Why I Love Patreon

patreon bannerPatreon is a relative newcomer in the crowdfunding arena. It’s only been around for three years, and less than a year in its current design incarnation. It’s growing rapidly, however, and for excellent reason. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms that operate on a strictly per-project basis, Patreon permits creators to fund their creative work on a subscription model. Patreon is, therefore, the first platform that offers the possibility of gift-model crowdfunding. That makes all the difference in the world – for me, and for a growing number of artists who have, at long last, found a viable path toward leaving behind their day jobs to focus on their creative work. If gift-model crowdfunding had been an option when I was starting out as a freelance writer, my career might have taken an entirely different trajectory.

When I first heard about Patreon in July 2014, I was immediately overcome with excitement. Here was something I’d long hoped and wished for; it almost sounded too good to be true. A breathless snippet from my personal journal that month reads:

“I see 22,719 likes on Patreon’s Facebook page, but none of my artist friends have liked it there yet. I wonder why? This could change so many artists’ lives!”

Earlier this year I launched my first Patreon account to support my writing, and although I’m still getting a foothold, it has already started changing my life.

How do I love thee, Patreon? Let me count the ways.

I love Patreon because…

…it’s the only crowdfunding platform that works on a gift model for patron and creator alike.

Most crowdfunding platforms are project-based. When the project is complete, the funding from project backers ends. Patreon’s subscription model, by contrast, allows for ongoing funding of a creative practice. Patreon can be used in project-based ways too, of course, but the key difference for me – the choice Patreon offers that isn’t available elsewhere – is that the subscription option permits creators to work completely within a gift model.

What that means, in my case, is that all the funds I receive from my patrons are gifts. They don’t need to be tethered to the release of a specific piece of writing, since I’m not required to sell my work in order to participate.

While there is a mutual understanding that there will be reciprocity over the long term – I am, after all, a writer, and this is arts patronage – my patrons are not purchasing anything from me. A purchase is something I’m obligated to honor by delivering a product or service to someone who’s paid me for it. Gifts I can accept with a thank you, and an open-ended timeframe for writing my next piece.

The trust this gift model embodies makes all the difference in the world. For one thing, since my Patreon campaign is still new, my day job must continue to take first priority for the time being. All writing projects must therefore be squeezed into my time off, which makes meeting deadlines a challenge. But there’s a much deeper benefit, too. When my patrons demonstrate their trust in me by pledging their support without expecting me to produce on a set schedule, I feel appreciated. It makes me want to deliver the best work I possibly can. By contrast, when people buy a product or service from me, that extra spirit of appreciation that a gift carries isn’t there. It’s an economic transaction, and nothing more. When I receive a gift of open-ended patronage, my response is deep gratitude, and the writing I produce under these conditions embodies the spirit of the gift also. As David Spangler writes: “A relationship that is coerced or that is dealt with as a transaction is never as powerful nor as rewarding as one in which all concerned willingly give of themselves.” Indeed. But before Patreon arrived on the scene, there was no viable way for me to carry out this working-in-the-gift vision as a writer without making difficult financial sacrifices myself.

I think it’s very important to be clear that I am working within a gift model rather than a sale-based one, because if I were operating a storefront, my patrons would have reasonable and clearly defined expectations for me to deliver what they’d purchased within an agreed-upon time frame. That works quite well for some creators, on Patreon and elsewhere. For me, not so much.

On a gift model, my patrons are expressing appreciation for work I’ve already written. They are also expressing their trust that, if I’m given the freedom to work on my own terms, I will continue to write more that’s worth their time to read. That trust goes a long way toward removing coercive elements from interfering with my creative process. My fickle and rebellious Muses will beat a hasty retreat at even the faintest hint of coercion. “It takes as long as it takes,” they insist. (I envy writers whose Muses cooperate readily with deadlines. It’s something I aspire to. Maybe if I court them – ply them with Muse-treats – someday it’ll happen for me, too. Even if it does, though, my Patreon campaign will still be run on a gift model, for a whole host of reasons.)

From my side, all the writing I release is also given as a gift. On Patreon I am free to release my work as I wish, without charging anyone an up-front fee to access it. This way, people who can’t or don’t want to be my patrons can still read my finished pieces online without spending money. And people who want to contribute, and are comfortable enough to do so, are given an easy and convenient way to do so.

…it provides an income to support creative work I’d be doing anyway.

I write every day. I’ve been writing since I was a child, and will continue to do so as long as I’m able, whether or not patronage is available. Words and ideas come to me – sometimes at the most inopportune times possible – and insist that they be written down, whether I like it or not.

Fortunately, writing brings me great fulfillment, as long as I can do it on my own terms. Even on the toughest and most frustrating days, I still love the process of sitting down and cranking out words. It’s a form of sacred service for me. Working within a gift model through Patreon preserves that meaningful service motivation in my creative process. While I need to pay my bills somehow, I decided long ago that I would not write for a living, because it introduces coercive elements that compromise the spirit of the work. When I’m writing for the sake of “earning a living” (I like to put that phrase in quotes to emphasize its absurdity), the goal is to prove my mettle in the capitalist marketplace, under the constant threat that money I need to meet my basic survival needs will be withheld if I don’t. My Muses sure don’t like them apples. In fact, one of the main purposes of the writing and activism I’ve done for the past 20 years is to help hasten the arrival of the day when the need for everyone to “earn a living” becomes a thing of the past.

Let me be clear: when I say I’m opposed to “earning a living,” what I oppose is the obligation to sell my time to employers to survive. I’m not opposed to commerce in general, nor am I opposed to receiving financial support from people who enjoy my work. To some, this distinction is merely semantic, but I strongly disagree. Working within a gift model is a different animal altogether from “earning a living.” They’re not even in the same ballpark, in fact. The former is driven by trust and appreciation; the latter is driven by coercion, implicit threat, and fear.

If I start writing for the money, my work becomes compromised, and my readers can tell the difference immediately. Some writers can churn out brilliant, inspired work even when their primary motivation to do so is monetary. I, however – a writer blessed (cursed?) with fickle, rebellious, stubborn Muses – have learned that I am not one of them. Whether or not my writing makes money has to be irrelevant – which is a difficult thing for me to manage in an extreme capitalist culture that recognizes no other means of deeming something of value than its ability to make money. So the only responsible way for me to release the writing I do for its own sake is as a gift. Until Patreon came along, there was no viable way for me to do both of these things – offer my work as a gift and also have hope of being able to pay my bills, if enough people supported my work.

When I am working in the spirit of the gift – as I am always doing whenever I am free to write on my own terms, rather than those of the capitalist marketplace – my creative flow, too, is gifted to me from a source beyond myself. That’s why I consider my writing a form of sacred service. Therefore, any price I might charge for the finished work feels strangely like both too much and too little. (Thanks to Charles Eisenstein, one of my favorite writers, for this insight.) On a gift model, and with sufficient patronage, I won’t have to charge a price at all – yet I will still be supported.

…for some artists, it offers a viable path out of the artists’ dilemma.

Without the privilege of patronage, spousal support, or a trust fund, my choices as a writer who wants to work within a gift model are limited to:

1) spending most of my time doing wage labor (assuming I’m “lucky” enough to find a job, that is) while my gift writing takes second priority, and/or

2) being broke and relying on charity (i.e., means-tested, woefully inadequate forms of government support) while I write.

That’s the artist’s dilemma in a nutshell. How do artists manage to fund the immense amounts of time and effort needed to create things worthy of being called art? For most, it’s either a day job or charity, or some combination of both. For some artists, Patreon has provided a way out of this dilemma that didn’t exist before.

Many people claim that “art should be free.” In a sense, they are right, as art ultimately belongs to the realm of the gift. But we live in a world where only those of a certain level of economic privilege can develop their creative talents and gift them to the world without compromising their ability to survive financially. Patreon is the first widely available option – as far as I know, at least – that does not require creators to compromise their artistic vision and creative freedom in order to receive financial support.

…it can free me to release my work online without fear of piracy.

The internet has made it trivially easy to copy and distribute many artists’ work at little to no cost. This ease of reproduction is one factor involved in the rise of crowdfunding platforms. But it’s also a double-edged sword, as it means the model of selling creative work in order to fund more of it has become even more insufficient for many artists. Artists often find to their dismay that their work has been taken without paying them, and used to make money for someone else. Artists invest years of their lives into their work; it’s unconscionable for our culture to leave them high and dry financially simply because their work has been released online and technology has made it easier for it to be copied.

As a writer, setting up my Patreon on a gift model offers the possibility of freeing me from worry about the way that unauthorized copying might impact my personal financial bottom line. I retain all copyrights to work I’ve posted on Patreon; I can always post it elsewhere. And I want everyone who’s interested to be able to read my writing, whether or not they’ve paid. Patreon opens the way toward this possibility for me: with sufficient patronage, one day I’ll be able to pay my bills regardless of whether or not my writing is copied. That means there will be no financial motive for me to waste precious writing time pursuing people who copy and distribute my work without my consent, since they will not be impacting my ability to survive.

There are other reasons, of course, that I might decide to go after someone who uses my work without my consent for their own gain. But at least with Patreon, I needn’t do so for the hope of preserving my ability to eat and keep a roof over my head.

