Why ambition is overrated

I used to be embarrassed by my lack of drive, until I realised that the strange moral value we place on overwork is sapping our lives of joy. 

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When I was 24, I left my permanent job of two years, my flat and my steady life in Ireland to move to London. I made the decision, booked my ticket, quit my job (a job I was probably going to get fired from anyway, thanks to my comically obvious lack of interest in it) and left, all in the same month. I quite suddenly upended my world, mostly because I was in love with a nervy, unpredictable artist who winced at my full-time admin role at a medical institution. This was probably because he was snobby and found it embarrassing to be sleeping with someone so ostensibly basic. I think he was puzzled by how well he got along with me, how long he could spend speaking to me, when I was, on paper, far more “normal” than the kinds of women he usually chose to spend time with.

But I think he also really did find it strange that I had to spend forty hours a week in a place I neither liked nor really contributed anything of value to – and being around him made me think it strange too. Being in love with him was terrible in many ways – the most painful thing that’s ever happened to me – but I will also never stop owing him my life. He was the first person to suggest to me that work wasn’t a thing I should accept unquestioningly, that I didn’t have to simply identify which place would give me the most money and then spend the rest of my life there.

When I moved to London, I temped for a year while I tried to figure out how to live. It was horrible of course, and so badly paid that I had to sprint from one side of central to the other to do double shifts to pay my rent, but I also secretly loved it. “Temping is my ideal career,” I wrote to a friend. “It’s impossible for you to be given any real responsibility, and you’re always the sexiest person in the office just by virtue of your novelty.” I loved that it had none of the psychological burdens of my old job: an unending awareness of all the incomplete tasks and unanswered emails and voicemails waiting for me at my desk, so that even a holiday was pierced by anxiety, and, close to the end, days of heavy dread.

I was a truly terrible temp, always arriving forty minutes late and swollen with the previous night’s wine. They kept hiring me because of my solid CV, and kept on being surprised that I utterly lacked the bright-eyed grasping of my peers, the other professionally experienced recent immigrant women who were all desperate to get a permanent job as soon as possible. It was too late for me; I had seen behind the curtain. I had once thought it impossible to abstract myself from the self-perpetuating dailiness of work, but I had proved myself wrong and would never be able to go back. I had to work because I had to live and I needed money to do so, but I had lost my ability to pretend that work was important to me, or that it held any meaning beyond financial necessity. I was free.

Of course, I have no children or dependents. Although I have no savings, inherited wealth, or parental contributions, nor do I have any financial obligations beyond my rent and bills. There are a thousand reasons why people in different circumstances to mine couldn’t afford to sack off work because they had a change of heart (poverty and dependents chief among them).

But those forced by socioeconomic circumstances aren’t the people I’m talking about when I criticise a culture of glorifying overwork. What I object to is the inverse of working for necessity: our culture of lionising additional, unnecessary work; all those hours of elective, yet somehow expected, overtime.

I am constantly amazed by the blasé professional assumption that everyone should work an hour later than they are contracted, and take ten minute lunch breaks at their desk (if at all). It’s not just city boys with a guaranteed gargantuan bonus who are subject to these expectations. In publishing and journalism, where starting pay is often poor, working for free is also a necessity, and rejecting it will have you labelled a brat. Decca Aitkenhead wrote disdainfully in the Sunday Times recently claiming millennial work ethic shot, and to prove it quoted a publishing boss huffing and puffing about not being able to get free work out of a young employee:

The young man pointed out that, according to his contract, his working day finished at 5.30pm. She observed that everyone generally stuck around until 6.30pm, sometimes even 7pm. This was a profession, not a job, she explained, and if he wanted to get ahead, he would need to put in the hours. He looked appalled: “What about my work-life balance? What about my mental health? If my contract had said I’d have to work that late, I’d never have taken the job.”

It’s a “profession, not a job”, which is another way of saying that not only will you give your boss free labour, but you’ll also thank them for the privilege. What I find most galling about this attitude is that it rarely has anything to do with what is actually being achieved. Individual workrates vary, and our productivity can’t be quantified purely by the time spent sat at a desk. It’s all appearances: being seen to leave late, miserably attacking another supermarket sushi pack at 8pm. It’s an extension of the patrician disdain toward the imagined idle classes, the idea that work isn’t just necessary but inherently morally virtuous, no matter what it is.

Halle Butler’s slim, acrid novel The New Me is a pleasingly cruel glimpse at the world of work and temping. The New Yorker has called it “a definitive work of millennial literature [...] wretchedly riveting.” Millie is 30, and still temping for $18 an hour minus commission, still dressing in not-quite-chic-enough starched shirts and tryhard blazers. Her life is a stagnating meaningless cycle of pleasureless drinking, thankless ingratiating at work, and hollow performative “friendship” with the one woman who spends time with her (and then only because Millie makes a good or at least willing audience for complaints). When the possibility of a permanent job arises, it seems as though at last she might have a chance at a real life. But even as she angles toward that new life, a permanent life, the dark awareness of just how empty it might be comes to the surface.

The New Me is an instant classic, horribly funny and angry; but what I loved it for most was its admission that work is not inherently meaningful, that it doesn’t have the automatic power to lend a life any dignity. This may sound like obvious stuff (who doesn’t moan about their job?) but even those who vocally resent their work will often simultaneously take satisfaction in how much it dominates their lives. Being busy is something to brag about, getting up at 5.30am is the mark of a life well lived. Capitalists must be made up that we’ve decided giving our employers all our time, much of it for free, is a marker of being canny, thriving, and forward thinking. As a result, not having a lot on is somehow embarrassing. What we do for work is the foundation of our identities, but how hard we work also defines our validity as people.

In big cities particularly, I notice that every new person I meet is manically interested in what I do, and how much of it. I used to be embarrassed by my lack of drive and murmur vaguely about projects and deadlines, but I’m quite happy now to admit the truth, which is that I have very little ambition and no desire to work any harder than I do now, which is honestly not very much. I’ve calculated fairly minutely how much work I need to do to in order to pay my bills and that’s the amount of work I do. No more. Sometimes I get it wrong and need to work much more than usual for a month or two, sometimes I have blissful unexpected mostly vacant weeks. I work about half as much as I did in Ireland, and earn about half as much money – which is fine with me because I’ve started seeing money not as a mark of achievement but as a cumulative display of all the days you’ve spent not doing what you’d like to be doing. I want freedom, not houses. I’d like more money, certainly, but not enough to give up all my time.

Some things I really like: eating a good meal, reading a book or a newspaper, seeing a film, having sex with my boyfriend, sleeping in until 11am. All either free or attainable for a reasonable cost, all things I can have every single week of my life without working all that hard. What I don’t like is work. Or rather, I like a little of it. About three hours a day, three days a week: that would be my ideal. Maybe one day I’ll get there. Now that’s ambition.

What do the strivers think they’re gearing towards, I wonder sometimes; those who snort at your sparse schedule, who have worked every weekend since Christmas and aren’t shy about saying so, those rise-and-grind capitalist fever dreamers. Where do they think they’re headed? What is the point of it all? Do they know how short our time here really is? There is total joy in letting yourself see how small you really are, absconding from the arrogance of contemplating legacy. Life seems to me nothing so much as a brief exercise in pleasure. And of course chasing pleasure can go terribly wrong, when you find it only in a bottle or a drug. But there are many ways to find pleasure in this world; not least amongst them idleness.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance