Tiny Revolutions №88: The Pathless Path
+ taking the time to live is the work ✨
For today’s issue, I asked my buddy Paul Millerd to answer some questions. Paul has been writing about our changing relationship to work for years now, and he recently published a book called The Pathless Path that I wish had existed many years ago when I was flailing and trying to find my way to a life and career I loved. Hope you enjoy our chat. - SC
Hey Tiny Revolutions readers! I've been a big fan of Sara's writing for a while so I'm flattered she asked me to write about her last newsletter. She mentioned that many people took note of a specific line: “Many people I know desperately want to quit their jobs and just lie down for an undefined period of time.”
I found this line interesting because it reminded me of something I’ve been reading about in China called the “lying flat” movement:
“The “lying flat” movement calls on young workers and professionals, including the middle-class Chinese who are to be the engine of Xi Jinping’s domestic boom, to opt out of the struggle for workplace success, and to reject the promise of consumer fulfillment.”
If there’s one thing I’ve realized in my years of writing about work and talking to hundreds of people about their relationship to work, it’s that no one seems immune, the Chinese included. People across all cultures, income levels, and family upbringing have come to me with similar concerns.
“Something feels off and I don’t know what to do about it.”
The pandemic served as an existential opening for many to start pondering how work became so central in our lives. A couple of months into the pandemic, I was flooded with people wanting answers.
SC: Tell me about The Pathless Path. How did you come to write it?
PM: The Pathless Path emerged out of those conversations and my own curiosity, sparked by my own exit from traditional employment in 2017. While I had intentions to become a freelance consultant after quitting, I was overwhelmed with how different my life felt when I wasn’t doing what most other people were doing: working full-time, most days, in an office.
As I started to dive into the history of work, experiment with different ways of orienting my life, and share what I was learning. People slowly started paying attention and then during the pandemic many more. By the end of 2020 people started asking me, “book, when?”
There's much ado about "The Great Resignation" at the moment. Did you see it coming?
This might surprise you but I think the framing of "The Great Resignation" is off. It seems like a successful media narrative that has helped generate clicks but doesn’t really get to the heart of what’s happening. The “great resignation” framing suggests there is a massive exit from employment happening. It’s not clear that’s the case. Many people are quitting of course, but nothing more than you’d see in past periods of economic growth, and many people are shifting to better or different jobs. On top of that, part of the labor force shift has come from boomers who used the pandemic as an excuse to finally retire.
When polled, most people say they like their jobs. You can argue that people have no choice but let’s just assume that people are telling the truth. Many people I talk to, in fact, say that their jobs have improved — working from home has dramatically improved their life.
Going deeper, however, I do there is a much more interesting shift happening. Before the pandemic when I talked to people about work, there was a lot of shame attached to the conversation. In many cases, people would share with me and tell me that they were too scared to tell even their spouses about these thoughts. Now, I sense people like Sara and many more people, are willing to have conversations about work. Previous generations resisted these conversations forcefully. Part of this was survival — there weren’t great alternatives to traditional employment. That’s no longer the case and people are starting to wake up to it.
What do you say to people who are feeling hopeless about their careers at the moment?
When I tell people about starting to reimagine their relationship and experimenting with life in new ways, I always say the same thing: it might get worse before it gets better. Before I quit my job, I did what many people do, I tried to keep moving from job to job — hoping that the next one was that coveted dream job. Then I’d feel better.
What I was really doing was orienting myself in a way where work was the most important thing in my life. This is high stakes! With work as the central organizing principle of my life, the most important things were to always be progressing, improving, and achieving.
One thing that’s helped me is to step back and try to define what work really is. This has enabled me to shift away from simply seeing work as something that comes with a paycheck towards it as any sort of activity worth doing.
When I left my job I thought I wanted to escape work. I had a dream of just working less and minimizing the things I do. In the space that emerged, I fell in love with writing, and in the process of writing my book, I had a realization: the real work of our lives is simply continuing to search for the things that bring us alive. Once we find them, the whole game is to set up our lives such that we can keep doing them.
