Eavesdropping on the rat race: a glimpse of a real world conversation
A bonus of writing One Empty Shelf is that I tend to spend a lot of time in coffee shops, drinking strong black filter coffee and taking a look around at who and what is surrounding me.
It’s an opportunity to people-watch, to wonder, to listen. And then to wonder some more.
Today I’m hearing a conversation between two uniformed retail managers about some poor unfortunate sod. What targets he’s beaten. How he’s leading the region, and leading it the wrong way. His tone of voice when he asked one of them a question. “In your honest opinion…” one of them leans in, making conspiratorial eye contact with the other, “…in your honest opinion…what do you think of him?”.
“If this doesn’t improve…” The second uniform begins, winding up for a long-awaited, luxurious management spiel. I look away. I’ve had those conversations. I’ve sat and believed and thought I was so important.
I catch the words ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘negative feedback’ ‘job profile’ and ‘team brief’, closely followed by ‘this is a priority’, surrounded by a cloud of negativity about the hapless employee, who is also apparently being negative. Hmm.
I remember being sucked into that world. That time when you absolutely can’t see any further than your own target sheet. When people are measured in percentages and budget allowances. When the value they bring isn’t linked to their soul, their being…it’s described in corporate wage spends and monitoring tick boxes. The amount of unpaid hours they’re willing to do that week. Their knowledge, their beliefs…it just doesn’t register. I thought that was normal. I couldn’t see anything else. At that time, there was no other way.
Opening my eyes
Minimalism, gradually, led me away from that world. Gladly, although I didn’t realise it at the time. Over time, I decreased my possessions, I changed how I thought and how I looked at people, the world, society. Slowly I came to realise I was rotting away, serving a corporation. To what end? For a low wage and excessive hours, whilst the CEO’s counted the money and the investment banking group that owned it grew ever more macabre. I was a cog in that mechanism, I was enabling it to continue.
Through minimising the items I owned and the clutter in my mind, I was able to start to see that there really was more to life. It’s a cliché that’s thrown about without much thought, I know. There’s more to life. And the rest of us look on and nod sagely and ignore it and continue with the 9-5, acknowledging that yes, there may just be more to life for some lucky people, but we have to work and pay the bills, thank you very much.
Surrounded by garish window displays and 70% off sales, I can see a little clearer now. There really is more to life than endlessly consuming.There is more to life than slogging away, being ‘appraised’ in a coffee shop by your bosses, only to have 2 days of freedom per week where you are able to spend what money you’ve earned on things you don’t need, just to feel something.
You can start to question your shopping. You can start to see patterns.you can cut down slowly or you can get rid of everything. You can continue to minimise or you can reach a point where you are happy. My journey started, all those years ago in my retail bubble. Something shifted and I knew that this didn’t feel right. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be following the management ‘dream’, just to look forward to a breakdown or a heart attack in my early 40’s. I didn’t want to continue to stare out of the window of my cubicle office in my next job, envious of the birds that skimmed past the windows of the high-rise, watching the sunrise and sunset from an air conditioned box.
What tell us that this is the way? Who dares to set out our lives like that?
I know minimalism isn’t for everyone. And it’s not supposed to be. The world would truly be deathly dull if everyone believed that there was only one way to live. And isn’t it getting that way? Really?
It’s endless…until it ends
We go to school. We get a job, or we go to college or university and then…get a job.
We work that job for 40 years, living for a few weeks holiday per year. We earn a little wage, always limited by pay grades, no matter how much time or how much effort we put in. If we’re lucky we may ‘earn’ a bonus. (A finite amount, again determined by how well we’ve performed). If we don’t earn that bonus, we’re bad people. We’re bad at our job.
After 40 years or so, we retire. We may have done well during that time and been promoted, to earn another finite amount and shoulder more stress,to expand our vocabulary of management-speak and expand our wardrobes with designer suits. We leave our jobs old, past our prime, with nothing really to do. We start to ache, in our bones and joints and minds.
What meaning did we bring, really? Did we do the thing we really, really wanted to? Honestly? I guess the answer’s no, a lot of the time.
You can. It’s just a shift in mindset.
For me, minimalism and adopting a more frugal way of life eventually led me to realise that I can do the thing I’ve secretly wanted to do ever since I was a small child. I never told anyone I wanted to write, to create. It wasn’t a normal job, I wasn’t good enough, I was shy. All the usual excuses. Minimalism changed my focus. I don’t work to fund yet more purchases. I don’t even think of anything I do as work. I earn money, yes. But every penny I earn fulfils me. I truly, honestly, love what I do. I could do this all day, every day and never get tired. I don’t strive for promotion as I control what I do. I have a purpose. I do what I can’t not do.
I’m under no illusion-minimalism is seen as a luxury. The modern connotation of it is very much a developed world thinking. Yes, we are privileged, I am privileged. I own a computer, a smartphone, clothes, I have a mortgage, I have enough to eat. But I feel minimalism is specific to our situation and our hyper-consumerist society. It’s a way of thinking that allows us to question the ‘rules’. It’s a way to understand yourself better and to find the option to explore your own world on your own terms. How you choose to apply it is up to you. It can be hypocritical, and I’m very aware of this, to be sitting in a coffee shop, albeit an independent one, fuelling the corporate machine and typing away on a corporate product, checking my corporate phone. But my journey so far has led me to question so much. I can’t make a huge difference, not yet. But a little at a time, I make progress, in my own life and my own way.The retail managers pat each other on the back, gather up their tablets and target sheets, and head back to store. Their seats are taken by a blonde woman with a large cappuccino and 9 shiny bags of shopping. I drain my cup and clear the table and open my eyes to the world.