the things you do for money
on work and happiness
Dear friend —
Ask people what they love to do, and they’ll often say travel. But why do we love to travel? Typical answers include: to experience new cultures, to see the sights, to get away from the day-to-day —
But I think many who travel incessantly are pressed on by more inchoate, inarticulable reasons. Perhaps what we really want is to change. We want to be freed from our pasts, from the way people who’ve known us see us. We want to reinvent ourselves, or more passively, to be transformed despite ourselves. We want to meet people who’ll see us anew, as the people we truly are, or believe we could one day be.
Or perhaps we want to disappear altogether, to be exempt from the pressures that inevitably constrict us should we choose to become just another local, a resident, a citizen —
One thing about travel though: You need money to do it. And to get money, unless you’re independently wealthy, you need to work.
Theoretically, the year-long program I’m on with Remote Year lets me combine travel and work. Yet there’s nothing quite like getting to a new city only to sit in an apartment answering Slack messages on a laptop most of the day that makes you think, this travel-work thing kind of blows.
“Work enables everything.” That’s the mindset that Eddie, our happy-go-lucky Remote Year leader, encouraged us to adopt during our orientation. And if by work, we mean money, then yes — money does help enable travel.
But it’s been hard for me to feel grateful for my job lately. Last month I had an especially shitty work week — one that made me seriously think about quitting. I know, I know — I quit jobs a lot. I’m not sure if this is a good quality (I have the courage to get out of a bad situation quickly!) or a bad one (I lack sticktoitiveness and have too high an intolerance for life’s annoyances!). But quitting this job wouldn’t change the fact that I would still need to earn money — likely by getting another job which I may or may not like better than the current one….
Quitting — or even disliking — a job that pays you well, provides decent benefits, and gives me the freedom to travel is a privileged thing to consider especially while visiting a developing country with a standard of living much lower than my own. In Peru, people get paid a lot less to perform the exact same jobs done in California. Money, and the monetary value placed on things, is an arbitrary thing — a fact that gets magnified by travel. Why is a nice salmon dinner, or a 15-minute Uber ride, four times less expensive in Lima than in Los Angeles? Is there no inherent worth in an object, a meal, a service?
A couple weekends ago, I visited Machu Picchu. That was fun! On our way back, we made sightseeing stops at traditional working cooperatives — the first a famed salt mine boasting more than 5000 salt evaporation pools, the second a textile co-op that handmade clothes and household goods from sheep and alpaca wool. I loved learning that these traditions were still very much alive — but was also taken back by the backbreaking labor involved.
Why does beautiful traditional work also have to be so grueling, taxing on the body, and ill-compensated? Take the salt-making process, for example. While I took in the sights, locals worked — manually scooping salt into baskets with their bare hands, then lugging each basket to a drying area, just to return to scoop more salt and repeat the process again, again, again.
The handmaking of cloth isn’t easy either! Even if the wool’s already been shorn, there’s the grating of a root with soap-like properties to lather up with water to wash said wool, then the long process of hand spinning of that wool into yarn, then the dyeing of the yarn with everything from crushed insects to crushed leaves to get the desired color, then the hand weaving of the yarn into cloth — a process that takes weeks to months. In the end, you have a single blanket — that has to compete in a global market in which machines spit out imitations in minutes.
This work, this way of living, seems rough to me. But then what do I know? Perhaps these artisans love what they do — have pride in their traditions, their crafts, the sense of ownership and purpose provided by the co-op structures.
A few years ago, I read Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, which investigates what makes so many of us unhappy today, and what changes we could make as a society to get happier. Near the end of the book, Johann gives the example of bicycle technicians who used to work at a shop owned by a corporation — then banded together to create a bike co-op, jointly owned by the workers. Even though in either situation the workers basically did the same tasks — fixed bikes, mostly — they were happier at the latter because they owned their work. They had a greater sense of agency and purpose.
Today, people are often encouraged to turn their passions into a living — basically by monetizing those things they enjoy doing. Do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life, we’re told. Problem is, passions often don’t pay. And even when they do manage to eke out a living, that can come at the cost of sucking all the joy and pleasure out of the original passion.
When I think about the billions of amazing, unique people around the world — all of us spending many of our waking hours performing jobs we ultimately don’t care about — I wonder, aren’t our lives worth more than this?
But capitalism’s also taught us all too well. It’s taught us to feel guilty for not being grateful simply to have jobs.
Tell me: How do you feel good about the things you do for money?
Three links you might love:
People are quitting and they’re not taking jobs. What I’m wondering is, how are people planning to make this work financially over the long term?
We’re quitting because we’re smart. Lindsay makes the case for quitting in a video for The New York Times.