No Need

What would you do if there was no need for you to do anything?

This isn’t a simple question to answer. It’s also a question that’s increasingly relevant, not because we’ll all be able to stop working any time soon, but because it can help us determine how to spend our time, now, within our current systems and circumstances.

For many people, the answer to the question of how to spend one’s time when one needn’t work is predicated on current, everyday realities. We imagine that we’d do all the things we currently do when we don’t have to work: vacations, drinks, watching Netflix, hanging out with our significant others, playing sports.

We might also expand our horizons a bit, thinking through all the things we’ve always told ourselves we’d do, if we only had more time: learning to play guitar, roadtripping the US, going on that Vipassana retreat.

The trouble with that approach to this question, though, is that what we currently do when we’re not working, not trying to earn money to pay the bills, may not make as much sense in a theoretical future in which that work, that daily money-earning struggle, is no longer a thing we need to worry about.

Our perception of what we would do if we had all the options in the world, in other words, might not make as much sense to us if we had all the options in the world.

This isn’t to say that we wouldn’t want to spend time with our loved ones or go to the beach. But it does mean that we would almost certainly, at some point, have our fill of such things: they won’t be rarities, they will be the default. So the question becomes, what do we do beyond that default? What guides our actions, our habits, our norms?

There’s been a little bit of research conducted on what happens to people after they become wealthy—after they earn enough money to, theoretically at least, never have to work again—and the data collected seems to indicate that the main challenge, post-work, is not actually work-related, it’s purpose-related.

Most of us, currently, find a great deal of purpose in our work. And that’s true even if we don’t particularly care for what we do, because the work itself isn’t the point: earning money, which allows us to support ourselves and our loved ones in a system that requires such resources, is the point.

When that foundation is pulled away—when we needn’t work to survive, to thrive—it can feel like there’s a gap in our lives, in our perception of self, of value, of the point of it all.

It’s inside this gap that we’re forced to consider what other purposes we might serve, what other causes we might take up. And for many of us, for all kinds of reasons, this is not something we’ve ever had to truly consider.

This is partly the case because this thought process can be uncomfortable, bordering on harrowing.

This discomfort is in part the result of a sudden parallax shift that leads to the intense utilization of atrophied mental muscles.

If you’ve never been asked who you are, what you stand for, what purpose you serve, beyond the money you earn and the role you play in the economy, there’s a good chance you don’t have a fulfilling answer. As a consequence of that lack, you may feel empty or useless. You won’t actually be empty or useless, of course, but it can feel that way.

Your relationship with time also might change under such circumstances, due to the abundance of it you suddenly have available.

I’ve never been wealthy enough that I haven’t had to work, but I do have the good fortune to be able to, more or less, spend my time as I see fit. And when I first realized I’d managed to make that happen—to have that dominion over my time—I experienced a moment of happiness, followed by a few weeks of feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.

How would I spend my time, now that I had plenty of it? Who was I now that I wasn’t defining myself in terms of the money I was earning, or the professional prestige I had accumulated?

This is what we might call a luxury problem, but it’s still a problem. Those first few weeks of having essentially unlimited time to spend on whatever I liked were the least productive weeks of my life. Paralysis by analysis is real, and when everything is an option, doing less than ever before—not in a pleasurable way, but in a depressed, bored, uncomfortable way—becomes a real possibility.

It was only when I managed to reorient myself toward what I truly believed in—what I really cared about, foundationally, and beyond any particular job or project—that I was able to right the ship and start moving again. I was able to get back on a path that seemed worth walking, once more; one that I was building as I walked it, but also one that gave me a sense of structure and direction, and a feeling of satisfaction from the things I accomplished along the way.

It’s possible that this won’t be a process most of us ever have to go through, for better and for worse.

But it’s also possible that economic innovations like a guaranteed basic income, technological innovations like advanced AI and manufacturing technologies, and/or social innovations like new governmental systems that are able to ameliorate scarcity in some way, could emerge within our lifetimes.

At that point, when there’s no need for us to continue living as we live, we’ll be forced to ask ourselves these difficult questions. And I strongly suspect that many of us won’t be ready: won’t be prepared to face a world without pre-built, pre-assigned, inherited purpose and routine.

Thinking through such things ahead of time can prepare us for that moment, if it does arise, regardless of what shape it takes. But it can also help us figure out how to live, what work to do, how to spend our time, today, when all of these things are still finite; at a moment in which we have fewer choices, but choices, nonetheless, which we can and must make every single day.

Our spectrum of options isn’t entirely within our control, of course, but the choices we make from those available to us can nonetheless serve us, or drain us, depending on how we approach them, and how much responsibility we take for them.

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