#61: Anti-motivational poster
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Things are a little glum in my world. Bug went back to the ER last week, but now he’s home and acting much more like his old self, which has been a huge relief. Not ready to write about any of it but here he is being heaven on earth:
Last week, when I had to make mental space for grief over my sick cat, my career ambition was the first thing to go. Any concerns for the future of my writing, a hypothetical book, whether I should pitch this or that magazine—they dissolved within seconds. They’d been on the backburner for a while, to be fair, but it was clarifying nonetheless, the way bad news often is. It felt like someone turned down all the petty voices in my head asking me if I was doing enough. And while I wish I could take back almost everything that happened last week, I wouldn’t take back that. Sometimes it’s nice to remember what you need most, or that your needs are simple, like a deep breath after a head cold.
You could say I simply slipped down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (from esteem to safety?), but I think there’s more to it. Because it wasn’t so much that I put my career on hold to take care of a terminal pet, it was more that my career concerns no longer seemed important. If anything they seemed silly. This isn’t exactly a revelation; the idea that a brush with death shifts priorities is an old one. But careerism is particularly vulnerable to being discounted in moments of crisis, and I think that says something about career ambition as we currently understand it. Namely that, despite how central it is to our modern understanding of “success,” it’s insufficient as a life force.
It’s strange, because I was planning on writing about ambition before any of this happened. Last week’s rug-pull only affirmed my suspicion, which is that I am not currently ambitious in the way I once was. I no longer want to work more than I already am, or harder, and I am noticing a similar shift around me: the TikToks about how career success won’t make you happy and modern work isn’t fulfilling; the tweets about no longer feeling motivated and not wanting to be a girlboss; dream lives centered not around career success or having it all, but smoking weed and hanging out with a dog. My favorite, which I can no longer find, was a viral TikTok in support of doing the bare minimum at your job, as that’s all you’re paid for. These project a collective bathos. The implication is these people used to be fooled and no longer are; the glittering promise of work turned out to be a ruse. I’ve partly chalked this up to my aging millennial cohort’s shifting priorities, but the diversity of age among posters hints at something more cultural, too—a level of disillusionment specific to this current moment. Why work hard when everything’s on fire, sometimes (often) literally?
If the circumstances that brought us here weren’t so fatalistic, I might say it’s a refreshing shift. Workism is such a crucial underpinning to the American myth, it’s hard to imagine life without it, or what would have to change to accommodate a different value system—one less starry-eyed about sacrificing oneself for a paycheck. Livable wages? Paid leave? Healthcare regardless of employment? Sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s nice to imagine a different relationship to work gaining political traction. It has the rebellious streak the self-care movement attempted to convey, at least before it became a hollow conduit for hustle culture itself. Which is part of what makes anti-work interesting as a burgeoning value; it’s hard to exploit.
“Anti-work” is probably the wrong phrase. “Anti-ambition” isn’t right either. Because I think both work and ambition are integral parts of the human experience. I think we all have an innate desire to change, evolve, do more than we’ve already done. We crave novelty even at our most content, and I think that speaks to humanity on a fundamental level: We are creatures of the natural world, where stasis is antithetical to life itself. But so often our modern ambitions are commercially driven—more currency, more recognition, more productivity—and thus don’t address what we might think of as our instinctual or intuitive needs. The result is a kind of striving that is externally motivated, often exploited, and untethered to our experience of genuine wholeness. It’s no surprise it doesn’t hold up when shit gets real.
In a piece about work ethic for Jacobin, Meagan Day writes that, “We should dispense with ‘work ethic’ as it’s currently understood, and we should replace it with something way better: taking pride in and deriving meaning from the nature of our work itself, not from the mere ability to perform it without complaining.” This is hard if not impossible to achieve in most modern work environments, where people don’t own the value of their work but rather create it for their boss, or their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. The resulting alienation, basically Marx 101, is only getting more expansive and complex as society is further digitized and humanity commodified. The idea of living, working, eating, and moving intuitively now sounds more like an op-ed you’d read on Goop (who would sell you products to do it) than a foundation of humanity itself. But it is foundational.
