Originally published in Idler 48.
With this column, editor Tom has asked me to share my escape plans and tips for breaking free of wage slavery and consumerism. I don’t mind sharing them: I want as many people as possible to escape the systems that ensnare us and juice us for our life blood. Besides, I have no shortage of escape plans. I collect them. I create my own. I dream them up in the night.
Over the coming months we’ll speak of exciting job replacement schemes, anti-consumerist wheezes, cautious half-measures, and philosophical internal adjustments. We can escape into an idle paradise of our own devising if we want to. I say “we” because I believe we’re all in the same boat, but you don’t need much social backup in order to escape: just do it yourself.
As an idler you’ll already have come to the conclusion that career is the single most obvious scam ever devised. And yet, it can be awfully tempting to get mixed up with it. If you haven’t already, I implore you to put the whole silly idea out of your head this very minute. Abandoning the idea of career altogether is the single most practical thing you can do today and here are my tips for doing it.
1. Know that it’s a scam. You know it intuitively, but you must place this knowledge at the very top of your consciousness and act upon it. Much like motorcars, wristwatches and fancy hats, career is sold to us a way to distinguish ourselves. It’s a product designed to appeal to our need for identity but ultimately to pump our energies off to wealthy folk at the top. It’s really a kind of pyramid scheme and no matter how clever you are it’s quite impossible to beat the system. Seeing work as identity instead of the soul-crushing waste of time it clearly is might be a good deal for those born into political or showbiz dynasties, but a poor one for the majority doomed to be salespeople, quantity surveyors, or (shudder) “co-directors of digital innovation.” So know it truly, reject it, and tell others: career is a scam.
2. Understand that it’s socially irresponsible. We’re encouraged to get onto a career path as soon as possible, told that thoughtfully selecting our GCSE subjects at the age of 14 will give us an advantage. But even if this were true (and it isn’t) what is meant by this advantage? That upstreaming your peers is somehow good or noble or right? Only a sociopath would believe that. Once you understand that career requires you to clamber over the corpses of your friends, it will hopefully be less appealing.
3. Choose to live in the present. Career requires us to live in the future by instilling a constant need for progression, and ultimately to live in the past with its promise that we’ll one day look back on a glorious toil narrative from an armchair somewhere. Bugger that. Get yourself an armchair today instead. Sit in it, take a nap, and gradually come up with more exciting ideas than ogling the ever-advancing next rung of the ladder or some distant retirement vision. You can’t win at careerism, so my advice is to stop trying before it’s too late.
4. Put career into perspective. If you want to put your mind off the siren song of career, it helps to embrace the full glory of reality by recalling that no action matters very much. We’ll all be dead one day and that’s fine. Put your feet up. You’ve got a hundred years at best and you’re already a good way through them. And imagine dying in pursuit of a career, cracking your nut on a shelf edge or choking on something unspeakable in a staff canteen. It’s better to enjoy the gentle ride down the river on your own terms.
5. Revel in the vagaries. To be successful in a career you must have a goal and scramble towards it with single-minded vigour. Instead, be vague about your ambitions and enjoy life. Thus spake Oscar Wilde: “If you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it; that is your punishment. If you never know what you want to be, if you live what some might call the dynamic life but what I will call the artistic life, if each day you are unsure of who you are and what you know you will never become anything, and that is your reward.”
When you see career as a scam, that it encourages you to act in ways contrary to your interests and even those of society (which needs compassion, not careerism), it will be less tempting to involve yourself and far easier to escape for good. Career: just walk away.