Thursday, February 12, 2009

Machines in the Zone

After several months of pursuing my own projects, I was forced into the drudgery of looking for a job. That drudgery was recently rewarded by a thoughtful stranger who happened to need my most developed professional skills for a few weeks, and I rediscovered the mindset that best works for me when in the employ of others: being “in the zone” and acting like a machine.

“In the zone” is a phrase a former co-worker used to describe the state of being totally focused on a task, to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve experienced this often, especially when writing or trying to meet any kind of deadline.

I feel most alive when I’m following my own guidance: asking and answering questions; exploring and having radically new experiences; being “in the moment” with someone I care about; or creating something molded from any or all of these. I feel least alive, like a machine, when I am doing something procedural, uninteresting, or totally controlled by someone else.

To be “productive” – that is, give a purchaser of labor the most output per unit of pay – we must to some degree function as machines, because the way we spend our time (what our employers are paying for) must be quantifiable and predictable. Anything we do when “at work” must be able to have a monetary value associated with it. Whatever we can do to turn out the most in the way of products or services (such as being in the zone) has the potential to be rewarded with higher pay, more work, or both.

In an economy designed to reward growth in transactions and punish activity that doesn’t result in such growth, most of us will find ourselves feeling less alive if we are really honest with ourselves. Because those of us lucky enough to have jobs must buy as well as sell, we will be pressured to act as purchasing machines when we’re not working for the privilege.

Since growth can not physically continue into the far future (or even, arguably, the not-too-distant future) without irreparable harm to ourselves and the biosphere we depend on for survival, we must learn to act less as machines and more as people. We will be rewarded with more life, taking back the control from others and both experiencing and sharing our own uniqueness as a “supply” that can’t be traded. The world will be rewarded by a lesser load on natural systems and a population of people who cares to integrate itself into the complexity of life rather than destroying that complexity in favor of a small number of uninteresting forms.

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