“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention” says Sean Penn’s character in Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — a  beautifully shot character adventure that contains some wonderfully profound moments.

“Free man is by necessity insecure; thinking man by necessity uncertain.” — Erich Fromm

We live in strangely disturbing times. We have so much material comfort yet live with more anxiety and less realized time than ever in human history. We’re working harder and longer hours again. We seek constant attention and stimulus. Even our children run and play on scheduled time.

James Borgman’s wonderfully satirical editorial cartoon sums up how society is robbing even that very precious time we have as children.

How is this possible in a post-feudal world where we’re no longer subject to a caste system or burdened by obvious racial and gender inequality*? Where technology supplies us with a wealth of free information and much improved standards of living? Where we have political freedom and equal opportunity in a supposedly economic meritocracy? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that this “earned” system also naturally implies that in failing to have success (at least on society’s terms) we’re weak, lazy or incompetent and fully deserve our failure and misfortune. Even under the gross assumption that the system is free from fraud and corruption, it leaves out people less fortunate or have skills that aren’t “marketable” — that is, those whose abilities have no obvious economic viability. How can individuals left out of the game possibly feel secure? How can they possibly attain happiness?

Status anxiety. This documentary by School of Life creator Alain de Botton aptly describes the state of our consciousness in modern times.

But even those of us who can apparently “survive” in this system can’t seem to attain any sort of sustained happiness because this monetarily-driven and machine-like system has, in less than a full century, completely penetrated and altered our way of thinking and living as sentient beings. For example, we’re all now defined by not who we are, but what we do for work and what we have. The very first words after the introduction of names often comes our occupation; “I’m a doctor” or “I’m an animator.” We don’t say that we’re Irish or come from Africa or that we’re a “father” or a “sister,” or that we like to cook or do pottery. We describe ourselves as we would describe machines — this is an oven or that is a stereo — that is, by their productive purpose. We take every element of our humanity out of how we identify ourselves. We are so rushed that everything including our interactions with ourselves and others is based on economy rather than significance.

“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” —Stephen Covey

Now work is clearly important. We need work to survive and allow us to create, contribute and connect to the world around us. But when it becomes merely a means of production, it loses its greater value. We forget that work is only a means of expressing our individuality and our societal contribution. Goals of economic production on the other hand, are mostly about efficiency, effectiveness and maximizing profit margins. That is fine for the owners of capital (investors) or incentive-linked managers who often have no intimate knowledge or connection to either the end product (widgets) or the people involved (widget makers) but it does alter the state of the worker. When valued only for productive capacity, it’s not difficult for an employee to feel exploited, disconnected and disoriented from the entire purpose of work. If not careful, workers will also begin to alienate themselves from the process and view themselves as mere widget makers evaluated with the same measuring stick —namely by the consistency, quantity and turnover time of their work.

Are humans merely just stand-ins until machines can completely do all the work that we need? In Hefei China, robots both cook and deliver food, replacing both line cooks and wait staff. Image from Business Insider.

Is it no wonder image and material possession have so much pull on our psyche? In a fully-accepted capitalistic universe, our productive capacity (work/career status) becomes tied to our sense of security and general worth as human beings. If we’re not productive or marketable, we’re not considered successful or even worthy. It’s tough to be different or left out.

“Any deviation from the pattern, any criticism, arouses fear and insecurity; one is always dependent on the approval of others…The sense of guilt, which some generations ago pervaded the life of man with reference to sin, has been replaced by a sense of uneasiness and inadequacy with regard to being different.” — Erich Fromm

It is Friedrich Nietzsche who famously said that God is dead and perhaps he is right. But in the absence of God (or spirituality) we created a new god. And today, that god is technology — technology that runs hand and hand with the corporate machine. We not only wonder at its brilliance but depend on its growth and mindlessly accept its dominance. We don’t dare doubt its cold, scientific rationale.

Most people aren’t aware that many hedge funds (which manage private money and that of pensions funds) are heavily run by machines. Almost 30% of stock trading within such portfolios are done at incalculable speeds by Quants (mathematical experts) using algorithmic super computers (i.e. trades made without human intervention). Image from the Wall Street Journal

While we humans are not machines and think that we’re masters of our own invention, we’re now entering an era where it’s possible that we won’t have full control of where technology might head. More and more we work with machines rather than tell machines what to do. We don’t doubt or blame a system not well designed for humanity but blame human beings for being inadequately trained to adapt to its systems or its ever-changing demands. When we blindly or passively accept a system that places financial profit over social development and environmental preservation we become alienated from the entire process of work. Things become abstractions —  interpreted in terms of numbers, rather than as concrete items or people. What happens to respect, trust or empathy? Is that new guy a potential tennis partner or another hire that is here to take our job? Is that an old woman with bad hands in front us in the grocery checkout or another thing in the way of our getting on with our much hurried day?

