sound rebellious and anti-society-ish, but for me the 9-5 workday was created by our modern society for the sole profit of banks, bosses and big businesses. Not because of the amount of work people get done in 8 hours (you actually work 3 hours a day) but because it transforms us into work-buy-work-buy machines. With this working schedule people have to build a life in the evenings and on weekends, and since they have the money and little time to spend it, they’ll pay a lot for comfort, fun, social status boost, and any other little pleasures they can buy.

The ideal customer is unsatisfied but optimistic, working full-time, earning a fair amount, spending another fair amount during their free time, and somehow just living by seemingly happily. I hope that’s not your description.

Your big stones

The true fundamental question I wanted to raise and analyze in the light of Socrate’s quote was actually the following: is 9-5 workday the normal lifestyle?

And the answer is clearly no. It’s not the normal lifestyle, it’s not even a normal lifestyle, it’s just a lifestyle thats keeps you somewhat happy while largely profiting to the “system”. There shouldn’t be any normal lifestyle; you choose the lifestyle that makes you truly happy.

My physics teacher once told a story. “We’re going to make an experience today.” He had before him on the table a large empty glass jar, and a pile of big stones of the size of tennis balls. He started placing the stones inside the jar, one by one, until there was no room to add another stone. “Is the jar full?” he asked.

“Yes!” we, as a class, shouted.

“Are you sure?” He then reached under the table and pulled out a bag of sand, and started pouring the sand inside the jar. The sand went between the stones, and filled up the jar. “Is the jar full now?” he asked again.

“Probably not…” we mumbled, thinking it might be another trick question.

“Good! Fast learners, I can see.” He then pulled out from under the table a pitcher of water, carefully poured the water inside the jar, and filled it to the brim.

The teacher lifted his gaze. “So what can we learn from this experience?” He paused for a few seconds, he wasn’t waiting for an answer. “It teaches us that if you don’t put the big stones first, you’ll never be able to fill everything inside the jar.” There was total silence for a couple of minutes. Every one of us was meditating/trying to understand his words.

He continued. “Which are the big stones in your life? Your family? A particular passion? Fighting for a cause? It can be anything, but just remember, it is most important to include the larger stones in our lives, because if we don’t do so, we are likely to miss out on life altogether. If we give priority to the smaller things in life (sand & water), our lives will be filled up with less important things, leaving little or no time for the things in our lives that are most important to us. Because of this, never forget to ask yourself, what are the big stones of my life? Then, put them first in the jar, in your life.”

Applause.

So think about your big stones. No, don’t just think. Terrify yourself! Wake up before it’s too late! Change your lifestyle based on these big stones. AND THEN think about working and making money and stuff like that, best case scenario try to make money from one of your big stone, worst case scenario treat work like sand and water by setting your own rules of work2 to make place for those big stones.

But do something.

[Cover image courtesy of Corbis Images]

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Footnotes

  1. Think vs. Feel, Brain vs. Heart – I’ll try to write an article about this some day.
  2. For further reading: The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss.