DIARY of a 99%-er: The Struggle Between Survival and Creative Expression

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June 15

In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.– Leo Tolstoy

After journaling my thoughts yesterday, I feel compelled today to organize them into a more cohesive manifesto, if you will, otherwise known as my elaboration of the “Lament of the 99%.” This is dedicated to those of us who enjoyed jobs with freedom and autonomy before the recession and are now relegated to being automatons, in the only jobs that have mainly been available to us in the past few years – 9-to-5 administrative jobs, the kind that Dolly Parton lamented about way back when.

First, unless you get one of these administrative jobs right out of college, and even then it can be unbearable if you are creatively inclined, the more time you spend working on your own projects, the more you can see what an artificial construct being confined to a cubicle/office is, and how unnatural it feels to show up somewhere at 9 am or whatever time in the morning, proceed to sit in front of a computer all day long, with hopefully an hour lunch break, and then have to stay until 5 pm, or whatever time you leave, whether you have to work to do or not. This paradigm seemed ridiculous to me when I did temp administrative jobs right out of college and it feels even more unnatural a decade-and-a-half later.

Secondly, the concept of having a traditional 9-5 job has been so inculcated in our society from the time we are born that it’s hard to break out of completely. From the moment we come out of the womb, for us in the 99%, we are programmed to believe that getting a job is the raison d’etre of our lives. As children, we are told to study hard so we can get a good job. Then it’s the constant admonishment of “Get a job!” or being constantly peppered with the questions: “Do you have a job?” and/or “How’s your job?” The Western world, especially Americans, inhabit their work identities like a badge of honor. Business cards and Internet sites like LinkedIn fuel this fire and perpetuate the illusion that we are our jobs. Stay-at-home moms get some reprieve from this, but now even they have identified solely with their mommy identity, at the expense of their core identity, which was there before they became parents and will be there after their children are grown. Mommies now show up to events with “mommy” business cards.

(That said, as a feminist, I can see mommy business cards as a vital counterpart to the typically male work world, which probably created business cards in the first place. But anyone who is so attached to any identity – whether it’s business or parenting needs to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and remember they are not what they do, but who they are – that there is a deeper self behind all the identities – at least that’s what all the spiritual teachings have taught me).

But, I digress. Getting back to my manifesto…the act of working is such an embedded part of the fabric of American lives, not to mention that Americans work longer hours than anyone else on the planet. (Thanks, Puritans, for starting our country in such an austere manner, which has still not completely evolved into more of a more widely-accepted live-work balance, unless you work for some fabulously wealthy and/or progressive company that can afford to give you catered lunches once a week and gyms and dry cleaning on site.)

At least, some of the Europeans have finally codified a live-work balance into their culture. So, yea for France! In 1999, the country courageously enacted a 35-hour work week. Then, very recently, a deal between employers and unions means that employees cannot be coerced either directly or implicitly to check work-related emails after hours. They now have the right to turn off their work phones and are not required to look at work-related email after 6 pm or anytime until 9 am the next morning. The French, also for quite some time, have been very religious about taking a full one-hour lunch. They know how to do live-work balance. I have got to move to France some day!

So, I wonder how many Americans crave a live-work balance as desperately as I do, and how many ever stop and ask the question, “What would I do if I wasn’t working?”

During this recession, certainly more people must have been asking themselves this, as they were laid off in droves. How many people followed up on this question to seek out an answer for themselves is an entirely different story.

It would be nice to be able to look to the corporate world for some paragons who have made freedom and autonomy a priority. And, there have been some avatars in this realm. Best Buy was, for a while. As far back as 2005, the company experimented with giving some of its employees 100 percent autonomy, coupled with 100 percent accountability. These lucky employees could work from home, from a café, from the beach, from wherever they felt like, as long as they delivered. It totally unhinged the work itself from an arbitrary amount of time spent in an office and it finally, finally, finally eliminated the compulsion for managers to micro-manage their employees. Instead, managers focused on micromanaging the work itself. What a novel concept!

The results? They were extraordinarily positive. So, way to go Best Buy! For a short time, at least.

The caveat? Even though productivity soared and voluntary turnover rates went down dramatically on these particular teams, Best Buy discontinued this entire paradigm about eight years later when a new CEO came on board and apparently felt giving some employees freedom, autonomy and trust was a bad thing. And, in one fell swoop, he devolved the company right back to the Dark Ages. Way to go new CEO!

I can’t even imagine how these employees must have felt, having experienced the sweet taste of freedom and trust in the workplace, and then have it yanked out from under them. And, I’m stoked that there’s now a whole book devoted to this subject: Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution. WordPress has been a more consistent leader in this realm, thanks to top dog, Matt Mullenweg, whose zealousness for freedom and autonomy should be enshrined somewhere. The open source software used to run WordPress manifests in the open source philosophy of his parent company, Automattic. Transparency, meritocracy and longevity are core values Mullenweg instilled in his company, as documented in the book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. But getting back to the Dark Ages, I’m sure you’ve heard what happened when Yahoo got a new CEO – one of her first official acts of business was cutting off work-at-home privileges for anyone who was currently working at home for however many days a week. Unbelievable!! And, how ironic, that a company that is practically synonymous with the Internet (at least it was until Google came along) would be part of the devolvement of the corporate work environment.

As you can see, the entire subject of work, along with the subset of how we Americans do work, are issues I have reflected upon quite a lot. And, I do have a lot of compassion for the people who are left behind at companies when so many others have been laid off, doing twice the work at the same pay as before. This is more an indictment of The System itself and how it needs a total overhaul.

I have also spent a lot of time thinking about how much I would like to become untethered from this paradigm, to have the freedom to create my own daytime structure during my waking hours. For some, the act of disassociation from the prevailing construct can induce fear and anxiety; for me it engenders sweet intoxication.

So, I spend some time over the next few days renegotiating a sense of fluidity and spontaneity in my life, letting myself go with the flow, unpacking all the layers of conformity, mind-numbing mundaneness and micro-managing control. I try to shake it all off as I flit and flutter in this new space-time continuum.

I go to the Dana Point harbor almost daily and walk, and sit, and just be. I reflect on what Eckhart Tolle wrote about his epiphany, when he sat on a park bench just experiencing the pure delight of being for the first time in his life, millennia after Buddha did the same thing under that Bodhi tree. It is a delicious kind of freedom for me to experience during the work week. I savor it.

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