Amateur Hour in Optimization Nation

I made a mistake when appointing the Most Relevant Onion Article By a Significant Margin […]

David Zahl / 11.19.15

I made a mistake when appointing the Most Relevant Onion Article By a Significant Margin in our 2014 year-end wrap-up post. I don’t regret the one we awarded the label (“Area Child Disappointed to Learn Parents’ Love Unconditional”). It stands up. The runner’s up were pretty solid as well, “I’m Sorry, But You’re Just Not the Man I Hoped You Would Become When I Married You” and “Man’s Insecurities Versatile Enough To Be Projected Onto Any Situation”.

The problem isn’t so much what was included as what wasn’t. Because the headline I’ve gotten by far the most mileage out of this year in talks, sermons and articles is “Laid-Back Company Allows Employees To Work From Home After 6 PM”. Whatever the context, it always cracks people up–such is the ubiquity of American workaholism, or at least, the cult of productivity.

The article sprang to mind once again the other day when reading Amanda Hess’s article in The NY Times Magazine’s on another American cult, namely, “The Cult of The Amateur”. Her focus is the field of Republican presidential nominees, but the implications are more bi-partisan:

ra145-1114Since 1990, most Americans have told Gallup that we get our sense of purpose through our work, but in recent years we also say that we hate our jobs, which must mean on some level that we hate ourselves. Amateurs get their name from the Latin amator, or ‘‘lover,’’ and we turn to them to model a type of work freed from the constraints of the workplace. Win or lose, Ohio State’s football players end their games by rushing to the end zone, joining arms and belting the school’s alma mater with the crowd… We suspect that traditional politicians have been squeezed by special interests, filtered through focus groups and massaged by advisers before being cleared to approach the podium, whereas the amateurs saunter up to the stage and express who they really are.

The idea of effortless authenticity is so attractive that members of the American establishment have vied for more than a century to buy, cheat or counterfeit their way to amateur status. In 1732, Poor Richard’s Almanack circulated the Colonies as the work of ‘‘Poor’’ Richard Saunders, an amateur collector of factoids who dispensed common-sensical values and homespun wisdom. Runaway sales of the almanac series eventually turned its true publisher, Ben Franklin, into one of the Colonies’ wealthiest men…

0906089-auction-vmed-528p.grid-4x2The cult of the amateur has been completely absorbed into America’s corporate structure. Silicon Valley is built around tales of roving visionaries like Steve Jobs, the guy who dropped out of college, dropped acid and taught us all how to ‘‘Think Different’’ by buying the same electronic devices. Just as the definition of amateur was stretched to control college football players and market porn stars, the distinction between work and leisure has been blurred to recast professional employment as a labor of love. Tech companies coax employees to surrender their free time by styling their office complexes like playgrounds, complete with slides, communal beach cruisers and free frozen yogurt. And their technological innovations have helped the workplace enter the home, where workers are expected to refresh their email until they tuck their phones under their pillows and fall asleep. They’ve even created ways to help us flip our personal lives into professional opportunities: Our closets are now eBay boutiques, our hobbies Etsy shops, our apartments Airbnbs, our cars Ubers and our lunch hours TaskRabbit shifts.

You have to admire how slippery the cult of the amateur is. What sounds at first like something that dissents from productivity overlords is actually a way of paying them more tribute. And if that’s not an opening to relay part of the article I contributed to the Work and Play issue of our magazine (which was never posted on the site), I don’t know what is. We amateur culturo-theologians need to take all the opportunities we can get:

The cult of productivity is real, its demands are excessive, and its reach is expanding, nefariously so. And yet, despite the myriad infiltrations, it would be absurd to conclude that productivity itself is to blame. In order for a society to function—in order for an individual to survive—things do need to get done. Steps do need to be taken, calories burned, results produced.

waynesworldThe problem comes when productivity ceases to be a component of existence and begins to subsume existence itself. When we start to relate to other people (and ourselves) exclusively through the lens of proficiency and usefulness. When the work(s)-based mentality that our occupations rightly demand comes to dominate every other area of life. When it threatens to crowd out that most un-utilitarian of forces, which is love. Such instrumentalization is dehumanizing—the ensuing alienation even more so. We are not machines, after all. We are children.

So let us not scapegoat productivity (or capitalism). It is not some foreign force that preys upon unsuspecting men and women. Our culture may foster beneficial conditions, but the cult of productivity is so effective, and ironically enough, efficient, because of the foothold it finds inside every human heart, and always has. We love quantification because we love control. What is the allure of measurement if not the promise of personal dominion? That if I can study my chart I can manipulate its direction? This is the false promise of the law, which demands perfect adherence but cannot inspire it, which may in fact produce worse results. As with most attempts to control reality, the treadmill of “always-on” productivity ends up controlling us. The trajectory starts heading down, down, down, and we all know where it ends—not in the playground, but in the graveyard.

Fortunately, there are worse places to be than in a graveyard, surrounded by symbols of heavenly rest. Given the inroads made by the cult of productivity, we may find that the good news emblazoned on so many tombstones shines that much brighter—in particular the epitaphs of those who have been justified not by work(s) but by faith in the one who suffered the full weight of human failure, both moral and otherwise.


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