Working Ourselves Away from Life

Charlie Ambler
Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

When innovation began overhauling America in the first half of the 20th century, a bunch of economists started speculating about machines replacing humans as laborers. Some believed that machine labor would drive the length of the workweek down while keeping income levels the same (or, ideally, raising them). Some believed that machine labor would lead to mass unemployment. Some believed that nothing would change; the mechanisms of the market are such that people would continue working the same amount and machine labor would simply enhance the opportunity for massive profits. A mix of these three outcomes weighing heavily towards the latter one is what has actually occurred.

The average workweek is still ~40 hours. In pre-Internet decades, the majority of non-executives left their work at the office. The psychological burden may have remained, but they were able to go home and literally not be able to do any more work until they were back at the office the next day. Today, plenty of people abstractly work far more than the amount they’re technically supposed to. Technological advances in mobility mean that tons of non-labor job can technically be done from the comfort of one’s home. Most people do not work from home, of course, but I know tons of low to mid-level employees that feel compelled to answer work emails and do busywork after-hours. It’s a strange dynamic. Remind me to write a book-length article on the similarities between startup culture and Scientology…

My perspective is different, albeit somewhat privileged, since I now work from home. I work hard and do a bunch of different things to secure my future in the best way I can, but I still have plenty of free time. Why? I’m not exceeding my labor requirements to make someone else a lot more money than I’m making. Being a business-owner changes the entire perspective on work. The only person I can be exploited by is myself. I often take advantage of my labor mobility and work deep into the night, but I enjoy it because the work is wholly my own.

In the same way that office workers have been enabled to work from home by the technology revolution, being an entrepreneur has really never been easier. The degree to which an individual can automate their own business practices, do well, and still have enough time to learn new skills, make art, read, etc, is remarkable. This opportunity has never been more democratically available. It’s also never been so readily ignored in favor of a matching cultural cynicism and masochism that have emerged alongside the same new technologies

Having more free time to live life has changed my approach to work. I work all day, but it’s a mix of work work and life work, whereas daily life as an employee almost entirely consisted of work work. Instead of slipping out for a 15 minute taco or whatever, I’ve embraced the ethos of “slow food”. I eat healthier than I’ve ever eaten, spending more time preparing food and researching nutrition than before. Instead of popping into the gym for 20 minutes three times a week, I’ve begun researching exercise again (which I hadn’t done since early-on in college) and spending at least an hour every day in the gym experimenting with what I’ve learned. Instead of coming home to a messy apartment, throwing a bunch of shit in the hamper and the closet, Watching Entertainment, and going to bed, I’ve made sure to spend at least 15 minutes each day keeping my space organized and neat. Lastly, I can finally meditate without feeling like I have to rush.

I don’t watch much entertainment anymore— not because I’m some pretentious douche who thinks TV is bankrupt of value (I love TV) but because I’m usually just doing one of the aforementioned activities. And I still have a fair amount of time left over.

The point here is not to smugly proclaim, “Everyone should quit their jobs and become self-employed!” The point is that we’ve become brainwashed about work. When I worked for other people, my mind was not focused on efficiency and optimization. My mind was on getting the task at hand done, and usually taking slightly longer than necessary to avoid overwork. There’s never too much grist for the mill.

That’s where most modern workers’ minds are, whether they’re driving a snow plow or plugging away at an Excel spreadsheet. This mode of operation conditions our internal dialog to get home and say, “Time to do nothing. Thank God I’m done with work and can finally do nothing.” And instead of this being leisurely, it often slowly impacts other external conditions that make us more unhappy and unhealthy, and thus worse at our jobs, and the cycle spirals until we’re fat lazy illiterate underpaid schlubs. When I was following the conditioned script of work-to-finish, I didn’t think about work-to-optimize-efficiency. I kept my space somewhat organized, but not optimally neat. I read a bit but I didn’t optimize my habits. I meditated but it was irregular and ineffectual.

Lastly, when we grow to hate work, we do less of it. We get home and don’t want to do more work! But once the mind reconfigures itself to see work as life (people do things; that’s what life is), every facet of life becomes an exciting opportunity for optimization. I want to take a second to contrast this to the annoying obsessive “lifehack” culture that has emerged alongside clickbait and self-help memes. This is not what I’m referring to when I say optimization. Optimization is, basically, the Zen art of mindfulness. It’s keeping your space immaculate not to feel better about yourself but simply because it’s something you do. It’s about meditating every day not to become a sex guru or will yourself into $1 million, but because it’s something you do. It’s eating well and exercising because you are a human with a body and life is objectively better when you make the most of being a human with a body. Life is doing stuff. Life is work. When we hate work, we hate life and we don’t do nearly as much to optimize conditions as when we enjoy work.

I think the next realistic “revolution” will hopefully come from more people realizing that they have the tools at their disposal to live far better without having to spend much money. It will require work, though. But once we reconfigure our attitude towards work, the time we spend working on ourselves and our loved ones ends up not feeling like how we’ve been conditioned to treat work. It becomes deeply personal and valuable work. And this is precisely the type of wonderful work we’ve become alienated to as overworked and underpaid modern employees. Work towards what makes you feel alive, not away from it.

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Charlie Ambler

Written by

Founder of @dailyzen and Strike Gently Co. Meditation, self-inquiry, and self-mastery. Est. 2008

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