As a patron myself, I appreciate the fact that a great deal of the music, art, and writing I enjoy is readily available in digital format these days. I support digital art and music financially because it’s worth it on its own merits, but also because I want to contribute toward building a world where artists aren’t forced to take day jobs and give up art because they can’t sell enough of their work to live on. Patreon allows me to offer more of that kind of support.

…it can help facilitate a sea change in the way we talk about funding artists.

Patreon is demonstrating to the world that many things people have become accustomed to getting for free online (i.e., YouTube videos) have financial value as well as artistic value. This is a long-overdue and welcome change, and has much to contribute to the ongoing conversation about arts funding.

It’s especially difficult, I think, to be an artist in the US – not just because there is so little financial support available for the arts, but also because US-based artists must constantly fight an uphill battle against the dominant norms of their own culture. The arts are widely considered frivolous, so artists are forced to spend a great deal of time justifying the value of their work, to themselves and to others. People don’t have much sympathy: “You want to be paid to sit around and doodle all day?” Why, yes! Yes I do! And I want everyone else to have that option too, because I have faith in their creative spirit. I mean, think about it. Healthy human beings can only watch so many mindless TV shows before it gets boring and they start feeling the urge to do something productive or creative with their time. With enough of those days of paid doodling, the doodler’s skills would improve, and they would eventually be offering something of great value to their communities: art. Patreon opens more doors for that sort of thing to happen.

But even if it didn’t – even if the doodler never produced anything that could reasonably be called art – what, I ask in all sincerity, is the harm in making sure everyone has a roof over their head, health care, clothes to wear, and decent food to eat, regardless of whether or not they are productive?

…it can help facilitate a cultural shift toward recognizing and properly valuing creative and emotional labor.

When people aren’t paid for their creative work, the only people who can continue to create are the ones who have financial support from other sources. As a feminist, I am thrilled to see creative people – especially women, whose work is so often taken for granted and unsupported – bringing in enough funding through Patreon to not only quit their day jobs, but to demonstrate that there is an audience that values their work enough to support it financially.

The fact that an alternative like Patreon exists provides us with an additional incentive to take on the demanding emotional labor of unraveling and countering the many layers of social and cultural conditioning that tell us our work isn’t valuable and we should just get “real jobs.” It’s a safe bet that for most of us, by the time we’ve mustered up the courage to put our work out there and seek patronage, we’ve done a great deal of this kind of preparatory emotional labor behind the scenes.

Patreon is flexible enough to serve as a platform for financially supporting not only art, videos, comics, music, and writing, but also activism, web forum moderation, community building work, and many other kinds of behind-the-scenes work that so often go unappreciated. For the most part, artists who have a following that is willing to support their work can use Patreon to help make that a reality.

…it allows for work interruptions in ways that project-based crowdfunding does not.

If I have slow months and need to stop writing for awhile for whatever reason, my supporters aren’t left in the lurch, feeling that they paid into something but got nothing in return. If they do start to feel like they’re being cheated, they can simply withdraw their pledges. With platforms like Kickstarter, there have been numerous situations where the money was received and spent by the creator, but no product was ever created or shipped. In fact, I was on the losing end of one of those situations, and sadly, it soured me on the creator’s work, especially after my inquiries went unanswered. That isn’t a problem with a Patreon account set up on a gift model.

(If extended silences on my part were to continue for too long with no explanation, I expect that some of my supporters would decide to opt out, and they’d be justified in doing so. This is arts patronage, after all, not charity.)

…it offers flexibility on both sides of the patron-artist relationship.

Patreon is well-suited for people who have the skills to build a career around their art or craft, but haven’t yet been able to make enough money to devote themselves fully to it. Patreon contributions buy them the time they need to create, by making it less necessary to work at a day job to cover their expenses.

Creators can decide how much effort they want to put into fulfilling their Patreon rewards, anywhere along the spectrum from “minimal” to “substantial.” Patrons can decide whether or not to support a creator based on their level of interest in the work and/or the appeal of the various rewards offered.

I seek patronage in order to buy myself more time to write, so I don’t offer my patrons perks that take time away from my writing. I’m glad Patreon gives me that flexibility. If maintenance of my Patreon account itself became a time sink that interfered with my ability to write, it would defeat the whole purpose.

(And while I’m at it…one of the things I plan to write more about is how absurd and frustrating it is that our culture puts us in a position where we are forced to find ways to “buy back” our own time – because, as things stand now, employers have priority claims on it by default – in order to survive.)

…it automates pledges.

Automated pledges are wonderful for both sides of a patronage arrangement. They free creators from having to send out reminders, and free supporters from having to remember when to donate.

Creators don’t want to have to constantly remind people that they need support. Patreon provides a way for the creators to ask just once, and for the patrons to select their contribution level just once. Then everyone carries on with their lives. Meanwhile, creators keep on getting paid and are freed to focus on their art, and supporters keep on feeling good because they know they’re making more of the art possible.  If they really like what the creator posts, they can increase their pledge any time. Win-win.

(Creators who are trying to expand their patronage do, of course, need to keep reminding people that their Patreon account exists. But once they’ve managed to attract a critical mass of supporters, they’re home free, because receiving the pledges is automated.)

…it encourages expression of appreciation.

Since I’ve released my writing on a gift model for a long time before Patreon came along – in 2004, I even gifted away an influential website (whywork.org) that I spent many years developing – I’ve occasionally been asked:

Why should anyone pay for your writing when they could read it for free?

One answer is that they recognize that the writing they’re getting “for free” (I prefer to say “as a gift,” because that’s what it is) has many years of time, effort, and skill-building behind it, and they want to recognize and honor that work. Another answer is that they want to express appreciation – to let me know that my work has enriched their lives somehow. A third is that they want to make it possible for me to write more. It can also be a way to connect and say a personal thank you without obligating either side to enter into a more time-consuming sort of interpersonal relationship.

Sure, there are people who will read it “for free” – some who do so just because they can get away without paying, some who like it but not enough to support it financially in an ongoing fashion, and others who would be happy to pay for it but just can’t afford to be a patron. That’s all perfectly fine with me, and fully expected. However, there are also plenty of people who, when given a chance – especially when reminded that there’s a person behind the writing they enjoy, and that person needs to pay bills too – will be happy to contribute. Those are the people who become patrons. Most audiences want to pay creators a reasonable amount for their work to express their appreciation, especially when they know the money will benefit them directly. Patreon has made it easy and convenient for them to do this.

…the support I receive through gift-model patronage multiplies.

If my patrons make it possible for me to write more by freeing me from the need to sell my time through wage labor, that blessing will open up more opportunities for me to be of service to others as well. Proofreading other writers’ work, for example – something I very much enjoy – contributes to the artistic excellence that makes it possible for them to attract patronage, and deliver the best possible work to their audience. By freeing people to do what they’re best at, Patreon therefore opens more possibilities for our communities to be doubly enriched.

When creators work within a gift model, there need be no contradiction between what we would call self-interest and the interests of others, because gift models further both at the same time. Supporting a creator so that they can better be of service spreads abundance, rather than scarcity. I love the saying in volunteer communities that “it isn’t service unless both people are being served.” In other words, the person providing the service should receive as much (or more!) than they give. If this isn’t the case, it’s possible that they are simply doing the wrong kind of gift work for them. But the much more likely possibility is that the economy we have now is parasitically extracting real value away from those of us who do gift labor. Dig deeply enough, and it can be seen – as feminists have often pointed out – that the money system we have is actually dependent on gift culture and unpaid work.

With a Patreon campaign set up on a gift model, however, nobody has to lose out or be scammed at the expense of someone else. Outside of Patreon, if I want to offer my writing as a gift, I pay the price for doing so, because time spent working for free is time I can’t spend on something that brings in income to support myself. As a writer with gift patronage, though, I can get paid for creative work I’m already doing, and will continue to do one way or another. My writing can be made available to the public on a gift basis also, so whoever wants to read it may do so regardless of their ability to pay. I can set things up so that patrons only get perks that won’t interfere with my ability to write. Patreon gets a fair cut of my intake, in exchange for providing the service that makes all of this possible. And finally, Patreon has given me a solid reason to believe that one day, if all continues to go well, I may be able to leave behind wage labor and sustain myself with what I do best: writing. Everybody wins here; no one loses. Gift-model crowdfunding via Patreon is the closest thing to an unconditional basic income that is currently available to me. What’s not to love?

…it opens more possibilities to work with ease.

I have always believed that work need not feel like soul-numbing drudgery, suffering, or struggle. Under the right conditions, even the most mundane work can become satisfying and meaningful – even when it’s difficult, tedious, and demanding. At the moment, most of my income comes from my house cleaning jobs, so I have lots of opportunities to test this theory out!

One thing I’ve noticed that confounds the dominant culture’s work-is-drudgery norm is that my creative abilities seem to sharpen when I am free to enjoy idle moments of unstructured, aimless play, without any expectation whatsoever (whether it’s self-imposed, or imposed by others) that I should be productive. Few creative people are fortunate enough to work under conditions that promote such ease and joy, however, especially when we’re trapped in the belly of a beastly culture in which our value as human beings is routinely judged by our productivity. Using Patreon on a gift model can open more possibilities in the direction of working with ease, one creator at a time.