Any advice you can share for someone who wants to take the first step to get off the default path in life?
After quitting my job, I traveled around the world and met many people who had also left traditional jobs behind. Some of these people were “financially free” but we all had something in common — we all still had the basic human desire to contribute, to feel useful, and to do things that help us connect with ourselves and the world.
And that’s the key: we don’t really want to escape work. We just don’t like the constraints, demands, and false performance of what most of society currently deems as the work worth doing — a full-time job.
The choice then is to define our own relationship to work and to broaden the conception of work to be something that is much larger than a paycheck.
Which reminds me of the David Whyte quote (From “The Heart Aroused”):
We might at first label the body’s simple need to focus inward depression. But as we practice going inward, we come to realize that much of it is not depression in the least; it is a cry for something else, often the physical body’s simple need for rest, for contemplation, and for a kind of forgotten courage, one difficult to hear, demanding not a raise, but another life.
And luckily, “another life” does not mean escaping work or having to leave full-time employment. I’ve found over and over again one thing people really want: rest, contemplation, and a chance to disconnect from the “worker” mode. Over and over again the almost guaranteed way to do this is by taking a minimum one-month sabbatical. And if you can do anything for your career, this is the thing worth shifting mountains to make happen!
How has the reaction to your book been so far? I'm curious about what you've found surprising and not surprising.
It’s doing way better than I expected! By the end, the words of my book felt like mush to me and I really had no idea what people would think. But I put my heart into it, wrote something that I think is unique, and people in a wide range of situations (full-time workers, stay-at-home parents, retirees, fellow creators) all find something that resonates with their lives.
The most surprising thing that’s happened is that people are using my book as an excuse to start conversations. One person hosted a career crisis party at Harvard, another friend brought my book to a tech meetup in Boston, and others have requested copies to give away to friends in Mexico City, California, and Indonesia among others. This is so cool because it’s a conversation I want to be part of. I want to help people thrive and build a better relationship with work.
Who do you think most needs your book?
I don’t think anyone needs my book but to the hyper-curious, internet-savvy, and slightly discontent or frustrated young adult, my book seems to be a friendly companion.
Thanks to Paul for sharing his perspective. You can buy The Pathless Path here, and you can also subscribe to his newsletter, Boundless, which I also highly recommend, especially if you’re going through a transition.
On to some things I found worth sharing this week.
The Zen Masters Say…
You will never be satisfied until you say “yes” to yourself. Way-mind comes from that area. Each individual has spent many lifetimes’ effort just to reach this life. You are continuing this effort, as the last chance to see how far you can go toward your own self. That kind of self we have got, each of us.
- Kobun Chino in Embracing Mind
Life likes people to be flexible so it can use them for what it seeks to accomplish.
- Charlotte Joko Beck in Everyday Zen
Vivid, living energy is constantly at work, creating and supporting your life. It is just like a fire that is eternal and boundless. Whoever you are, your life is very precious because the original energy of life is working in your life.
- Dainin Katagiri in The Light that Shines Through Infinity
A Dangerous Kind of Suffering
If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering—the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.
Great read from Brené Brown on The Midlife Unraveling.
Taking the Time to Live is the Work
I’m working on integrating the idea of “less prep, more presence,” which is one of adrienne maree brown's visionary tenants in Emergent Strategy. What I’m really working through is a lot of dominant culture conditioning, self-consciousness and deformed notions of validation and worth stemming from many forms of dysfunction, but most recently, my years of navigating predominantly white institutions and always feeling as if I had to justify my existence within them. Even though I deserve this time away, I still feel like I have to prove it by sharing what I’m doing with it. But taking the time to live is the work. Recognizing that being intentional about caring for myself, even in the moments I’m not reading or writing, talking to all my various editors or thinking about the podcast, is the work. This salad is the work.
In Sounds from Way Out
Two cool websites: one that gives you a bank of ambient ocean noises and one with some other sounds from nature. Try mixing sounds for the relaxing soundscape of your choice. (via Hand-picked by Alex Steele.)
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