Recommended Reading: Ethan Miller – Occupy, Connect, Create

Victorian bookshelfIt’s been many months since my last update here. I still keep up the Facebook page a bit more frequently, but since I’ve been getting a few e-mail queries lately about the status of this blog, I should be clear about the reason for the lack of updates.  Most of my limited writing time is being devoted to my Pagan blog, The Black Stone Hermitage, and to my current book manuscript on dark ambient music and culture.  Rethinking the Job Culture is NOT going away, though; I’ve only put it on the back burner for awhile.  I’ll continue to post things here once in awhile, and eventually – probably a few years down the road – you will see my focus re-directed to this project.

Since I won’t have any new material from my own hand to post here for awhile, I’ll take the liberty of occasionally sharing things written by others that I appreciate.  On top of that list is the work of Ethan Miller.  He and Charles Eisenstein are the two writers I know about at the moment whose work seems most aligned with my vision for Rethinking the Job Culture.

Ethan Miller’s brilliant and inspiring article Occupy, Connect, Create receives my highest recommendation.  I printed out a copy in 2011, and have come back to it many times for reference ever since.

Here’s a taste:

“Many of us who once relied on the basic economic institutions of our societies–education, employment, healthcare, public infrastructure, retirement, social assistance in times of need–are confronting the brutal reality that such faith is no longer merited. Meanwhile, the “experts” poised to deal with this mess are working in the service of the very institutions that profit from it.

“And what if these experts could “fix” our economy? What if we could convince them to “curb the excesses of Wall Street” and get our economic engine “back on track”? This demand would ignore the fact that the very success of the capitalist market economy–the ways in which it has seemingly provided so many with so much in so short a time–is built on violence and plunder. […]

“The sorcery of capitalist economics is precisely to make its own violence invisible, so that it can appear to be nothing but the miraculous liberator of human potential and the progressive deliverer of ever-abundant goods. And there is a disturbingly good reason for us to give in to this illusion: most of us are dependent on the very economy that has systematically exploited us and undermined the health of our communities and our environments. We have come to rely on the very “job creators” (that new euphemism for exploiters) whose project of profiting at our expense we condemn. We have come to need the very economic growth machine that is eating our world and destabilizing our planetary climate in the name of “progress.”

“We can no longer ignore the immense challenge at the heart of this moment in history: We are trapped in patterns of life on which we have come to depend, but which we must fundamentally transform as a matter of our very survival. How do we acknowledge our dependence, and address the needs that it gives rise to, while also imagining and constructing new forms of freedom? […]

“The economy” is a way of thinking and experiencing the world in which our power and agency is robbed from us…This economy was constructed by processes of enclosure, where people were forcibly separated from their means of subsistence (land, community, tools and skills) and pushed into dependence on wage-jobs and commodity purchases. […]

“It is not a naïve notion of “dropping out” (as if everyone had the privilege to do this, or the privilege to choose otherwise), or a dreamy hope of evading hard work and struggle. It is, rather, about recognizing that the work of breaking out of our dependence is a necessary site for our creative action. […]

“We must shift from simply asking how we might create more (or better) jobs to asking about how we can progressively create the conditions in which we no longer need them.

“…how can we begin to build a world in which the unpaid labor of birthing, parenting, caring for elders, building community, creating art, working for justice, and defending and restoring our ecosystems can be supported as shared social goods? What forms of accounting would make this work and its value publicly visible? […]

“And second, how do we re-common the enclosures that created our dependency on wage-work in the first place? […] Life beyond “jobs” is not for everyone, and nor does it need to be. But it must become an ever-more available option. […]

“Do we know how to make this possible? Not yet.

“But we can say this: It is time to launch the largest explosion of practical experimentation that our society has ever seen.”

R. Buckminster Fuller on ‘earning a living’

Buckminster Fuller has been an inspiration to me for many years.  This provocative quote (from New York Magazine, 1970) generated lively discussion on Facebook.  I like to think that Bucky would approve of me posting it here.

What were you thinking about before somebody came along and told you that you had to earn a living?  For me, it was reading, writing, and dancing…

R. Buckminster Fuller quote

Your attention is a gift

I appreciate you, my dear readers.

I mean that sincerely.

There are countless other blogs out there that you could be reading right now, and a vast number of other things you could be doing with your time.  But you are reading this one.

And for that, I want to thank you.