Conscious effort is only one element of what’s involved in valuable creative work. The best work I am capable of, I’ve found, arises through the back-and-forth interplay of structured effort and relaxed ease. Leisure is not just a way-station to refresh us on the way to more work. It is an integral, inseparable, essential part of the creative process. (I’ll have more to say about this in my book On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture. If you’d like to help ensure that I have time and energy to finish writing it, you can become a patron!)

Gift-model patronage through Patreon is the biggest, most encouraging step toward making it possible for creators to work with ease that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

…it helps me unlearn the internalized Protestant work ethic.

Writers Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in their recent book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offer this astute and thought-provoking insight: “The central ideological support for the work ethic is that remuneration be tied to suffering…People must endure through work before they can receive wages…they must prove their worthiness before the eyes of capital.”

Our culture enforces this toxic “you must suffer to earn money” ideology in all kinds of ways. One of the things I can do to resist this harmful enculturation is to affirm that work – even paid work – should involve joy and pleasure. To do this at deep levels, I must take on the emotional labor of rooting out all the manifestations of this Protestant work ethic in my own thoughts and behavior – not an easy task, because some of those elements are deceptively subtle. To take just one example, consider a situation where I decide to give myself a reward for working. The need for a reward presupposes an adversarial relationship between me and the work. (True gift work, by contrast, is its own reward…even when it’s difficult.) And where might I have picked up the idea that remunerative work must entail suffering? Why, at the hands of the Protestant work ethic, of course. If left to our own devices, so the argument goes, people would do nothing but lie on the couch watching Netflix and eating bonbons, and no one would ever do any work. So work is something I must be goaded to do against my will – something I must endure. A reward is what I deserve at the end – but only because I’ve earned it properly with my suffering.

There’s a chapter in On The Leisure Track, my in-progress book, with the working title “Do What You Love, Lazy Bums Who Refuse To Work, and Other Lies of Job Culture.” In this chapter, I unpack and critique various ideological and behavioral manifestations of the Protestant work ethic, and use personal narratives as a lens through which to illustrate the processes of mental and emotional labor involved in unlearning them.

Those manifestations are many, and they are deeply rooted. However, there’s good news: if we are committed to unlearning other forms of oppressive cultural conditioning – racism, queer-phobia, transphobia, fat shaming, sexism, classism, and so on – we can use the tools and methods we’ve acquired in that work to help us unlearn the internalized Protestant work ethic as well.

Patreon can serve this unlearning process well, too. By making it possible for more and more creators to be paid for doing work they love, Patreon is helping to give lie to the ideology that underlies the work ethic: that remuneration must be tied to suffering.

Never underestimate the power of that. It is changing lives. Thank you, Patreon.

…it is not charity.

In a recent article in Jacobin magazine, writer Keith A. Spencer critiques Patreon as part of a social model of charity that “perpetuates the illusion that capitalism is basically just.” “Crowdsourcing our basic human needs,” Spencer writes, “implies that the welfare state has failed…In its place, we are offered a world where our value is based on how much donors think we’re worth.”

I’m certainly under no illusions that capitalism is “basically just.” I think Spencer is absolutely right to critique the charity model. The social safety net we have in the US is woefully inadequate at best; that is easily seen just by scrolling through social media these days and witnessing the endless stream of crowdfunding campaigns from struggling people in need of things like emergency dental care or child support. Nonetheless, I think Patreon is far and away the most emancipatory crowdfunding alternative available today for artists who can attract even a modest following. I think it’s a big mistake to lump it in with platforms that focus on charitable giving, because Patreon is not charity. It’s not “free money,” even when it’s used on a gift model. It is patronage. Supporters aren’t “donors”; they are patrons of the arts.

As basic income activist Scott Santens has written: “By encouraging people to pursue their passions and at the same time earn incomes from doing so, people are one by one becoming emancipated in a way that is new in the world. This kind of freedom hasn’t really existed before…Patreon is emancipatory because patrons aren’t paying creators to work. They’re freeing creators to create.”

As for what I’m worth…well, as I write these words, I am receiving approximately $50 per month from my patrons. That may not sound like much. But since the results of my fruitless and demoralizing job-hunt in recent years would seem to indicate that I’m currently worth nothing at all to employers, and since the federal government has made it clear in no uncertain terms that I’m only worthy of receiving food benefits if I can prove I’m doing 20 hours per week of state-approved “work activities,” $50 a month given freely – by people who like my creative work and want to enable me to do more of it – makes an enormous difference in my life. Especially because the funds were given to me as a gift, and an expression of trust and appreciation. I didn’t have to suffer for them. I didn’t have to earn them through wage labor. I didn’t have to fill out countless forms and endure insults to my intelligence and dignity in order to prove to my patrons that I’m worthy of being fed, the way I do when I apply for government assistance. The money was given freely, not begrudgingly.

Never underestimate the effect that kind of trust and support can have on a writer like me who lives close to the financial bone. I don’t have any desire to strike it rich. My desire is to be of service to the world by finding ways to do the work I’m best at within a gift model, instead of shoehorning myself into an ill-fitting job to make money. I want everyone else to have that option too, of course, which is one of the reasons I support unconditional basic income. How can creative people be of service to the world when we’re so drained from poorly fitting jobs that we cling to because we desperately need to put food on the table?

That $50 I receive from my patrons every month may not yet be enough to free me from wage labor, but it comes to me in the spirit of the gift, which makes it worth far more to me than its face value. It tells me that my patrons believe in me and my work, and that is priceless.

Think of Patreon not as charity, but as harm reduction for a certain segment of the arts world, and a step toward demonstrating the liberating potential of unconditional basic income for creators. Within the context of a capitalist system that is already fundamentally oppressive in its requirement that we sell our labor and time to survive, Patreon can fill some deep needs – needs that, in the absence of an unconditional basic income, many artists are unable to fill any other way.

That’s why I love Patreon.


(Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this piece and would like to help make it possible for me to write more, please consider becoming a patron.)

Is Nothing Sacred? Thoughts on Leisure and ‘Doing Nothing’

Sipping teaWhat images and thoughts come to mind when you hear the word leisure?

Many people automatically associate leisure with what people do in their ‘spare’ or ‘free’ time (i.e., time spent away from paid jobs), or with pursuits such as entertainment, vacations, or sports.

I think we need to delve deeper when we think about the meaning of leisure.

What happens to leisure when we live in a culture where nearly everyone is expected to have paid jobs and work long hours just to earn their keep?  How much of our time is truly free in a culture like this?

Leisure gets an unfair bad rap, if you ask me.  Too often it is dismissed as something less worthy of care and consideration than the useful productive work that needs to get done, or as a kind of guilty pleasure that is only available to a privileged, rich elite who can afford it.

One source of the problem is the way we think.  We’ve internalised the Protestant work ethic to such a debilitating degree that leisure has become trivialised and morally suspect.  We worship effort and busy-ness instead.  Workaholism is worn as a badge of pride and moral superiority.  We overvalue activity, exertion, and even drudgery, while simultaneously undervaluing the ability to be receptive and allow things to happen as they will.  This obsession with work crowds out time to reflect and contemplate alternative ways of life.

I reject the idea that my worth as a human being – or anyone’s, for that matter – should be measured by willingness to work hard at a paid job.  I don’t want to live in a world where I’m only allowed to feel like a worthwhile person if I am expending huge effort to accomplish things on an economically approved timetable.  I want to live in a world where I can use my gifts to do high quality work of the heart and spirit, while trusting that my support will come through using those gifts in accordance with divine Will to provide what others want and need.  I want everyone else to have the same option.

While it is no doubt true that some things can’t be accomplished without a considerable expenditure of effort, it has also been my experience that there is a way of working – a beautiful, playful, even awe-inspiring way – that is only available to those who can set aside the cultural brainwashing of the work ethic long enough to allow themselves the pleasure of relaxing deeply into the experience of true leisure.  The kind of work that is done from this place of inner balance cannot be rushed; it takes the time it takes, and that’s that.  Most artists understand this intuitively.

Paradoxcially, artists in particular are sometimes perceived by onlookers as ‘doing nothing’ at precisely the times when their creative selves are in fact most deeply engaged and they are in a state of flow.  As a writer, I have spent years passively writing an essay or book chapter – doing the invisible labour of pondering, digesting, and researching the ideas I want to present – before I get to the visible labour of actively writing it.  As the process unfolds, there are often times where I’m enjoying a leisure activity such as lounging around or reading a book, and it may appear that I’m just goofing off at those times.  All stages of the process are essential in producing a finished piece of good quality writing, yet only the final stage is likely to be perceived by an outsider as real work.

Yet leisure is the ground from which the best work so often emerges, and the soil through which creativity bears some of its most delicious, ripe fruit.  In this sense, to be at leisure is to be very actively engaged indeed.  Lounging around can be a purposeless way of being purposeful – a way of allowing my unconscious mind freedom to roam and generate creative insights.  When I allow myself to be fully at leisure in this way – something that is actually quite a bit more difficult than it sounds – I notice that my writing flows from a deeper place.  It is a place that affirms joy, pleasure, mystery, and wonder.

