Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The devil’s sweatshop

You know that story about the fisherman and the entrepreneur? The bright young MBA comes upon a fisherman on the beach, drowsing and reading in the shade of a coconut tree, beside his rod and a catch bucket in which there are two measly fish. What a waste of time and opportunity, he thinks, and decides to help the guy out.

“You’re never going to get anywhere like that,” he says to the fisherman. “Why don’t you work harder?”

“Why?” asks the fisherman.

“If you caught more fish to sell, you could save some money,” explains the MBA.

“And then?” says the fisherman.

“Then you could buy a second boat, and hire an assistant.”

“And then?”

“Then, if you continued to work hard, you’d catch double the fish.”

“And then?”

“Then if you keep working hard, you could save more money to buy even more boats and hire even more people. It’s called growing your business.”

“And then?”

“Then you could work hard to catch even more fish to sell, so you could save even more money!” says the MBA irritably, wondering whether this guy even has a brain.

“And then?”

“And then you’d be made—you could retire, go live in some nice place and relax, eat great food, and do nothing much!”

“Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?” asks the fisherman.

Pico Iyer has a lovely essay called ‘The Joy of Less’ in the New York Times (June 10, 2009). It’s on the much-pared down life he lives in Japan following a high-octane career in journalism. “I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack”, he writes; “[…] at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did.” He concludes that “happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued” and that “If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies.”

The simple life is something that the world discovered around the time that everyone started to have to clean out their offices. Before the Great Crash of 2008 it just wasn’t done to sit around enjoying your life, choosing minimum rations of work and money for the pleasure of spending your time smelling the daisies. If you weren’t busy—really busy, so busy it gave you ulcers and left you no time to do anything other than work—then baby, you were a waste of space.

Now that things have gotten so pervasively hairy in the world of business that there are few problem-free places left to migrate to, suddenly everyone is going on about how passé all that is, and how they would really much rather have the time with their kids—though I suspect that as soon as the economy regains a bit of colour in its cheeks, everyone will dive straight back into researching which new phone they can now afford to replace their perfectly good phone that works fine.

Meanwhile, as far as I’m concerned, the more of us hanging about not consuming too much, the better for the planet—even if you don’t buy the argument that it could even be good for your soul.

No comments: