12/06/2013 08:11 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

A Manifesto for Working Less (If Only I Could Afford It)

Just watched this conversation between Clay Shirky and Jonathan Franzen. For me, the most compelling moments were Franzen's comments about the pressures that aspiring writers feel to self-promote, to spend time amassing followers and retweets instead of devoting themselves to the hard self-mining that yields the foundations of good writing. Shirky suggested that there is a countervailing benefit that comes with the pressure to self-promote -- the opportunity to garner lots of feedback as you develop a voice. Franzen pushed back hard: a voice is a singular thing, the kind of thing that can only be discerned when one spends time alone with oneself. So often, feedback functions to distort, to flatten, to homogenize.

One thing they didn't touch on, but that I think is also relevant, is the compulsion to publish, to produce, to "ship." Part of this is the whole "10,000 hours" philosophy -- that you don't get good at anything until you do it a lot, and that you're a lot less likely to do it a lot if you don't have an audience waiting for you. I can relate to all of that.

The trouble is that the pressure to ship doesn't arise after all the self-reflection has been completed -- after you emerge blinking into the afternoon light, with Gumby legs and feet asleep. It's there the whole time, and it asks incessant questions: "Is this done? Why don't you just throw this up on Facebook? It doesn't have to be big deal. Just a brief post. Finish the thought next time."

But you won't -- that's the thing. Or you might, but that pressure will still be there, squeezing and pinching and cramping.

That works fine if all you want is to churn out zippy little comments on the events of the day. It's easy to skip along within the routes and ruts we already occupy. But if you want more -- if you want to plumb your cloudy depths, push your thoughts past the red line or find some perspective on the way your life is unfolding -- then you're going to need a fair bit of time and space. There's no way around it. It doesn't get to be sexy every day. It requires a kind of devotion to picking the same scraps out of your teeth, meal after meal.

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In some ways, the pressure to ship provides a kind of necessary discipline. In other ways, though, it defers the really hard work. Worse, it suggests that things are only worth doing if they can be done in a short time.

Ultimately, I'm not sure whether the pressure to ship helps more than it hurts. But Franzen is right: I do want the traditional things. I want a publishing contract. More to the point, I want to earn enough money so that I can devote myself to the work of paying attention to my own life.

I've worked a lot of different jobs, and as a friend and I came to realize recently, what we want more than anything is a way to get paid for being ourselves. In some ways, my decade of professional nomadism has been about trying to find a job that will admit the highest percentage of me through the door. At a hedge fund, that percentage was almost zero. Working in politics was okay, but there was so much falsity. More than that, there was a kind of deliberate refusal to engage with the gaping questions that lay beneath the work we did each day.

Teaching is about as close as I've come, and that's still only 40 or 50 percent. It's just wake up, do it, come home, plan and sleep. There's very little time for anything else, and if I had a girlfriend, there'd probably be none at all. (Not that I would mind the trade-off.)

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If it were up to me, my day would probably unspool like this. I'd get up and unfold into the day at a sane pace, doing one thing at a time. I'd meditate for a while, then write and read, then head to the gym. At some point, I would go somewhere and put in three or four hours of work -- maybe teaching. Then some time with friends, a slow meal, a walk. And that would be the day.

There was a time when I thought of this is selfish. After all, it's the kind of schedule reserved for the wealthy, and nobody else in the history of humanity has ever gotten the chance to live this way. In the Stone Age, you hunted, fished or starved. Under the reign of kings, you tilled your field or played your role at court. Today, at least in this part of the world, you go to your nine-to-five, (or nine-to-nine) and you hope that you can cover the bills.

But as I'm coming to realize, the fact that my ideal day is out of reach for most people doesn't say a thing about whether it's worth wanting. And it just might say something about aspects of our humanity that contemporary society makes it hard to preserve.

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I don't know how to be a full human being when I'm constantly worrying about money. The constant chase rends me from myself. Marx would call this alienation, perhaps, but that feels like too hoity-toity a word. Back to the Stone Age, for a moment: at that time, people lived in bands of 30, and what they ate was what they killed that day. A harsh and elemental life, no doubt, and not one that I would want (or could survive, perhaps). But there is something about the immediacy of it all -- the direct relationship between the work you do and the way your life goes.

But as Marx and a thousand other commentators have pointed out, modern people don't have that choice: we must sell our labor to survive.

The full essay is available for free at The Wheat and Chaff.