Flashes of creative insight are gifts.  If I refuse to open myself to these gifts – if I neglect to make room for them because I am mired in emotional conflicts or unexamined work ethic beliefs that prevent me from doing nothing and being fully at leisure – I am being cut off from a deep source of wisdom.

I speak out in praise of leisure because I believe we need a lot more of it – and we need it for its own sake, not just because it can be a path toward better quality work.  I contend that there is an oft-overlooked connection between leisure and right relationship to the divine.

Genuine leisure, in the deepest sense, is a condition of meditative attunement and openness of the soul.

It is a way of being silent – and a way of comporting oneself in the world – that facilitates and strengthens connections with divine forces.  It is an attitude of active receptivity, a presence of mind, and an affirmation of mystery.  It contains a dimension that Charles Eisenstein, in his brilliant book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, aptly calls “the experience of the abundance of time.”

Taking a break from work, in and of itself, would not necessarily qualify as leisure, since a break is something that is usually justified only by virtue of the fact that it readies a worker to take up effortful work again.

Being “off the clock” of a paid job, in and of itself, is not necessarily leisure either.  Much of an employee’s time away from the job is spent in commuting, de-stressing and recuperating from work, preparing for the next day of work, and so on.

Laziness, idleness, sloth, boredom, and distraction: none of these are what I mean when I speak of the value of true leisure.  In fact, I would argue that boredom and the constant need for distracting activity or entertainment are both conditions that are born of a chronic lack of leisure: an inability to be still inside.  They are one manifestation of an inability to truly do nothing.

To see this, ask yourself: have you ever allowed yourself to do absolutely nothing?

I’m not asking if you’ve just shirked your responsibilities or called in sick to work so you could play computer games or watch TV.  Just about everyone has done things like that.  I’m asking if you’ve ever genuinely done nothing.  Nothing at all, except fully allowing yourself to sink into languid silence, or perhaps enter a deep state of relaxation and repose.  If you’ve done this in a spirit of inquiry, what happened when you did?

Did you notice that your mind raced?  I sure did.  Every critical, guilt-tripping and worrisome internalised voice I’ve ever absorbed through living in a work-obsessed culture started admonishing me even more stridently than usual: How can you justify frittering away time like this?  You have an endless To-Do list.  Time’s-a-wastin’.  Time is money!  You can’t afford to be unproductive.  You need to be Getting Things Done!

It’s one thing when the opposition to leisure comes from an outside source, such as the media or our social circles.  It’s quite another when we realise that we’ll have to face the conflict we are carrying around within ourselves if we want to learn to be at leisure in a deeper way.  We will have to take on the inner Puritan that admonishes us to be productive and useful.  We will have to unlearn our internalised work ethic bit by bit, the same way we unlearn internalised homophobia, racism, or sexism.  We will have to learn how to get out of our own way.  We will have to learn to do nothing.

We sometimes ask “is nothing sacred?”  My answer to that potentially subversive question is YES!  It is.  ‘Nothing’ is sacred indeed!  To do nothing – to truly do nothing, in the sense I describe – is, in fact, a deeply sacred way of being.  It is when we are doing nothing that our deeper selves have room to emerge freely, and we can give ourselves over to spontaneity, play, discovery, and exploration.

In a culture that worships hard work as a measure of human worth, to advocate a deeper, more respectful approach to leisure is a form of counter-cultural resistance.

Our culture is desperately hungry for this kind of leisure.  Even if we cannot articulate it, so many of us sense that something important is missing, and that we need opportunities to experience leisure as a connection to the divine – as a celebration of life.  We are starving for it.

So let us renew our appreciation for true leisure.  Let us learn how to do nothing, in the deepest sense.

Because ‘nothing’ is sacred.

What I Do For A Living: A Rant

[This essay was published on whywork.org in 2002, and its defiant tone and sassy attitude has made it a reader favorite.]

What I Do For A Living: A Rant
by D. JoAnne Swanson

“So, what do you do for a living?”

Ah, the dreaded question.  I hear it at parties, family gatherings, even from store clerks.  I never quite know how to answer this one.  My knee-jerk, unspoken response is often “Why?  Who wants to know?  Are you going to use it to deem me worthy or unworthy of some kind of privilege when you find out?  Are you trying to determine where I fall on some kind of social acceptability or class scale?  And does it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things, whether I clean floors or crunch numbers or herd cows?”  But that kind of response would lead into a much longer conversation than I want to have, in most cases.

Think about it, though.  Can you blame me for being a bit on the defensive side?  I get weary of having whatever it is I’m doing (or, as the case may be, NOT doing) treated as such an important part of my identity.  If it’s true that, as the old saying goes, no one ever said on their deathbed “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”, then why do we act as though what we do “for a living” is so crucial for most of our lifetimes?

C’mon, folks…are our identities really so tied up in our jobs that this is the first thing we want to know about someone we’ve just met?  It makes me want to spout off about my character, spirit, values, interests, family, community…things that are much more important than “what I do for a living”, by which people usually mean “what I do for money”.  But the well-intentioned questioner is mostly just being polite, fishing for conversation.  I don’t just take the question at face value; I look at it as an opportunity to encourage people to question the commonly accepted link between “making a living” and “having a job”.  So sometimes I set aside my desire to rant, reasoning that I have a better chance of opening minds if I lighten up a bit.  I then smile and try to play along with a one-liner response, as if I were somehow oblivious to the commonly accepted meaning of that loaded question:

“What do I do for a living?  Well…I live.”

That one doesn’t always go over well.  The person asking will often look at me askance, and chuckle as though my response was a feeble attempt at humor.  Sometimes they even get a little irritated.  But they keep asking:

(sarcastically)  “Ha ha.  What I mean is, where do you work?”

“At home” is my answer.

My lifestyle and choices are based on a worldview that’s very different from the mainstream idea of “work”.  To most people, work means “having a job”, and strong financial pressure makes having a job little more than wage slavery.  So an answer like this is likely to be misinterpreted, I’ve found.  It’s almost as if most people can’t even conceive of a kind of orientation toward productive activity that has nothing to do with a job or a paycheck.

“Oh, you work at home?  Do you telecommute?”

Telecommute.  Another buzzword of the 1990’s, reflecting the reality that more people have computers at home, but also indicating that we think of work mainly in terms of “commuting to a job” and far less often in terms of simply engaging in enjoyable activity that is productive.

“No, not exactly.”

“So you don’t have a regular job, I gather.”

“If by ‘regular job’, you mean do I go to an office or worksite where I spend five days and forty-some hours a week performing tasks in return for a paycheck, no.”

(nodding suspiciously, but interest obviously piqued)  “Ah, I see.  Well, what do you do to support yourself?”

Kind of a nosy question to ask a stranger or a new acquaintance, isn’t it?  I sure think so.  By this time I’m often ready to launch into a long rant about how silly it is to use phrases like “making a living” and “supporting yourself” to denote “getting money and maintaining your middle-class lifestyle”.  These phrases are social niceties designed to cover up the harsher reality that many of us are wage slaves who feel trapped in jobs they don’t like and are looking for a way out.  But most folks who ask the kind of questions above haven’t really given much thought to how they use those terms.  Besides, that’s not what they want to talk about; to them, such distinctions can seem like nothing more than splitting semantic hairs.  Most often, what they’re really saying is “Wow, you mean you manage to live a comfortable life without a job?  I hate my job and I’d love to quit.  How can I do it, though, with bills to pay and mouths to feed?  It’s just not practical.”

If I’m in a slightly less defensive mood when I’m asked what I do for a living, I reply simply that I am happily job-free.  I use that term, “job-free”, in an attempt to differentiate me from the involuntarily unemployed.  If I refer to myself as simply “unemployed”, it feels inauthentic.  If I say that, the questioners often assume that I am, or believe I should be, looking for another job—and that I am completely idle or doing nothing worthwhile (read: nothing that brings in a steady paycheck).  And that is far from the truth.

I love my life.  I do plenty that’s worthwhile outside the confines of a “job”.  Work and play are not two separate things for me.  I love the way I spend my days and the work I choose to do, and I do a lot of different things to meet my financial needs.  Even if I were completely idle, I take issue with the implication that idleness is somehow morally corrupt.  And if “worthwhile” automatically equals “making money”, I wonder how these folks would classify raising children, for example?  Is that a worthwhile pursuit?

Frankly, I refuse to evaluate the worthiness of my daily pursuits mainly by whether or not they occur in an office or on a worksite (a “job”), could garner me a paycheck, or could net me some commodity that can be sold in the marketplace.  I find that such thinking saps my internal motivation to get things done.  When I follow the callings in my heart, it feels very worthy to me; and ultimately, that’s the litmus test by which I evaluate my activities.  THAT is what making a real living means to me, whether money is involved or not.