I have high standards for my work.  (That’s one of the reasons I don’t post here as often as I’d like.)  I try to stay free of conventional jobs whenever possible, so that I will be able to devote more time and attention to offering you my best work.  Whenever I sit down to write, I keep in mind that if I want my work to serve the greatest good possible, it must honour the gift of attention that my readers are giving me.

Accordingly, here is the prayer I say when I sit down to write:

May the words I write serve the greatest good of all who read them, and may they help us build a beautiful and thriving culture of joyful leisure, work, and sustenance within a context of community interdependence and deep ecological wisdom.

It must, therefore, be the best quality work I am capable of offering to the world at that moment.  It must be honest and genuine; the world is overrun with snark and sarcasm, but sincerity is all too rare.  It must be clear, thought-provoking, emotionally appropriate, uplifting and joyful without being fluffy or saccharine, and informed by (but not limited to) scholarly research.  It must be the product of rigorous critical thinking as well as personal experience and spiritual insight.  It must somehow manage to convey the seriousness and magnitude of the multiple social, economic and environmental crises we face, yet without falling into the trap of draining much-needed energy and straining relationships by dwelling too heavily in dark and horrible places without offering respite.

I want to earn the gift of your attention by making the best possible use of my own gifts, and delivering the results to you by way of my writing.  It’s a tall order, but for me it’s the only way to go.

You do know that giving someone your full, undivided, uninterrupted attention is a gift, right?  One of the beauties of this is that it’s a gift anyone can give, regardless of financial means.  It’s the kind of gift that makes the world a better place to live.  What we pay attention to matters, as our attention is limited.  It should be treated like the precious resource that it is, and it should be allocated mindfully rather than squandered unconsciously or allowed to atrophy.

Attention is not something that you owe me.  If I try to hijack your attention and use it for the wrong purposes, I will lose your trust, and rightfully so.  These days the web is clogged with dummy blog posts and “articles” loaded with keywords and search-engine-friendly catch-phrases, but with no real meat.  I’ve been online since 1993, and sometimes I miss the early days of the web because it seemed easier to find words that were obviously written by real people from the heart, instead of having my attention hijacked by commercial interests, useless arguing, and content-free “content” at every turn.

I want radical unjobbing to be real, I want it to be honest, and I want it to facilitate connection.  Most of all, I want it to be worthy of your attention.

I may be the one “assigned” to bring radical unjobbing to you and tell you some of my stories, and it’s true that writing for this blog is a labour of love…but ultimately I’m not doing this for me.  I’m doing it because I believe wholeheartedly that other, better ways of life are possible, outside of the job culture.  I’m doing it because I want you to identify and use your own gifts in service of the kind of world you’d like to live in.  Gifts are sacred.  I want you to think about what you have to give, and in what ways you can offer your gifts.  And I want you to learn how to receive and accept nourishment in the form of gifts, too.

That’s what radical unjobbing is about: learning to live in the culture of the gift, where giving and receiving are one, and freeing ourselves from the scarcity-driven job culture.  You can do this whether or not you have a conventional job.  You can always start with your attention.  Where will you place it?  What will you do with this gift?

I appreciate the gift of attention that you have given by reading my work.

My prayer today is that I may continue to produce work that is worthy of this gift.

Unjobbing is a Process

I often remind myself that unjobbing is a process, and not a destination.

It’s not somewhere I end up.  It’s more like a meandering trail through a dense forest, with switchbacks, elevation changes, and occasional backtracking when I get lost.  Sometimes it leads into uncharted territory, and I find myself wondering what to do next.  If I can muster the courage to brave the hazards of blazing my own trail, I forge ahead.

Unjobbing can be approached as a conscious choice – a commitment to be made after realizing that life is too short to spend so much of it in a job I hate, just for the sake of earning money.  It can be a decision to unlearn conventional notions about jobs, work, and leisure, in order to make room for a new way of life.

Unjobbing can also be something done out of necessity, or a need for survival, when it becomes clear that the old approaches won’t work any longer.  Given the current state of our economy, many highly educated and qualified people who nonetheless can’t find conventional jobs are now finding themselves in this place, and they (we) are letting go of illusions that finding a good job will provide them with security or “financial independence.”

Or perhaps you can walk the unjobbing path like I do: through a mix of necessity and conscious choice.  You can just muddle through one step at a time, pick yourself up when you stumble and fall (and you will, many times), and see where it leads.

Right now, I’m staring out into uncharted territory.  Instead of feeling trepidation, however, I feel strangely and deeply at peace.  Somehow I have the sense that I’ll be able to navigate the terrain ahead without a map.

