A couple of years ago, I saw a green-screen mannequin in the e-commerce studio of a famous New York department store. As a fashion model who enjoys her job and rather she kept it, this looked a bit dystopian to me at first. They are developing technology to superimpose faces and poses of models to pictures of clothes taken on a mannequin. But sometimes, when I’m stuck in my head after I’ve put on number 28 of my 40 looks for the day, I question my purpose in life. Maybe turning frontside and back all day long while the flash goes off has some weird existential effect on one’s psyche. But when I realise that there is a lot of us who struggle to find meaning in work, I wonder if the world might not be a better place if we stopped pretending work is as important and central to life as we do. And as much as I’m grateful for my job, might it not just make as much sense to let a green doll wear the clothes and pay the models for the rights to their faces?
Freelancing is a disorientating place to find yourself in when your whole life has led up to being an employee. When the money is low, it becomes hard to ride the wave of a ‘dry spell’, and even when it isn’t, waiting on a job whilst doing nothing for extended periods of time is not something I was ever taught in school. But without all that free time that I first quarrelled to fill with studies, pointless projects and all types of yoga, I wouldn’t have been forced to eventually understand the bliss of doing nothing and I wouldn’t be advocating for its importance. Be like me, laugh at a salad (or hang out with lemons for no reason).
Obviously, mine is a story of a privileged minority. Most people my age don’t get to travel the world whilst making a living. Their existential struggle and search for their purpose in life are played within a different setting. But I believe that the corporate world we live in and the culture, philosophy and anxiety that arise from it is the same for most of us. With the rise of the information sector, in a world run by corporate greed that seeks nothing out of humans but their most efficient productivity, work has become increasingly compartmentalised. Workdays can be dominated by menial and even bullshit tasks, often designed to fill up the time employees are getting paid for, which make it hard to keep ourselves connected or inspired to our own everyday life. We become exhausted and consumed by the tasks in front of us, not because they feel purposeful, but because that is what we are meant to do. And these obligations extend beyond the work sphere.
Our duties as consumers keep us keeping up with the latest trends in fashion, TV and memes. Doing nothing is so unheard of that we’re actually having to pay someone to tell us how to be mindful or to force us to stay still in some fancy aromatherapy gong meditation class. All just because the competitive race for attention on social media has us fooled, thinking it’s necessary to post a picture of us doing yoga with a goat on our bum; or simply because we feel too guilty about lying in bed (or a garden) doing nothing instead.
Our generation has this nervous sense of urgency and competitiveness. We have replaced subcultures with an obsession for being our own boss and developing our ‘personal brand’. Doing what you want has been turned into: do something you’ve chosen (even if badly) and become a slave to it! It is part of my job description to promote myself on social media. Thus, in an effort to do my job properly, I occasionally posted about my gluten-free lifestyle and a couple of cute #ootd. Eventually, I realised that my lack of passion for curating my personality into an easily consumable commodity was holding me back. I tried to perk up my social media skills by promoting something I do rather than who I am. This resulted in a cute foodie Instagram account that I became obsessed with for a minute and led me to eating cold food for a good year (a small sacrifice for the perfect pic). To the grave disappointment of my forty-five followers, I haven’t posted anything on it since 2016.
So, whilst the marketing department of my business was failing, I found other ways to keep myself from doing nothing. I have explored a dozen types of exercise classes and at one point managed to keep a strict workout schedule for about a month – before finding something else to be mediocre at. I started a blog, bought a couple of cameras and a 100x120 cm canvas I never finished a painting on. My highlight was winning the local street bake off (against a bunch of overworked mothers and some 7-year-olds). Luckily, despite my resourcefulness for getting into hobbies, I eventually ran out.
I realised that I was basically running around like a headless chicken, straight into the darkness of a future built upon pointless time fillers that really didn’t seem to amount to anything I cared about. I was just masking my guilt of being unproductive and my fear of wasting my precious and energetic youth. I caught myself calculating what it was that I needed to earn in a year in order to buy a house, before I even knew what life I wanted to live, where I wanted to live it and what even for.
Now that I have a better idea of what it is that I want and what I’m living for, my dry spells feel less anxious. Not knowing how to pay the rent some months is still stressful, but it’s easier to manage without the added layers of guilt and confusion of feeling simultaneously exhausted and not productive enough. Now that my life is driven by meaning, doing nothing becomes an essential part of my life. It’s easier to ride the waves of busyness and boredom because there is an underlying feeling that it’s part of my experience as a human. Of course, as a musician, it’s naturally easier for me to value these experiences because they lend to inspiration for making music, but I like to think that this is something that should just be a normal part of being alive.
Doing nothing is the first step to stop doing (or doing less of) something that you don’t believe in, something that doesn’t inspire you, and to start figuring out what it is that you’d like to do. We can reunite with the unbelievably satisfying sensation of stroking our sheets in the morning; looking out the window and staring at people walking down the street not knowing that they are being watched; listening to the steps of the neighbour upstairs and getting lost imagining what they might be doing; and smelling the odd smell on the palm of your hand wondering where it came from.
After doing nothing for a while, we stop thinking of ourselves as productive beings and instead do things without even realising. Our minds become freely creative and the outcome does not even exist in our minds. We get caught between healing and the absurdity of the mind that takes us to wonderful unexpected places that have the potential to help us find joy in everyday life. When we do nothing, we think without trying to solve a problem, we move around without thinking of the way it affects our body, but simply move as we feel like.
It’s important to do nothing, but not just to rest and recharge your batteries in order to become more productive. We need more than that. We need boredom. It is important to disconnect from everything in the realm of capitalist productivity and to resist its appropriation of our joy. To allow ourselves to feel freely without having to engage with social media platforms that desperately seek our clicks and engagement in consumer culture. If instead we retreat into a world of our own more often, we can figure out the things that stimulate us naturally, inspire us and we want to engage with out of free will. Arguably, our relationships will gain a new depth as well.
Everyone sacrifices different things at work. Some, their authenticity; others, their values or their soul. A lot of people sacrifice their time and most of us our mental health. But what for? Most of us are tired of resisting capitalism, and honestly, engaging in consumer culture is still engaging in culture, and everyone needs to feel part of society. But a lot of us have a lot more of a choice than we make out to have.
There is so much emphasis on the morality of taking responsibility for your prosperity, but such little discussion about the moral importance of doing something you believe in instead of contributing to a machine in which you don’t. Perhaps we need robots to steal the stupid part of our jobs and for universal income to become a thing, so that we have more time for each other. But until then, we’ve just got to challenge the idea that we are only worthy as humans so long as we engage in a mountain of pointless activity. And for that, we’ve got to do a little more nothing.