Working solely for a paycheck is wage slavery, and I want nothing to do with it.  If that makes me a “slacker”, then I claim the title with pride.  And while we’re at it, I don’t think the whole answer to freeing people from wage slavery is to encourage them to do what they love for a living.  That’s all well and good, and it’s a start…but I want to encourage people to re-think the nature of making a living entirely.  When we live under a system that coerces us into taking some kind of job in order to meet our needs, it’s much harder to envision any satisfying reason for working besides “well, it’s good money, and I have to pay the bills.”  Industrial capitalism has perverted the idea of work, and equated it with “jobs” working for someone else higher up in the food chain who profits from your labor.

Let me call attention to the enormous amount of fear that must be operating in our collective psyche (behind the veneer of civility and liberty), in our supposedly “free” society, to make us concerned enough to focus so single-mindedly on questions like “what do you do for a living” in the first place.  It really saddens me that there are so many of us who live under the psychological shackles created by equating jobs with money and survival.  If we keep our focus on fear of how we’ll survive without a job, we feel much more driven to put up with deplorable conditions in the workplace…and what’s more, we can end up spending our entire lives waiting for the day when we can finally be free to do what we want, instead of what garners a profit for our employers.

I’d like to suggest that we all start thinking about exactly what it is we’re asking when we inquire about what someone does for a living. That’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer.  At least not when you ask me, that is.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer and former academic living in Portland, OR, USA. She is the founder of Rethinking the Job Culture and its predecessor Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS), aka whywork.org, a project that provides resources and support to folks seeking alternatives to conventional employment. With the help of loved ones and friends, she has managed to remain mostly – though not entirely – job-free since 1998. She avoids jobs to the best of her ability, though she does plenty of joyful work.  Contact her at radical.unjobbing AT gmail.

What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part Two

[This essay, written in 2000, was never published on whywork.org nor anywhere else.  It is not my best work, and I couldn’t figure out how to say what I actually wanted to say in it, so I set it aside and left it unattended for years.  However, over the years many people wrote to me to ask what else I had been planning to say after Part One, so I dug this up and am posting it as a follow-up to Part One.  Substantial revisions need to be made before I will consider it final.]

What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part Two
by D. JoAnne Swanson

In Part One of this essay, I discussed my belief that freedom from wage slavery begins in the mind and heart.  Re-thinking the nature of work, jobs, leisure, and the profit-at-all-costs economy are crucial tasks.  So many of us hunger for alternatives to the Puritan work ethic and the rat race, and I knew I wouldn’t get far envisioning such alternatives if I didn’t learn to decolonize my mind first.  But that’s just a start.  I live in a society in which income is tied to jobs and investments in the market economy, and I knew that no amount of visionary thinking would bring about a new job-free society in and of itself.  Even with a new attitude about work, I knew I needed to come up with creative, practical ways to achieve freedom from wage slavery.

It breaks my heart to see so many people, especially my friends and loved ones, spending their entire lives feeling trapped in mindless jobs, waiting for retirement, and never probing the deeper reasons for their dissatisfaction with work.  Wage slavery is a lousy way to live.  Period.  Despite our vision of a world where people’s basic needs are provided for so they don’t have to take jobs they don’t care about (or worse, jobs that destroy the environment or harm others) just to pay for food and shelter, all of us who yearn for deeper freedom must find ways of dealing with the fact that our culture doesn’t operate on a model like that.  The question “How can I set my life up so that I don’t have to have a job and be a wage slave for the rest of my life?” takes on new meaning.

It’s an excellent question – one I’ve devoted most of my life to investigating – and because everyone’s situation is different, it’s a question that everyone who aspires to freedom from wage slavery needs to answer in their own way.

In my own life, I found that some of my most deeply ingrained habits and unexamined patterns of thought presented the biggest obstacles to freedom from wage slavery.  It took me more than ten years of striving to make ends meet in the workaday world, and many long nights of poring over book after book, before I understood enough about the nature of work, employment, leisure, and my own psyche to feel ready to embark upon the path toward making wage slavery a thing of the past for me.

But even after I had begun the process of confronting my own limiting habits of thinking in earnest, I found that a whole new set of questions presented themselves.  Okay, I thought…so I don’t want to be a wage slave, and it’s okay to want that, even if others don’t approve.  (Even to get to that stage, I had to give myself permission to allow my countercultural desires room to speak out, rather than smothering them with a lot of guilt and taboos about laziness).  In an ideal world, nobody should have to be a wage slave.  How am I going to find a way to live job-free, and do my part toward making a world like that possible for others?  Alongside a continued commitment to new ways of thinking, I still have certain basic needs to consider…food, shelter, clothing and warmth.  How will I get those needs met, with or without a steady income from a job?  And how can I use whatever freedom I might find to work toward a world where we ALL have those needs met?  I’m not living in isolation, after all, and my choices are inextricably intertwined with those of others.  Nobody can do this alone – of that I am convinced.  In fact, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now if my loved ones hadn’t believed in me and supported me throughout every step of this process.

The next step, it seemed, would be to put together a viable plan.

But along the way, in the process of making a plan, I found there was even more internal work to do.  To get to the root of this desire to live a job-free life, I had to ask myself some difficult questions about motivation and willingness to radically change my life.  How far would I take this, really?  Was this truly my highest priority in life?  What was I willing to do to remain job-free?  What would I do if push came to shove?  Would I truly and honestly go to a soup kitchen to eat, every day if necessary, in order to avoid the nine-to-five grind?  If I couldn’t pay rent or housing costs any longer, how long would I be willing to crash on a friend’s couch, live in my parents’ spare bedroom, or dumpster dive for food?  What sacrifices would I make, and where was I unwilling to compromise unless forced?

I asked myself questions like the ones Bradford Angier poses in his book One Acre & Security:

Many a modern worker, tied to a wage or salary and penned in the city or seam-bursting suburb by the daily grind whereby he ekes out bare support for himself and his family, has been awaiting the opportunity to escape to the uncrowded places where he can take charge of his own life and live it in a happy, decent, and invigorating way.

But can he cope with country life?  Can he subsist off the land?  Is he still strong enough to strike off on his own?  Can he put up his own house?  Can he feed everyone the year round from the family garden?  How can he earn extra money regularly?  These are among the thousand questions that beset every refugee from the rat race in his search for the good life.”  (p. 11)

My heart sank when I read that.  Even though I had frugal habits – for example, I shopped mostly at thrift stores, had no kids or pets, bartered haircuts for web design work, had no expensive habits like drinking/smoking/gambling, and so on – I had to admit that at the end of the day, I was a whitebread urban middle-class softie, and I had a long way to go if I really wanted to work toward self-sufficiency outside the world of wage jobs.  Would I have to live a rural life?  Housing expenses might be cheaper that way…but I knew little to nothing about cooking, preserving food, off-grid sources of energy, gardening, or anything else related to rural life.  So I answered most of Bradford Angier’s questions with a discouraging “probably not,” and “I seriously doubt it.”.

Hmmm, I thought, if I’m unprepared to live the life of a rural homesteader to provide for my needs, then what else could I do to reduce my expenses and pave the way for the job-free life?  I could:

  • Couch-surf indefinitely, and offer my hosts help with chores or other needs
  • Join a squatters’ group
  • Buy a van, RV or camper, find a more-or-less-permanent campsite, and live in it
  • Find a property caretaking arrangement – room and board in exchange for landscaping, yardwork, painting, electrical work, or other odd jobs
  • Take on domestic or nanny work in exchange for room and board
  • Keep my income under the taxable amount, so as to legally pay no taxes
  • Find other ways to have a rent-free and mortgage-free home (e.g., offer to help or pair up with someone who already owned a house and land, and had room for another person)

I wanted to live a much simpler life – that much was a given.  I didn’t want to remain stuck in the rat race.  But here’s the rub: I also wanted a good measure of leisure time.  I didn’t want to trade a job-centered city life for a rural homesteading life in which I’d have to work just as hard, perhaps even harder, while also trying to give myself a sudden crash course in how to provide for my most basic needs from the land due to my lack of homesteading skills.

In addition to books like Charles Long’s How to Survive Without a Salary, I read some of the writings of folks from similar backgrounds who’d left their city ways behind and taken up rural life, and I found myself intrigued by the possibility that some of the things that seemed unremarkable, routine, and ordinary under city wage slavery conditions – things I took for granted as a lifelong city-dweller – could become deeply savored luxuries under conditions of forging a homesteading life.  Perhaps, I thought, the sense of gratitude this would engender might be worth the extra work of a rural life?

Or, perhaps, I’d have to join a group of some kind, and find others who wanted to go this route.  Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to swing this alone, no matter how much I wanted to.

What I learned, if anything, was that there would be no quick-fix solutions, no matter which way I chose to go.  If I wanted to be truly free from the wage slave life, it would be a lengthy and psychologically challenging process.  It might even be the challenge of a lifetime.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer and former academic living in Portland, OR, USA. She is the founder of Rethinking the Job Culture and its predecessor Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS), aka whywork.org, a project that provides resources and support to folks seeking alternatives to conventional employment. With the help of loved ones and friends, she has managed to remain mostly – though not entirely – job-free since 1998. She avoids jobs to the best of her ability, though she does plenty of joyful work.  Contact her at radical.unjobbing AT gmail.

What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part One

[The following essay was originally published in 1999, as part of a short-lived monthly column in a webzine called Mr. Ridiculous, and it was later archived on whywork.org.  Except for the short bio at the end, this is the original, unedited version.