Culturally speaking, I’m privileged: white, middle-class, and highly educated.  Though I’ve faced some difficult and demoralizing financial struggles and endured years of minimum-wage drudgery, I’ve never known true poverty.  Yet for the past few years – especially since an unwanted divorce in 2007 left me financially devastated and buried under an avalanche of grief, brokenness, rage, and despair – I have been driven by a primal kind of fear: the fear of scarcity.

For years, I have made too many of my decisions from this place of primal fear.

There are many things I’ve learned while walking this path.  I’ve learned in countless ways that the greater my ability to live simply, the lower my debt, and the greater my ability to refuse consumer goods, the less need I have for conventional jobs…and the less I am forced to participate in the ecological destruction that is driven by the extractive money economy.  I’ve learned that the less need I have for earning money, the less time I need to spend in “full time” paid employment, and the more freedom I have to shape my life according to my ecological values and the guidance of deeper forces.  These lessons have served me well.

I’ve also learned that every single moment of my life, consciously or not, I am making decisions about how to spend my time and energy, and where and how to direct my attention.  Even in the most constrained circumstances I’ve faced in life, it has become clear to me that I still have a certain element of choice, and I can exercise it to the best of my ability.  In this truth lies a great source of power.

I may be broke in monetary terms, but I am not broken in spirit.

I may not have a job, but I am not “unemployed.”

In fact, I am wealthy.  While I don’t have a job or much money, I do have immense wealth, for which I feel great appreciation and gratitude.  I live and move about in a world of fundamental abundance, and I don’t mean this in some flighty New Age way.  I mean it very straightforwardly.  I have a roof over my head, food in my cupboards, and no immediate threat of homelessness.  I live in a beautiful city that I adore.

But there’s much, much more.

I am wealthy in time. Ah, what a great luxury time is!  I can go about my daily tasks in an unhurried, mindful manner.  I can wake up without an alarm clock.  I can enjoy my tea rituals at leisure.  I can work when my body is most inclined to do so, rather than at the behest of my employer.

I am wealthy in leisure. I firmly believe that true leisure is much more than an absence of job-related constraints on my time, and much more than “vegging out” with the aid of passive sources of entertainment.  Real leisure – the kind that restores me at a bone-deep level – contains a significant active and creative dimension as well.  Gradually, I am learning something difficult: how to allow myself to do nothing at all without shame or guilt.

Sometimes, a funny thing happens when I do this: words come to me.  Writing gushes out of me in torrents.  (It isn’t always good writing, mind you; that part comes later, after the editing and proofreading stage.)

I am wealthy in relationships. I have a wonderful and nourishing web of relationships: blood relatives with whom I am very close, friendships I cherish, acquaintances I like and with whom I share common interests, and correspondents with whom I enjoy exchanging ideas.

I am wealthy in education and skills. Advanced reading comprehension and writing skills, three baccalaureate-level university degrees, research skills, critical thinking, autodidactic abilities, a lifelong bookworm’s passion for reading and learning – all of these are gifts, and I do not take any of them for granted.

I am wealthy in time alone and ability to enjoy solitude. As an introvert and loner, regular and copious time alone is essential for me; I would be but a shadow of my real self without it.  Divorce-related grief robbed me of the ability to enjoy my time alone for quite some time.  Being abandoned by a loved one taught me a lot about the difference between loneliness and solitude, as well as the complex (and paradoxical!) relationship between intimacy and solitude.  Once again, at long last, I have been gifted with the capacity to take deep nourishment from solitude.

And that’s just a start.  I could go on and on!

With this kind of abundance and freedom in my life, I needn’t be driven by the kind of artificial scarcity perpetuated by the money system.

While it’s true that I will continue to need to use money as a means to an end – my utility bills can’t currently be paid with barter arrangements or work-trades, after all – I know in my bones that I don’t need to believe the stories that say I must live in fear of scarcity any longer.

So here is my vow.

I hereby commit myself to walk the sacred path of radical unjobbing.  I will continue to deeply question and unlearn the fundamental assumptions of the job culture, and use my gifts in the service of helping others to do the same.  I will continue to critically examine any beliefs, attitudes, stories, habits, and systemic factors that keep me mired in the muck of artificial scarcity.

Henceforth, I shall live as much of my life as possible within the abundance of the gift culture.

Thank you, and Hail to the Powers That Be.

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”.
  • 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”.
  • WAGE SLAVERY:
    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.
  • FREEDOM FROM WAGE SLAVERY:
    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.