“I’ve got a meeting with a new client on Tuesday.”

I was talking to someone I trust about an impending business opportunity.

“I’m reading about the project tomorrow to see if it sounds interesting,” I continued. “I’m already over capacity. But I’ve been thinking and I don’t want to grow the business.”

A confused look on the listener’s face. I feel self-indulgent, privileged and entitled. So I carry on justifying myself.

“I don’t spend a lot, and I’m happy with what I’ve got. So instead of growing the business, I need to decide whether I want to keep all my clients because they’re all important to me, or whether to choose one or the other, based on how much of an impact I think the project can make.”

From my perspective, it’s an enviable position. I can pick-and-choose the project that sounds most interesting because I’m already doing ok for money. I get to decide if I work more or not.

So the response surprised me. 

“Well – I think maybe it would be easier to decide if you had a goal… like if you wanted a bigger house or a new car, then you’d have a reason to grow the business.”

What we’re conditioned to strive for

The response didn’t annoy me. I know that it comes from wanting the best for me. And I fully understand that having a goal like that would make things easier in some ways. It would provide a wonderful distraction – another target to work towards for months or years, only to arrive and realise it didn’t actually fill any emotional void, and that it now needed to be replaced with another distraction.

Moreover, I’m not annoyed because the response reflects how we’ve been conditioned to think as a society. 

Don’t have a goal? Set one, they say. You need goals. They keep you productive. And you need to be economically productive to be of value – literally and metaphorically. 

But the goals that we’re used to setting are mostly about money. ‘I want to grow my business’. ‘I want a new car’. ‘I want to save for retirement’. 

Goals that aren’t money-oriented are frivolous –

  • Learning for learning’s sake is self-indulgent
  • You can only travel the world for so long before you have to ‘get back to reality’
  • Searching for inner peace is flaky 

In fact, until retirement comes along, it’s seen as self-indulgent – even immoral – to have a goal that wilfully reduces your economic productivity. 

Working less? Out of choice? 

“When other people are struggling for work?”

That’s for the lazy. The layabout. The bad citizen. 

At least, that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe.

What if we flipped it?

The conditioning is so ingrained, it’s a real feat of mental acrobatics to think about how it could be aspirational – even morally right –  to reduce our economic productivity.

Why is that?

Well, we’ve been taught that: 

  • For us all to be happy, we need the country to work well
  • For the country to work well, we need the economy to work well
  • For the economy to keep working, we’ve got to be productive
  • For us to be productive, we’ve got to keep working

Therefore – if you don’t work, you’re immoral. You’re ruining our collective happiness.

But does this logic really stack up? Because generally we have economic growth year after year, but we’re also seeing increasing inequality, massive tax evasion, decimated health and social care systems, increasingly divisive politics, and worsening mental health. 

Economic growth is simply not leading us to happiness.

And yet there’s already more than enough money in the world to pay for everything we need.

So more economic growth isn’t the answer. Better governance and economic justice is. And working more simply won’t make that happen.

The bravery of aspiring to less

Let’s face it, it’s going to be a long road to making that happen.

The richest in society are unlikely to change their mind any time soon and abandon the economic system. 

So maybe it’s down to us to make change happen through small acts of our own.

And maybe that starts with those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford to work less. And maybe there are more of those than we think.

And maybe we won’t feel like we’re depriving ourselves if we learn to want less.

Maybe reducing some of that pressure on ourselves to generate more, to earn more, and to spend more, could free up time for us to work on things that aren’t money-oriented.

After all – we already accept that ‘the best things in life are free’. So why do most of us spend the majority of our waking life earning money?

Maybe ‘aspiring to less’ is the key to having time to work on our body, our mind, our family, our knowledge, and even our happiness.

Maybe that means that ‘aiming lower’ is actually – in another sense – aiming higher, just with less money.

But learning to not want as much – in spite of all the pressures to do so – is the opposite of something a lazy person would do. Given the armies of people that work hard to make us want stuff, it’s actually really bloody hard. Not to mention that you’ll probably be judged as having ‘given up’, or having ‘failed’ at life, by many of those around you.

So maybe, just maybe, deciding you want to become less economically productive isn’t the same as being a layabout.

Maybe it’s actually a major achievement to learn how to do it.

Maybe passing up opportunities for work that you don’t need opens up opportunities for others who do.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s actually being a good citizen.

Maybe, just maybe, a partial withdrawal from the system can actually shake things up.

Maybe it all begins with figuring out goals that don’t depend on money. 

Maybe it all begins with ‘aspiring lower’ – at least in the traditional sense – and being proud of it.

Photo: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash