In Herman Melville’s 1853 story Bartleby, the Scrivener, the law clerk turned Wall Street lawyer Bartleby works hard at first, but soon enough, he says: “I would prefer not to.” Whenever his boss or colleague would ask Bartleby to do some work, Bartleby would repeat his catchphrase: “I would prefer not to.” So, eventually, he’s transferred to a new office, then to a prison, where he finally dies.
A rather grim story but one that carries a much deeper message — the idea of ‘passive resistance’ and ‘exercise of choice’.
The past three weeks have been rather stressful and weird in 100 different ways for everybody. With COVID, WFH burnout, fatigue, and poor mental health, things have become hard. Over this period, I reflected on “I would prefer not to” and realized how passive resistance can, at times, play a positive role in the longer-term, albeit decidedly counter-productive in the short-term.
Consider Bartleby. It’s not that he outright denies doing X; it’s just that Bartleby says he prefers not to, assuming he even has a choice in the matter. (Try saying “I would prefer not to” the next time your boss asks you to do something.)
But even as Bartleby harms his career prospects in the short-term, he cements his conviction in what he thinks is right (ie defying his employer) in the long-term. Even as he exercises choice where he has none, he displays his resentment toward a structure he dislikes. There is something deeply liberating in following through with your conviction and standing by your choices when the chips are down.
That’s what Bartleby did.
The whole productivity cult instils in people a sense of GONDA (ie ‘Guilt of Not Doing Anything’). This is problematic because GONDA doesn’t solve the real problem. You could be burned out, professionally demotivated, emotionally deficient, or just be having low vitamin D. But GONDA makes you feel as if you’re a wasteman in the short-term, and then, you impute that ‘wasteman feeling’ onto the longer-term; you begin to feel that ‘bad days equals a bad life’, which is not only untrue but also counter-productive.
The other problem with GONDA is this: Even when you do recover from it, you’re not fully recovered; you might still feel a productivity slump at some point in the future, and then, you’d feel GONDA, and then, a sharp increase in productivity. This is a toxic cycle.
For example: Bingewatching Netflix may give you GONDA, but then, actively working on that paper later (only to overcome GONDA) is worse, because it distracts you from fixing the issue.
So, as I introspected and reflected on why I chose not to (or as Bartleby would say, ‘preferred not to’) be consistent with Weekly Insights over the past three weeks, I understood the real reasons behind this short slump.
GONDA is toxic, but passive resistance with deep self-knowledge isn’t. Much like Bartleby, short periods of passive resistance are helpful, when, despite having the ability to do X, one prefers to not do X. I found this quote that struck a chord:
It’s very common for people to find a terrific behavior that leads to health, well-being, productivity, thriving, and a better life… and then to simply stop doing it.
The short periods of slump without GONDA but with self-knowledge and reflection are useful.
Until next time,
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Our Commonplace Book
- I’ve been enjoying reading Wait But Why’s Mailbag #2 here.
- Eric Barker’s many articles on life, career, success, happiness, money, psychology, and everything else under the Sun (including the Sun) are going to be your ideal weekend read. See them here.
- In other news, if you’re a Breaking Bad fan, Better Caul Saul on Netflix is a must-watch.
- In yet other news, David Attenborough’s The Year Earth Changed is also a must-watch.