Earlier in the summer, while picking up trash on a beach near where I live, I had a revelation: Engaging in this rather mundane activity was the most useful I had felt in a while. The idea was both unsettling and freeing at the same time.
We’ve all been spending more time lately on activities that feel immediately useful: cooking meals, moving our bodies, making and mending things, growing gardens, and — like me with the beach rubbish — serving as stewards of the places where we live.
But while the litter-picking was initially a way to fill my time during the long pandemic summer, it also got me thinking about the very notion of how I spend my time. In February, right before the world fell apart, I was diagnosed with burnout. I had been working too hard, and despite taking some time off, I didn’t have a strong sense of how I was going to avoid repeating the cycle again in the future.
Then the pandemic added another layer of context. As our attention collectively went to our more elemental needs in lockdown, I wondered about the point of spending my days nestled behind a screen, furiously making myself look ever more successful and important to other people nestled behind their own screens. Where was I headed?
Ambition means different things to different people, but in the capitalist framework I am talking about, I think its defining feature is its linear trajectory. Think of all the highly driven and ambitious people you know working long after their basic needs are met: Are they ever “done” or satisfied with where they’ve ended up and ready to call it quits on achieving? Of course not. Ambition is an unquenchable thirst.
Facing a world that seems to get worse by the hour, an urgent climate emergency that is certain to dismantle our global supply chains in a way that makes Covid-19 look quaint, and a new understanding of how to live at a slower pace, we have to ask: Does following our personal and narrowly defined ambition, at the cost of all other skills and possibly our own health, make much…