Although I still like the basic approach of this essay – focusing on the emotional and psychological work necessary along the path to freedom from wage slavery – my thinking has changed a lot in the years since it was originally published, and I no longer agree with some of the assertions I made when I wrote it.  (Ah, the idealism of youth, before I was aware of peak oil and other environmental depletion issues…)  I’m posting it here because I want an archive of it in its original form which is maintained by me, its original author.  I will be making substantial revisions to it before I publish the final version.]

What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part One
by D. JoAnne Swanson

Three years ago, I quit my dreadful, low-paying temp job.  After years of wage slavery, I was sick of jobs altogether.  I dreamed of a different kind of life, one where I could choose my own activities and meet my survival needs with ease.  It’s possible, and in the long run it takes something more than winning the lottery, having a rich spouse, or inheriting a fortune.  But before I delve into “survival without a job”, I’d like to offer some new definitions of terms we often use when discussing these matters.

  • JOB:
    Drudgery.  Alienated effort expended for someone else on their terms, often a corporation or boss, doing something you don’t care about, in exchange for external compensation – money, health insurance, benefits, pleasing others.  Something done against one’s will for the sake of a paycheck.  See “wage slavery”.
  • WORK:
    Satisfying, self-directed activity, sometimes (but not always) with tangible results, done for its own sake, driven by interest or fascination, sustained by intrinsic motivation.  Distinguished from “job” by the fact that work can be done with joy, deep care, and pride, whether or not money is received.  See “leisure”.
    Satisfying, self-directed activity, sometimes (but not always) with intangible results, done for its own sake, driven by interest or fascination, sustained by intrinsic motivation.  Not the same thing as “free time”, since that phrase suggests that everything else is “non-free (wage slave) time”.  Distinguished from “work” by…well, hmmm…see “work”.
    Being driven by an unhealthy work ethic, lacking a fulfilling sense of leisure (thinking of it as just “free time”), and/or feeling trapped in a soulless, alienated job you hate just for the sake of a paycheck.  Failing to see possibility for joyful work OR joyful leisure.  Feeling trapped in a cycle of spending most of one’s time at a job, and much of the rest recuperating.  Never being fully present in this moment; holding out for an elusive future promise.  Unfortunately, a very common condition.
    Defining work and leisure a whole new way.  Knowing deep inside, not just intellectually, that you don’t have to hold a job or be a wage slave to meet your needs in life.  Being able to enter that space in the present moment where the distinction between work and leisure is blurred.  Being committed to a job-free life, often while simultaneously working to free others from wage slavery.

“I’d quit this awful job in a heartbeat if only I had the money.”  That’s what I told myself for years.  But I’ve come to believe that lack of money is not the only thing that keeps most people stuck in wage slavery.  It’s a factor, yes, and my intention here is not to dismiss legitimate concerns about money – but for me it was by no means the whole story.  I know society makes it hard to live without a job, but what about that slave-driving, destructive work ethic operating in our minds and hearts?   Many of us never even question it.  We think it’s just the need for money keeping us stuck in our lousy jobs, but I’ve learned that the problem runs much deeper.

When I tell people I’ve been out of the 9-to-5 grind and happily job-free for three years (not unemployed – I write, after all, but my time is all my own), the first question I get asked is how I manage to support myself.  The short, incomplete answer: a combination of good fortune and deliberate, methodical planning.  The good fortune part: I’ve never had any trouble getting jobs when necessary, I’ve had supportive friends and family, and I received a small family inheritance (enough to pay my expenses job-free for about six months).  The planning part: I invested my money, made a few unpopular life choices, saved earnings from the years I spent being a wage slave, and embarked upon some serious self-exploration until I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life outside the bounds of a traditional job.  That planning part is not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s much better than wage slavery.  So I started, at a young age, to make choices that would allow me freedom to live a self-directed life.  To wit:

1)       I’ve consciously chosen to live simply and avoid debt.  I know I can be quite happy with few material goods.  I’ve also chosen not to have children or keep pets.

2)       I’ve shifted my perspective on wealth.  Wealth has little to do with greenbacks.  No matter how little money I may have, I can always find something to make me feel rich – like the fact that I can hear a bird sing a beautiful melody outside my window, for example.

3)       I’ve invested time in friendship and creating community.  As a result, I have a lot of very good friends who are happy to share their resources (homes, food, etc.) and barter services with me.

And that’s just a start.  I think most people who want to free themselves from the wage slave grind have other options.  It’s not very widely acknowledged, though, that if we hate our jobs, the questions we need to ask are much broader than “how do I get money once I quit?”  Dispensing suggestions to would-be job quitters is all well and good.  However, I feel I’m leaving out a crucial factor if I offer suggestions on how to get money outside the confines of a job WITHOUT addressing our deeper attitudes on work and leisure.  Our attitudes are a whole lot more important than most of us would like to admit.

For a long time I thought that the only thing keeping me stuck in a job I hated was fear of not having money to eat and pay rent.  That’s a socially acceptable way to complain about your job nowadays – after all, gotta pay the bills – so I had lots of company.  Like many of my “slacker” intellectual friends from comfortable white middle-class backgrounds, I spent untold energy griping about my job, The System, being a cog in the machine, and selling out to The Man.  But then I had an experience that baffled me, and made me question everything I used to believe about what kept me stuck in shitty jobs.

With the financial support of my partner, I gratefully quit my job to write a book.  Although I made a bit of progress, I still felt very stuck (for reasons I could not identify at the time), and did not get far on the book, even after a year’s time.  I felt terribly guilty about my “laziness”, which added to the problem.  Rather than accepting my partner’s gift gracefully, I felt weighted down – I owed, I was in debt to my partner, and this made me feel pressured, which I hated.  I felt obligated to repay my partner’s generous support by being “productive” (read: earning money).  Even worse, I felt that I was unworthy if I did not.  There was a healthy part of me rebelling against the idea that I should measure my worth by my accomplishments, but deep inside I was convinced that I’d have no friends or supporters if I didn’t earn money.  These two parts clashed, sapping most of my energy in fighting a psychological battle, and of course that left very little energy for creative activities like writing a book.

After years of therapy and wrestling with why I remained “stuck” even after lack of money was no longer keeping me stuck in a job I hated, I’ve come to believe that my biggest obstacles to living a job-free life were in my own mind and heart.  I had to unearth some very deep-seated beliefs and re-think my slave-driving work ethic before I was able to successfully live, guilt-free, without a traditional nine-to-five job.  Once I began this process of re-thinking, I noticed that it became a whole lot easier to attract money and/or find ways to provide for my needs.  It’s an ongoing challenge, of course – some days I still feel guilty if I don’t live up to others’ ideas of “productivity” (or worse, my own hidden fears that I won’t measure up if I’m not “productive”) – but then again, all of life is a process of unfolding, isn’t it?  It isn’t as though I suddenly woke up one day and had all the answers.  I’ve learned to love the process instead of seeking instant solutions.

So…back to the “how do I survive without a job” question.  I struggled with this for years, until I realized that there was a hidden layer of confusion, often unconscious, motivating that question at the root.  I think that’s why I sensed that the source of my problems was not addressed simply through having my food and rent taken care of.  A list of practical suggestions (for example: live cheaply in a trailer, join a squatting group, shop at food co-ops, don’t own a car, etc.), doesn’t really address the core question, helpful as such a list might be.  So I’d like to delve a little deeper.

When I directed my focus to wondering how I’d survive without a job, I asked questions like these:

“How will I pay my bills if I don’t have a job?”

“Where will I live when I get evicted or the bank forecloses on my house?”

“How will I feed myself and my family without the security of a paycheck?”

“Doesn’t everyone need to work to get money?”

Although there is a certain amount of legitimate concern involved here, I phrased these questions as though I believed some secret magical ticket to job-free life would be suddenly and completely revealed, without me having to search for it in earnest, in my own mind and heart. I wanted someone to tell me the secret.  Suggestions can help, but I now think the ultimate solutions will come from inside.  My experience suggests that there’s no instant solution – it’s more like a process that we kick off when we make a commitment to be free of wage slavery.

I conducted my life as though it were a foregone conclusion that losing my job would mean homelessness, hunger, or complete insecurity.  But the lesson here for me was that no matter how much we may want it to, security does not come from outside ourselves.  Security does not come from having a job or money, despite what we may have unconsciously absorbed from living in a money-worshipping and job-focused culture.  We can live in a shack and feel secure; conversely, we can live in a mansion and be filled with fear and insecurity.  Real security, the kind that will last a lifetime regardless of job status or bank balance, comes from facing up to our fears and mastering them.  We may have heard this before…but do we believe it?  Failing that, are we willing to at least give it a try, and act as if we believe it?  It couldn’t hurt, and it might actually work.  This is not meant to suggest that we don’t need any money or support to live comfortably.  It is meant to suggest that if we’re afraid that we can’t survive without a job, we have a perfect opportunity right now to face that fear and master it.  We can use that fear to learn how to find real security!

