and the desire to be used & useful
As you might figure out very quickly, this newsletter will meander. For personal and cultural reasons, I'd like to be able to pin down the nature of standstill, which won't be easy, since it requires the ability to look at what we don't do, what we can't imagine, and where we don't go. There will be occasional detours into different, but hopefully helpful, topics.
I was never good at vacations, never good at unstructured time. This proves to be a major hurdle in my current situation as a covid layoff. I’ve spent a better portion of the day & far too long of the week standing. Standing & having no idea what to do next. There are so many things I could do, and yet I couldn't really start any of them. A sense of guilt always hangs over me whenever I try to enjoy something simply for itself, with no ulterior motive. For quite a long time, I'd wrestle to identify the source of this alien guilt. Thinking aloud to others and myself, I'd always gravitate towards language of purpose and, worse, return on investment. Every activity had to build into a grander narrative of success and influence, every first step being the "Early Years" section of my inevitable Wikipedia article. It became evident that, even while jobless, I'd feel the inner impulse to first organize my life before even knowing exactly what it was that I would be doing.
This is my confession & maybe yours: I've been a vessel for productivity.
What acted as such a harsh craving, a deep desire, was taught, not innate in me; Whatever I did, it had to be productive.
Starting in schools and continuing into employment, you are taught and rewarded for handing in work within the bounds set by your direct report. This structure proves to be incredibly useful in the workplace but terrible at home. The power of this culture expanded past our careers and into our personal lives, donning the embarrassingly transparent term of "Productivity Porn". Productivity Porn refines us as machines, willing hosts for parasitic goals, to be possessed by the dreams of another. There's certainly a lot of benefits in learning how to accomplish goals efficiently & effectively, but the fundamental issue is obscured in the presentation itself: What are the goals? The goals are already set. What would the world look like if we had spent as much energy on defining our goals than on achieving them?
Now, with no superior instructing me what to do and why, all my tools are suspect, as they've always been tuned towards profit maximization & nothing else. Our hopes and ambitions have been systematically conditioned by advice which can be collapsed into a neo-Fordist catchphrase: "You can have any dream you like, as long as it is profitable." The primary experience of a Productivity Detox is the withdrawal — the deep desire to be used & useful. Productivity Detox is a long, thorough examination of motive. Productivity Detox is a treatment for Standstill.
The most pernicious elements of our lives can be hard to pin down if they've successfully embedded themselves into every facet of our reality, becoming a second logic, a new common sense. Choosing to break from societal patterns in 2020 requires something I've never really needed to have before: a goal of my own.
Overcoming Standstill means defining goals first and deriving the means to achieve them second. Plans, schedules, “productivity hacks” are the result of goals we wish to attain, not the other way around.
I don't have a plan. I don't want your plan. I'll figure it out.