On wasting your talent to quit your job and live simply by the mountains – thoughts on Lean Out

“To survive our crazy world, I had to reject its most crazy-making elements. I leaned out from the culture of overwork, always-on devices, social media, consumerism. In service of leaning further in to my city, my community. And to all those things that make life worth living.”

Lean Out by Tara Henley

I recently read Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, Tara Henley’s exploration of alternatives to hectic modern living and the trap of scaling a career ladder, pushing yourself to work more hours, and feeling the pressure to keep going to fund a lifestyle that keeps inflating.

In many areas Tara confirmed options that I already knew – spending less time on our phones, being frugal, pursuing financial independence and retiring early, living closer to nature, and building a tribe around us.

At the end of the book, however, Tara opts in favour of balance where she is. She returns to the newsroom she’d fled after hitting burnout but this time with more equilibrium: aiming for more holiday days and sleep and less overtime and stress.

She says one thing that stuck with me (probably because of the mention of Mary Oliver):

“The world, it seemed, probably didn’t need another person who lived simply on B.C.’s Gulf Islands and Instagrammed Mary Oliver poems, lovely as that would be (“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”). Just like it didn’t need another self-help book on how to find nirvana through cold showers and bulletproof coffee. Sigh.”

Lean Out by Tara Henley

Hmm. I’m all in favour of blooming where you are, but would the world really be so bad if we lived in a way that modern society didn’t need? If more people stopped polluting the planet with two-hour commutes, a frenetic pace of living, and excessive consumption to try and pacify the gaps we’re missing?

Sure, we can’t all disappear to islands, forests, or mountains. And we don’t want a nation of professional Instagrammers.

If Covid has taught us anything, it’s the jobs that are crucial to the running of society. We owe everything to the people who help us to live healthy, clean, educated, and safe lives.

But Covid has also confirmed the jobs that aren’t really all that important. This is a criticism of my own line of work as much as anyone else’s.

A bit about pointless jobs

Working in B2B marketing, I trundled into my office each morning to use my words and ideas to sell more software. Did it protect lives? No. Did it make anyone’s life easier? Maybe. But I wasn’t exactly saving the world by any stretch of the imagination.

One criticism of the millennial generation, also alluded to in Lean Out, is how we’re encouraged to think that our job is of utmost importance.

As a VP of Social Media or Chief Revenue Officer or whatever else, we feel like we have to give it our all. Heaven forbid we forget to send an email or miss a message outside of work hours or have to leave early one day for an inexcusable reason like family or health.

We’re made to feel like our jobs are of national security-level importance – and that works out very well for the people who profit financially. It means we’ll probably work overtime, prioritise work ahead of other things, and give everything we’ve got to what we’re being paid to do. Even if that’s at the expense of other things in our personal lives.

Now, many people love their work. They know they’re great at it and feel satisfaction at the end of the day.

But is it really a waste of talent if someone else needs less money to be happy and chooses a quieter life instead?

Pointless jobs that aren’t so pointless

In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Liz Gilbert writes about how her job as a writer is pretty useless from many perspectives.

“You would be hard-pressed to identify a job that is not objectively more valuable to society than mine. Name a profession, any profession: teacher, doctor, fireman, custodian, roofer, rancher, security guard, political lobbyist, sex worker, even the ever-meaningless ‘consultant’ – each is infinitely more essential to the smooth maintenance of the human community than any novelist ever was, or even will be.”

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

But, she adds, “I do not find this truth to be dispiriting. On the contrary, I find it thrilling. The fact that I get to spend my life making objectively useless things means that I don’t live in a postapocalyptic dystopia. It means I am not exclusively chained to the grind of mere survival. It means we still have enough space left in our civilization for the luxuries of imagination and beauty and emotion – and even total frivolousness.”

Writing isn’t going to help heal someone’s lungs, sure. But it can heal other things. Books have helped me through every aspect of life – growing up, loneliness, depression, anxiety, healing after trauma, coming to terms with being different.

Likewise, music helped me to become who I am now. Art has enabled me to acknowledge some of the countless forms of beauty in our world.

Anyone who has protected or nurtured nature – professionally or just personally, picking up a piece of litter or planting a tree – has helped me to retreat into our planet’s wild corners and feel more whole again. A person who plants flowers for the bees to enjoy or a tree in their garden is caring for our futures.

Stepping away from the go-to modern way of contributing your talent to a high-pressure corporation and instead pursuing a quieter way of life shouldn’t be seen as failure. And in terms of contribution, you might end up giving more, not less, to the world.

Creating your own balance of leaning in and out

My alternative to Tara Henley’s conclusion, at least for my own life, is a bit different. I don’t want to stay in the rat race, no matter how much balance I try to cultivate. That can work for some people, but it’s not how I want to contribute to the world, even if it often feels like I should.

My version is stepping away from the frantic pace of “normal” life and pursuing a slower way of being, while still contributing my gifts and ideas to the world from wherever I end up. For me, that’s through my writing work.

That’s what it should be about – finding your version of how much you want to lean in and out.

Whether it’s Big Tech or barista or part-time or retired, you choose the mix based on where you are in life, what you want, and what you need.

You get to choose which talents you contribute and how you do that.

You have more control over your own life than you might think.

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