My surface questions about how to pay the rent without a job were a red herring.  They covered up my unexamined and deeply ingrained fears of scarcity and lack.  Once I learned to ask myself some deeper questions, I was able to address what was keeping me feeling stuck in the daily grind regardless of whether my survival needs were met.  Here are some examples of how the voice of my fears cropped up.  Each is followed by the response my deeper awareness gave when the question was posed.

1)       “There isn’t enough wealth to go around, and if I don’t work hard and strive and compete and achieve, I’ll be homeless or hungry or destitute.”

(Are you aware that the World Game Institute, the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, and many others have confirmed scientifically that we live in an abundant world with sufficient resources to care for every person on the planet?  Are you aware that the only obstacles to all of us manifesting this abundance in our lives are personal and political – e.g. our deepest beliefs about wealth, and how the resources are distributed?  Are you willing to let go of your fear of scarcity, work toward more equitable distribution of the world’s abundance, and ALSO replace your fear with trust in an abundant world?)

2)       “I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid of what would happen if I quit my job and had that much freedom every day.  For one thing, what would get me out of bed in the morning?”

(An understandable fear indeed; it’s very common to fear change and cling to the familiar, even if it is stifling or harmful.  Are you willing to gently push yourself past the fear, trust that you will find a joyful reason to get up, and seek your freedom anyway?)

3)       “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I just know I don’t want to work at this shitty job for the rest of my days.”

(Can you find and nurture within yourself the desire to discover what it is you really want to do?  Can you be happy day-to-day even if you never find an occupation that gives you that “A-ha, THIS is it!” feeling?  How about just trying different things out for awhile, and cultivating patience?  How about entertaining the possibility that the “a-ha” feeling you are seeking might come more from what kind of person you are BEING in each moment than what you are DOING?)

4)       “If I quit my job, people will think I’m lazy…and what’s worse, I’m afraid they might be right.  What would that say about my character?  Would my partner leave me?  Would my friends shun me?”

(Where did you get the idea that there was some kind of character flaw involved in being lazy?  Are you willing to re-think that assumption, and adopt a new, more humane attitude toward leisure and idleness (and maybe make some new, less judgmental friends)?  Leisure has brought us great works of art, created memorable moments in life, lessened our burdens, and contributed immeasurably to our culture.  Is it really so bad?)

5)       “I’m too busy (because of my job) to take the time to figure out what I really want out of life, and even if I had the time, I don’t think I could get it anyway.  I have to be realistic.  Living without a job is nothing more than a pipe dream.”

(We find time for the things that are truly important to us.  Even five minutes a day of focused thinking, if you use it well, can be enough to get you going on a plan toward a job-free life.  And history is full of examples of people who brought things into being because they believed in themselves and their abilities to go after their dreams.  Why not try believing in your own ability to create the life you want?  It couldn’t hurt to at least TRY, before you dismiss the idea.  “Realistic”: a word that has killed so many dreams!)

6)       “If I were to quit my job, I’d have to be totally responsible for finding something else to do, and maybe even dealing with my family’s objections and criticism.  And I don’t think I’m prepared to face that.”

(Are you prepared to deal with the alternative: abdicating that responsibility to others, and living under their rules and restraints?)

7)       “I don’t want to give up the material comforts I’ve become accustomed to, even for a short time.”

(Are you willing to spend the rest of your days living in fear that you will lose those comforts, in exchange for the “instant gratification” of not giving them up now?  Are you willing to entertain the idea that you might not HAVE to give them up, but that it will loosen your psychological shackles to at least be WILLING to do so?)

8)       “I’ve always been taught that the way to financial security is to have a job and work hard.”

(Are you willing to open your mind to learning different ways to financial security, besides having money through working at a job, particularly a job you dislike?)

I hate to admit it here, but even after I started asking the kind of questions above (and listening to the answers), I wasted a lot of energy on self-blame.  It took me a long time to realize that I was not at fault for my struggles simply because I felt stuck.  The System is set up so that very few other options are feasible besides earning income through a job.  Not to mention that our hyper-individualistic American attitudes make us labor under an additional psychological burden: our mainstream political and social discourse convinces us that any failures to find jobs are due to individual faults, ignoring the role of larger forces.  We hear that we are “lazy bums” if we can’t find or don’t want a job.  (I hope you don’t fall for this garbage the same way I did).  But it won’t help to use all of our precious energy lamenting the state of The System, either.  We still have choices.  We could be using that energy figuring out how to live a job-free life instead.

Although I don’t think we should fault ONLY ourselves or ONLY The System, I can’t emphasize enough that even though there are coercive forces at work in The System, we still have the most important of freedoms: to change our attitudes, and claim the power we DO have.  That power turned out to be very crucial for me.  It helped me immensely on my quest for a life free of wage slavery.

I’ve come to believe that wage slavery is, at its core, a mindset.  This does not mean it’s solely an individual problem and that all we have to do is adjust our attitudes and our job-related problems will disappear; there are definitely systemic factors involved.  But it’s just as important to remember that it’s not entirely the fault of The System that we feel stuck in jobs we hate, because blaming it all on The System discourages us from recognizing our other options (and no matter how limited they may be, we DO have other options).  It’s even possible to have a “normal” job and not be a wage slave.  But that’s another topic for another time.

The way we interpret events has a lot to do with the filters we have in our minds.  Let’s say that, like me, you already realize that you’ve spent a lot of energy battling fears – energy that could be used to pursue your dreams.  And let’s say you realize that focusing on scarcity thoughts creates barriers to getting what you want before you’ve even begun.  Why not continue on by digging deeper until you find your most stubborn block?  For example, I once believed, unconsciously, that the only viable means to ensuring an income (and thus survival) is to have a job.  That meant that jobs which provide a paycheck, or make-money-fast scams, were the only income opportunities I ever noticed.  That “belief filter” made it as if I had blinders on – I didn’t even perceive the other possible ways to survive or receive money, or even more commonly, I quickly wrote them off as “impractical” before giving them any serious consideration.

Once again, because I think this bears repeating: I don’t mean to over-emphasize the role of the individual in achieving a life free from wage slavery.  I want to make it clear that I recognize and affirm the necessity for social change work.  I certainly don’t intend to trivialize the concerns of those who suffer from severe poverty, homelessness and hunger; people in those situations often don’t have the luxury of considering the kind of questions I pose here.  In fact, I believe that the more thought we give to what it might take to have a job-free life ourselves, the more we will understand that as long as wage slavery exists, for us or anyone else, we can never be truly free as a society.  When I realized that, I felt drawn toward working for social change and abolition of wage slavery, as well as my own freedom from the daily grind.  The two go hand in hand.

Here are some other questions I asked myself:

How committed am I to freeing myself (and others) from wage slavery?  Not how committed would I like to be “if only” – how committed AM I, today?  What would I be willing to do in order to be free to spend my time pursuing things I value?  Am I willing to face the fear that I might end up as a bag lady?  Am I willing to devote time to putting together a plan for how I’ll meet my needs without a job?  Am I willing to eat at soup kitchens, or cook and clean in exchange for room and board with family and friends, if that becomes necessary?  Would I take the time to write up a classified ad specifying what non-traditional living situation I want and try to connect with others who could help me get it?

These questions were scary for me.  For many years, I made a lot of excuses and used a lot of rationalizations.  The job-free life, in a job-obsessed culture, isn’t for the faint of heart.  It asks of us an “I’ll do whatever it takes for my freedom” kind of attitude, combined with the willingness to get very clear about what we want in life and face our fear of the unknown in order to have it.  But if we are devoted to doing so, and willing to find that quiet force within us, it will enrich our entire lives – not just our outlook on work and leisure.

The next step for me was to apply what I’d learned about where real security comes from.  I began a shift in my life that continues to this day.  Here is how I maintain it.

1)       Every day, I consciously cultivate a feeling of gratitude for the things I already have, and steer the focus away from endlessly pining for more.  If I just ate a good meal, and have a full stomach, I recognize that as a blessing.  If I have a comfortable place to sleep tonight, that’s certainly worth feeling thankful for.  If I can name friends and family who love and care about me, and who teach me to stretch my own ability to love, I am deeply blessed.  These are the important things in life – not “what I do for a living” or how fat my pocketbook happens to be.  Keeping the focus on the blessings we already enjoy (and away from those insidious survival fears) opens the way for more blessings to flow in life.

2)       I ask myself often, honestly and unflinchingly, what my life and the world would look like if I could wave a magic wand right now and miraculously cure all my money or job problems.  What would I do if I never had to work solely for the sake of a paycheck again?  What would I be doing?  Where would I be living?  These questions inspired me.  Once I got crystal clear on the answers (and it didn’t happen overnight), I didn’t want to waste another minute.  Life is precious and short, and this realization gave me the courage to take action now to move toward the kind of life I longed for.  It might not look exactly the way I’ve planned, but I don’t want to die without giving it a shot.  Of course, the kind of life I wish for may change over time, and that’s fine too.