I’ve always seen myself as motivated. But I’m starting to get better at discerning what I feel inherently ambitious about versus what other people might deem ambitious for me. I think I used to worry that if I changed my definition of “success” to something that felt more fun and attainable—if I didn’t push myself beyond that—I would simply grow limp. Give up. That the only thing keeping me from slipping into sluggish obsolescence was my commitment to working myself to the point of exhaustion. It’s a potent fiction—one very effective at squeezing more profit out of people by linking their self-worth to self-sacrifice. By villainizing “lazy people.” In truth, I think all of us naturally enjoy working, growing, and learning in non-exploitative situations. When we feel drained of that desire, we may fear we’re resting on our laurels, but I say there’s more going on.
“Americans Don’t Want to Return to Low-Wage Jobs,” read a recent New York Times headline about high unemployment rates despite a fairly fertile job market. It may not be popular to suggest that unemployment insurance keeps people from pursuing work, but why wouldn’t it when that work, full-time, won’t even cover their expenses? “The chronic problem we face as we put Covid-19 in the rearview mirror is that the U.S. economy before the pandemic was incredibly dependent on an abundance of low-wage, low-hours jobs,” writes Daniel Alpert. “It was a combo that yielded low prices for comfortably middle-class and wealthier customers and low labor costs for bosses, but spectacularly low incomes for tens of millions of others.” To suggest workers are greedy for not running back to their own exploitation is to side with the exploiter.
There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious or liking to work. I think humans are actually happiest when we’re able to contribute, grow, and feel purposeful. But I don’t think this burgeoning anti-motivational movement (if you can even call it that), is in conflict with that idea. Instead, it feels like a necessary step to engaging with ourselves and our ambition on a more personal, intuitive level. Dreaming of chilling instead of dreaming of being a boss, not dedicating your entire life to a company that won’t hesitate to fire you to protect its bottom line—I think these can be important acts of refusal. Not everyone can afford to make them, but I don’t think that makes them any less politically fortifying. And I don’t think they’ll make us lazy, either.
1. So many cat products and articles and forums that, genuinely, I don’t know how I fit anything else in.
3. “The Subversive Joy of Lil Nas X’s Gay Pop Stardom,” a really fun profile by Jazmine Hughs for The New York Times.
4. Mark Bittman’s recipe for “Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Garlic,” which is the best brussels recipe I’ve ever made. They reminded me of brussels you get at a restaurant and freak out over.
5. The Friends reunion, on a late-night whim. I actually don’t care much about Friends but also feel like I could write a dissertation on this special….
6. The YouTube channel “Great Art Explained,” which has short videos that explain the significance of various famous artworks. Nothing revolutionary but pleasant to put on as filler if you wish you knew more about art (like me).
7. Bo Burnham’s Netflix special, Inside, which I liked a lot. Not in its entirety, but way more than I thought I would. This one’s been in my head:
8. “Unread Messages,” an excerpt from Sally Rooney’s forthcoming novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, published in The New Yorker. I’m simply a sucker. (I loved it.)
9. Pretzel M&Ms—underrated.
11. The definition of the word insouciance (“a feeling of careless indifference”) which I constantly forget even though it totally means what you’d guess it means.
13. This amazing old interview of E. Jean Carroll, whose newsletter you should subscribe to.
14. This piece about the dissociative identity disorder community on TikTok by Jessica Lucus for Input, which will lead you down a wormhole...
15. “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs, at a bar the night before Bug collapsed the first time, when the summer felt a lot more infinite than it does now. It’s a perfect song, to be fair.
On the podcast this week: Selling out with Bobby Doherty
This week I’m bringing on my friend Bobby Doherty, a photographer who’s shot countless New York Magazine covers and images you’ve probably seen on Instagram and various creative moodboards. We talk a lot about ambition and careerism and how our relationships with both are changing, plus a bunch of other random stuff like his obsession with Tumblr (lol), NY vs LA, and, if you can believe it, the gold rush.
And finally I wanted to say thank you so much for the outpouring of love and support for me, Avi, and Bug over the past couple weeks. Every single email/DM/comment helped, even if I couldn’t get back to them all. Reminded me how lucky I am to have a line to so many kind and thoughtful people. I’m very grateful.
Sending love back,
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to National Bail Out, a collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers, and activists focused on ending pre-trial detention and mass incarceration through community-based advocacy.