We must be willing to ask the ultimate question: are we here to make a world that’s a better place to live (i.e. to attain greater happiness) or one that simply produces more things faster? (i.e. to attain greater profit).

“No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” — Alan Watts

We are endlessly told by the business community and their like-minded pundits that any intervention or regulation of the capitalistic machine  — like supporting reasonable biological needs such as food, shelter and healthcare — is a danger to our society, that it will lead to economic ruin. We are told that we (society) can’t afford to lose time, that slowing down means having no ambition and that material progress must continue. We assume that heightened output equates to ultimate advancement of civilization.

Faster doesn’t guarantee success. From the Warner Bros’ cartoon Tortoise wins by a Hare by Tex Avery.

But of course, this struggle between economic growth and personal growth ultimately ends up hurting creative advancement and humanity as a whole. The strive for security prevents creatives from exploring outside of the box, where the greatest discoveries are made.  Financial gain has rarely been the true driving force of innovation. It has always been about need and passion.  A streamline corporate system on the other hand, demands consistency and conformity. It requires us to continually adapt to a technologically-advanced and robotic world, one that requires all of us to diligently go to our jobs on time, adapt to the tools in the system, obediently perform at an accelerated pace of effectiveness and produce consistently uniform products —products which we are to mindlessly and endlessly acquire, consume and replace (especially during “after-work” hours). It is most astounding that any creature, never mind supposedly intelligent beings, would stand even a week of living in such an abstract state of pointlessness. I am ceaselessly amazed at our species’ capacity to accept contradictory and irrational ways of thinking. That said, all of us (myself included) are susceptible and have been guilty as charged.

Control. Polish illustrator Pawel Kuczynski’s uses art to make a satirical statement of our times.

But for artists, this is unacceptable even at the slightest levels. A socio-economic system that requires continuous production and consumption depends on humanity to turn away from free-thinking independence, the very ingredients to creative output. Mass manufacturing means mass conformity not only in production but also in consumption because deviance in taste isn’t conducive to maximum profits. Is it any wonder everyone watches the same movies, eats the same food and wear the same clothes everywhere? Everyone and every company is looking for shortcuts. When we work for the sole reason of acquiring money, work loses itself as meaningful activity and no amount of coercion or managerial “pep” talk will cure the employed artist of his disinterest caused by immense time and quota pressures. I still remember once hearing a prominent CEO complain about animation “lacking soul” while his company ran one of the highest of production quotas in the industry. The level of ignorance can be astounding.

But when we do truly creative work we are deeply fulfilled and contribute to greater impact. And there are ways of doing things differently. I remember talking to a friend of mine whose business in Amsterdam employed all his staff, including the cashiers, with legally-binding two-year contracts. He noted it provided him with more freedom (since he didn’t have to be always present to manage them) while giving his own employees autonomy and a sense of importance. He also noted it limited the need for expensive continual training and allowed him to retain a knowledgeable and committed work force all the while delivering greater customer service for his clientele. Business need not be incoherent with human dignity and individual expression. This is important because how we work often permeates our entire being and way of living and not just during work hours.

” (For the craftsman) There is no ulterior motive in work other than the product being made and the processes of its creation. The details of daily work are meaningful because they are not detached in the worker’s mind from the product of the work. The worker is free to control his own working actions. The craftsman is thus able to learn from his work; and to use and develop his capacities and skills in its prosecution. There is no split of the work and play, or work and culture. The craftsmans’ way of livelihood determines and infuses his entire mode of living.” — C.W. Mills

One thing I’ve always loved about Glen Keane’s work was his dedication to the process. How and why he did things mattered as much as what he was doing. Image from Glen’s last short film Duet.

Now clearly, we  cannot change a global system of mindless work and consumption overnight but we can learn to accept a higher purpose to our existence; to advance our humanity by first restoring it, then continuing to create an environment in which it can flourish.  And we do that by learning to live with insecurity both in our work and in everything else in our lives. We can accept struggle and carry on with optimism and faith. We can take it one step at a time while giving full attention to how we do things.

“…we cannot feel secure about anything. Our thoughts and insights are at best partial truths, mixed with a  great deal of error, not to speak of the unnecessary misinformation about life and society to which we are exposed almost from the day of birth. Our life and health are subject to accidents beyond our control. If we make a decision, we can never be certain of the outcome; any decision implies a risk in the true sense of the word.  We can never be certain of the outcome of our best efforts. The result always depends on many factors which transcend our capacity of control. Just as a sensitive and alive person cannot avoid being sad, he cannot avoid feeling insecure. The psychic task which a person can and must set for himself, is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity, without panic and fear.” — Erich Fromm

*I’m referring to those of us not residing in third-world countries.