The Unemployment Itch.
I’ve been unemployed for 72 hours.
Don’t worry. It’s a choice. After 2 years working for a NGO I was burnt out, tired, i’d had enough of emails and meetings and the hectic nature of working in an organisation with little resources and a lot to do.
And it was great. The idea anyway. See i’m a dreamer. I fantasise with the best of them and my brain was ticking along with a plan. Two months, camping. No Mac book, no phone, no accountability. Or a two month yoga retreat. Yes. This was going to be my time to unlearn myself as defined by an organisation, by my work. To realign with myself. All of that fluffy stuff.
But now. It’s Wed morning the week after. I’m sitting in a library, working, i’ve been here since Monday. This time without the security of a pay check, or an outcome or others. I’m just working. I’m sitting, scrolling the never ending sameness of the world wide web, as I ‘head to work’ or replicate the routine of it in any case. Looking for the next thing, a junkee for orders and organisations. Still sitting on a fast flowing wave called the working way. It’s a wave that I’m trying so desperately to drop off.
It’s official, I’ve got the unemployment itch.
But how do I break this kinetic freneticness, and who does it serve? I’m painfully aware of the conflict that’s occurring in me as i try tor reconcile my need for a break and my addiction to technology, productivity and the need to chase purpose and ‘contribute’. To be able to tell people i am doing ‘something.’ To not scare them with the impression that I’m strange, or confused, or worse, lazy. How do i break the inner monologue that’s running off its mouth in my head, sledging at me about the hypocrisy of my contribution when i’m doing nothing? A constant and consistent mantra of doubt running through me, a mocking side of myself that I don’t particularly like. A voice whose real message is saying, ‘your job IS you.’
Where did this itch comes from? Why is it knocking at my head like a woodpecker on speed?
I have some ideas. It’s a sped up society, bathing in the waters of meritocracy and competition, it’s an ad that says, ‘don’t come second’ and an email signature that decress statue and status. It’s the silent shadow of climate change that I feel casts an uncertain shadow of action over all my personal and professional moves (‘am i contributing to something bigger?’). It‘s my learned belief that I’m fighting everyone else for what i want and i better do it soon because I’m old and getting older and no one is allowed to succeed after forty cos that’s not fashionable, and it’s kinda lame. It’s bred by the rise of the tinder class and our participation in social media castes (be the most rigourously censorsed version of your authentic self) that ranks us and riles our relationship with others. It’s an itch that’s bought about by those little hits of dopamine that come with answering an email on time… an email, on time. Of feeling productive. Because product is everything.
Work addiction is actually a thing, diagnosable and real, it sits in a little corner with all our other addictions, a totally modern phenomenon, stemming from the need to achieve status and success and to escape emotional stress (by creating work stress?). We throw ourselves into a little bubble that is the organisational world hoping its thin veneer barriers hold sway while we swim around finding ourselves and our worth in a microcosm of process and management talk. Master the proper language, (‘let’s look at this strategically’), or have the right answer to any question (to show ‘you’re paying attention’) to receive the warm buzz of belonging, of contribtion. In these bubbles we chase our purpose and worth, tying ourselves to the mastheads to shout, ‘this is me!’ Forgetting that organisations are the perfect breeding ground of the insecurity and guilt we’re trying to escape. Forgetting that unconsciously we have unmistakingly and unflinchingly tied our esteem and worth to our ability to navigate the working world. An esteem built on a model that screams and demands:
Success is wealth (My pay check equals my importance)
Success is impact (I must contribute or die)
Success is language (I must understand everything, all the time)
Success is loudness (I must be assertive to be relevant)
Success by cool (I must do all things effortlessly)
Success by speed (I must find all this easy).
So how do i learn to be slow, to just sit in this place, this non working world? Knowing I’m doing nothing, or doing something that is nothing. How do i teach myself that a sleep in isn’t the death of ambition? That hours logged at a computer aren’t the sign of my contribution? How do i reconcile my constant conflict with productivity and teach myself that i am more than the status that i earn through my job title? How do i tell myself that it’s ok to be quiet, to be slow? How do i tell myself to do this while I look at a dwindling bank balance?
Well, I dont really know, but I believe to have any chance means a shift in my idea of personal success and a trust that the richness of the world around me will provide me worth outside a job title. That the richness of the world allows me to see that:
Success is being content (I’m still capable without a job)
Success is values (I don’t need a job to live by these)
Success is connection (Who can i see with this freedom of time?)
Success is openness (What can I learn now i’m outside the bubble?)
Success is authenticity (Who am i without that job anchor?)
Success is slow (That we all deserve a little rest in a hectic world).
It’s a slowness that needs to be learnt, practiced and cultivated and doesn’t come naturally. It’s an itch whose calamine needs a rinse and repeat. But it’s a lotion nonetheless. It’s an itch that, while thorough in its irritation, showed me the dangerous investment i’d placed in the relationship between my worth and work in a way I’d never seen. And that’s in the long run is a lesson well deserving of a scratch.
So here goes, a little time on my own, to see if I can, to remind myself of myself. If you know what I mean. Wish me luck.