3)       I make a point of re-thinking the nature of work, jobs, and leisure.  As mentioned above in our “new definitions”, work does not have to equal suffering; it can be done with ease and joy.  “Jobs”, on the other hand, usually involve doing things we’d rather not.  Even if I end up as one of the lucky few who happen to get paid for doing exactly what I’d be doing anyway regardless of remuneration, I know of FAR too many others who’d quit their jobs tomorrow if they felt money was not an issue.  I’d go to workshops on how to find work you love, and think to myself, “Well, that’s all fine and good that perhaps I myself can find a way out, but this just isn’t radical enough.  What about those without my privileges?”  This is a social problem that cannot be cured by “creating more jobs”, as politicians often claim.  I continuously educate myself about it, and am doing my part toward creating a world where wage slavery is a thing of the past.  Want to help?  You can start today, right now, with yourself.  Besides, the more self-respect you develop, the less you will be willing to settle for a job that deadens your soul.

4)       I remind myself daily that not wanting a job does not necessarily mean I am “lazy”, and even if it did, there is nothing morally wrong with laziness.  Wage slaves are sometimes driven to suffer in jobs they hate by the fear that others would think them indolent or somehow remiss if they admitted their love of leisure and their disdain for jobs.  Remember when people were saying that technology was such a huge blessing because it would take over much of the “grunt work” and provide us with more leisure time?  Do you think the people who spearheaded this movement stopped pushing for progress because they feared being considered lazy?  On the contrary…leisure was seen as a good thing, not just what you do when you’re not at your job.  Leisure is much more than just the time you have when you’re not getting paid.  Refer to our new definitions above.

For me the process I’ve described above was necessary before I could really, seriously consider the alternatives to taking a wage slave job.  I’ve gone into detail here about my struggles in the hopes that I’ll be able to shed some light on the portion of living a job-free life that can’t be addressed by having more money.  That part, I’ve found, isn’t very glamorous, but it’s a crucial step.  I know it’s only part of the story, though – so next month’s column will offer some down-to-earth, practical suggestions for the job-free life.  Until then…good luck.  Believe in yourself.  You can realize your own unique beauty and go after your dreams.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer and former academic living in Portland, OR, USA. She is the founder of Rethinking the Job Culture and its predecessor Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS), aka whywork.org, a project that provides resources and support to folks seeking alternatives to conventional employment. With the help of loved ones and friends, she has managed to remain mostly – though not entirely – job-free since 1998. She avoids jobs to the best of her ability, though she does plenty of joyful work.  Contact her at radical.unjobbing AT gmail.

The Cult of the Job

[The following essay was published on whywork.org in 2003.  It is the first of several of my early essays that I will be re-publishing here.  Except for the short bio at the end, which has been updated, this is the original, unrevised version.]

The Cult of the Job
by D. JoAnne Swanson

I am job-free.  Out of the rat race.  Unemployed, as they say, but definitely by choice.  My self-esteem is intact, thank you, I’m not “in transition”, and I have no intention of getting a job again.

That’s right – I’m on the leisure track permanently.  I don’t have a cushy nine-to-five job with profit-sharing, “security”, stock options, health insurance, advancement opportunities, or free parking.  I also don’t have to deal with office politics, attending motivation seminars, climbing the corporate ladder, employee evaluations, increasing productivity, the absurd “team player” mentality, brown-nosing, mandatory overtime, stressful commutes in rush-hour traffic, being trapped in a cubicle, or the threat of being pink-slipped.  Oh, and let’s not forget – I don’t have the expense of a “professional” wardrobe, strong coffee to wake me up every morning, or “power lunches”.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you ask me what seems to have become the first question new acquaintances ask each other nowadays – namely, “What do you do for a living?” I’m likely to say that I’m job-free by choice or quip that I’m an “occupational tourist”, as a friend likes to say.  Sometimes I’ll tell ‘em I’m a freelancer or self-employed, specializing in leisure.  Most people, when they hear this, say something like “You mean you don’t have a regular job?  Wow, that’s great – I’ll bet more people would do that if they thought they could swing it.”

I’m willing to bet that more of them could swing it if they’d just find within themselves the wherewithal to question a few of the assumptions that are often taken for granted in America, particularly by the middle class and those who aspire to wealth.  So what assumptions am I talking about?  Well, let’s start with the cult of  jobs and work.

We need to re-evaluate the role of jobs in our lives.  For far too many of us, getting a job amounts to securing a means of paying for our living expenses, and not much more.  At best, this attitude leads to years of “paying one’s dues” in exchange for the dubious “security” of a (hopefully) steady paycheck and the promise of finally enjoying leisure when one retires.  At worst, it leads to a way of life where we devote 40 or more hours of our precious time a week to doing something we don’t care about mainly for the sake of having a roof over our heads and food on the table.  I know I’m not the only one who thinks this is ludicrous.  It took me years of trying to fit myself into some kind of job title, of devoting myself to figuring out “what I wanted to be when I grew up”, before I realized that I don’t want a job, nor do I feel guilty about not wanting one.

It’s time for us to make a crucial distinction between “jobs” and “work”.  Work – particularly the kind that is motivated by interest, social welfare, connection, curiosity, learning, beauty – can be satisfying, fulfilling, fun, and honorable.  However, it’s exceedingly hard to see this when we are blinded by the compulsion to “get a job” or face the poorhouse, or when we’re terrified by the social and financial consequences of being job-free.  In addition, we’ve internalized a puritan work ethic which holds that laziness is a sign of moral weakness.  We sense deep in our guts that even if we were to arrange our financial affairs such that we could quit our jobs for good, it would mean we are lazy.  We know we’d still face guilt, social disapproval, maybe even an identity crisis once we were unemployed – especially if we were to tell everyone we meet that we’re not “in transition”, not hunting for a new job, that in fact we are happy this way.  I maintain that a complex web of unquestioned assumptions are what keep such fears in place, and that we need to delve into those places we fear to tread if we’re ever going to make lasting changes for the better.

A job, nowadays, is used as a shorthand term for whatever it is you do that occupies a large portion of your time and provides a paycheck.  In a work-obsessed culture that elevates jobs and money-making capacity to crucial components of our identities, having a job and money often provides a sense of social acceptability that cannot be found any other way, or so we believe.  But there are lots of (legal) ways of getting money besides jobs, and what’s more, we are increasingly becoming aware that we’ve paid a very high price for our myopic job-centered focus.

On a personal level, many of us find ourselves disillusioned, depressed and frustrated when, day after day, we force ourselves to get out of bed and put in another eight hours at our jobs, then come home exhausted – only to get up the next day and do it all over again.  The future doesn’t hold out much hope for us when we consider that we’re expected to continue this way indefinitely.  When do we get to enjoy life, we think as we watch the clock and count the days until the weekend?

On a societal level, we hear about corporate “downsizing” as well as environmental and human rights violations, rising rents in choice areas, the growing wage gap between executives and “worker bees”, the rising cost of a college education and the lack of “marketability” of liberal arts degrees, and many other factors which contribute to a widespread sense of disillusionment.  This certainly isn’t the way we thought it would be, is it?  It’s not what we were promised when we heard about the “American Dream” and were told that getting an education and a “good” job would be our ticket into the promised land.

This concept we have of jobs as the way we make a name for ourselves, “get ahead”, create an identity, and earn money is ripe for re-evaluation.  It’s high time for us to take a hard look at the personal and environmental devastation such thinking has wrought, and to conceptualize and create alternatives to the cult of jobs and work in our lives.

Such alternatives could take many forms – self-employment, cooperative living arrangements, simplifying our lives, changes in economic policy, and so forth.  Envisioning a new way of working is certainly not a new idea, but those of us who question the conventional wisdom about jobs are still considered heretics, radicals and pariahs in many circles.

Heretic or not, I’d like to see us re-define success as having more to do with people and their values, and less to do with profits or climbing the corporate ladder.  I’d like to see a world where we are less relentlessly driven by the pursuit of job growth, impressive stock portfolios, the “bottom line” and material acquisition – and more motivated by active mindful learning, joyful work, and creating a web of relationships that will sustain us in our more meager times.  I’m holding out for a new way of thinking, one in which we recognize that leisure is essential to our mental health rather than cause for guilt, and that we don’t have to spend our lives struggling, striving to make ends meet through working at a job.

I think we all know, at some level, that we weren’t meant to live this way, and that there are better, more fulfilling, and more socially responsible ways to work than by sacrificing ourselves on the altar of jobs and money.  There are the stirrings of a new social movement underway as we speak – a diverse collection of people from all walks of life who are re-examining the way we’ve been indoctrinated into thinking our jobs are our ticket to respectability, freedom and the “American Dream”.  They are re-defining success, learning how to appreciate what they have instead of endlessly questing for more growth, and discovering their passions without worrying about trying to fit them into the form of a job.

I’m happy to count myself among the proponents of that movement away from the cult of jobs and toward a new way of envisioning work – a way that gives us hope for the future.  I invite you to join us.

D. JoAnne Swanson is a freelance writer and former academic living in Portland, OR, USA.  She is the founder of Rethinking the Job Culture and its predecessor Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS), aka whywork.org, a project that provides resources and support to folks seeking alternatives to conventional employment. With the help of loved ones and friends, she has managed to remain mostly – though not entirely – job-free since 1998. She avoids jobs to the best of her ability, though she does plenty of joyful work.  Contact her at radical.unjobbing AT gmail.