Earlier this year, a colleague of mine invited her six-year old daughter to work. I liked having friends visit the office. It was a clinically cool office, with anodyne white walls, a high tin-pressed ceiling, and a tasteful dash of greenery. Floorboards creaked beneath your feet and simple wood desks held radiant Apple computers. Visiting the office was a treasure-finding adventure through an inner-city cafe, small bar, and modern advertising agency. It was cool before you arrived, and cooler when you did.
My colleague’s daughter seemed to have less fun of it, and wore the look of a child wandering through an abandoned amusement park. She couldn’t, it seemed, make heads or tails of it. One person hunched over a computer, typing furiously. Another leaning against the kitchen cabinet, staring insensate at his phone. Two others having an animated, lean-in conversation on a deep blue couch. One standing on a chair rearranging post-it notes on the wall. Her pre-vocal facial expression said: “What the hell is this?”
My colleague and I discussed her daughter’s bewilderment for a while. We reached the tentative conclusion that it may have been an arresting scene because it was neither work nor play. This seemed to blow a fuse in the way that wax dolls do, straddling perfectly the line between creepy and interesting.
The objective of the modern workspace is to equate work and play, to make you unable to distinguish between the two. You are obligated not only to do your work, but to enjoy and value it as you do play. To act freely under duress.
This is the trick of the cutting-edge, Valley-influenced private sector firms. Hip “fun” is offered as a substitute for a deeper sense of purpose. Post-it notes, whiteboard walls, and hack-a-thons obscure the impoverishment and indignity that exists in work. Most modern work is little more than a shoe factory with a disco ball.
Some sniff it out, and go looking for “purpose,” elsewhere, and find themselves in the not-for-profit sector — which is undergoing a slow cultural re-brand as the “for-purpose” sector.
However, non-profits play the same bait-and-switch game as for-profits. There is no purpose to be found in the for-purpose sector.
The promises offered by modern not-for-profits are two-fold. One is a neoliberal promise and the other is a liberal humanistic promise.
Both are counterfeit.
The neoliberal promise goes something like this: You possess within you certain values particular to you, and there exists a non-profit that sits in alignment with those values that can provide fulfilment. In the context of social entrepreneurship, it is the same promise except the assumption is that you can create that organisation. It’s a mini-mall approach to purpose. Like a commercial mall, the abundance of choice hides that there are choices that you cannot make. The choices available in the not-for-profit sector are still primarily determined by market forces and cultural narratives. The best choices are locked away in the back room.
That’s the first counterfeit promise. The second takes a bit more time to untangle.
There are many articles that speak about non-profit burnout and offer advice that always seems to take the form of a numbered list. A few of these articles touch on, but fail to explore the central myth that compels the non-profit leader to sleep in their ’83 Honda Civic to save on petrol money. This is the second promise, the liberal humanistic promise. It states that the world can be made more progressive through the application of human will.
Most people I know who have suffered burn-out simply cannot bear the shape of the world as is, with all its suffering. There are simply too many homeless people and three-legged dogs and unemployed artists. They transform themselves in to Sisyphean martyrs, struggling daily for impossible causes. The optimistic ones believe that if they work enough, one day they won’t have to work anymore. The pessimistic ones believe that if they don’t work enough, all will fall in to chaos.
Both views are deeply conceited, and both emerge from the human will myth above. If history has taught us anything, it’s that change is a slender man covered in cooking grease. You can chase him, but not catch him.
The social sector has a new obsession with measurement, but it misses the big empirical indicators that our whole sector has been a gross failure. Intelligent, empathetic, and incredibly hard working people have overseen a society that has become more unequal, racist, and inhospitable to human life. Brexit, Trump, Pauline Hanson, and ISIL all sit against a backdrop of ever-worsening and potentially unstoppable climate change. Progress is something you put on the checking account and pay 18% interest on.
The for-profit sector offers zany distractions from it’s plain-faced purposelessness, or even destructiveness. The not-for-profit sector is more postmodern in its efforts. It offers purpose to obscure that there is none.
This isn’t nihilistic. The world, quite clearly, can be changed through human activity. Indeed, in the Anthropocene, we are the primary driver for the shape of things. What I challenge is that organised, wilful activity doesn’t change the world — or at least, not in the way that it intends to. This means our mission statements, flow-charts, theories of change — and the conceited, burnt-out actors at the middle of it all — are bunk. The actors work primarily in service of their need to feel effectual. They press their hands to dried cement.
In rebellion against purposeful will, I am asking for a revival of pointless leisure. A detox from our frenetic need to save a world that doesn’t need saving (and won’t let us, anyway).
In a world that demands I be making a difference and exerting my will somewhere, I am standing firm and proudly claiming I don’t know what the hell I’m doing or why I’m doing it. I’m eating fairy bread and drinking Tanzanian gin, and that’s all I know I’m doing.
This all came out of a question I was asked, by the way: Why did you go to Tanzania? I know I am supposed to say that I came to learn and make a difference. In truth, it just seemed like a nice place to sit for a while and listen.
I was also sick of my life becoming a bowling alley for other people’s ideas of how the world should be.
I perhaps haven’t said that until now.
I am glad I am saying it now.
Ironically, I think I’m making more of a difference this way. Learning a new language in my spare time has given me an opportunity to learn from, and connect with, my Tanzanian colleagues. Conversations about life with my NGO’s founder have provided the fertile grounds of trust for conversations about the purpose and direction of our NGO. Staying connected to friends back home is helping to build meaningful partnerships across the Indian. Some of the insights above occurred while chatting to a Scottish engineer on a Sunday hike a few months ago.
All of this has been outside of my JDF, outside work hours, and at times when I was more interested in wonder, discovery, and spontaneous human connection than work. Time spent outdoors, idle discussions over coffee, brief friendships, dumb romance, and odd works of fiction seem to be the drivers behind my entirely accidental and improvised professional successes.
Six-year olds know what is and isn’t work. Adults don’t. Let’s reclaim our pointless, idle hours as the primary engine of improvised social change.
It’s also way more fun this way.