Do you sometimes feel like the little squirrel? Just trying to hang on, afraid you won’t be able to. And then where will you be, if you can’t? If you can’t hang on? If you are no longer useful? You might be super awesome and working at a super awesome company, a non-profit even, doing great things. So why do you have this gnawing, low level anxiety? Most the organizations we inhabit, despite their best intentions, can’t help but be anxiety factories.
Instrumental and Non-instrumental
I’m not my father’s son because I’m of use to my father. I’m my father’s son simply because I’m my father’s son. My status as a son is an existential state. I can’t not be my father’s son. It isn’t organized around commercial exchange. It doesn’t serve a pragmatic utilitarian end, it isn’t instrumental toward an achievable goal. It is un-useful, it is non-instrumental.
I’m not a member of the human race because I’m of use to the human race. I’m a member of the human race simply because I’m human. My humanity is an existential state. I can’t not be human. It isn’t organized around commercial exchange. It doesn’t serve a pragmatic utilitarian end, it isn’t instrumental toward an achievable goal. It is un-useful, it is non-instrumental.
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition.” Alain De Botton. “Status Anxiety”
Layer 1: Scarcity and Fear
The one person we most consistently try to bullshit is the one person we can never bullshit. Ourselves. We can’t get away from the deep internal dialogue we have with ourselves about ourselves. If I deny a fellow human being their right to dignity, if I insist they earn it, if I insist their humanity be instrumental, I live in a world in which I deny myself the same right.
I might do all kinds of things to convince myself I don’t have to earn my dignity and humanity, least of all stop and consciously think about it. I have competence and warmth and therefore feel a margin of security as to my member of humanity status. But the truth is, if I make dignity and humanity something to be earned—if I’ve made it instrumental—the one person who will know this most deeply is myself. I will know in an incredibly deep and tacit way that my humanity must be earned and is provisional. I will be aware on a deep and tacit level that although I am currently part of humanity I have the potential to not be.
An instrumental and provisional view of humanity places us squarely in a self constructed and inescapable world marked by profound and pervasive anxiety. Left unchecked and unexamined, our anxiety begins to shape how we see the world. Despite genuinely wanting a world of abundance and generosity, our lens of anxiety clouds our vision and we see instead a world of scarcity and fear.
Layer 2: Anxiety Factories
Most people in modern technologized cultures are part of one or more organizations—corporation, company, foundation, club, team. It’s fair to say most people act within some kind of organization most of the time.
An organization, if it is to get things done in this world, is arrayed around doing something in this world, around utility, usefulness, instrumentality. This isn’t a bad thing, far from it, it’s why civilization as we know it can exist. An organization’s instrumentality could be incredibly noble, like feeding the world’s poor. But even the most noble organization must array itself primarily around usefulness. Even the best employee in the best company might lose their usefulness, and therefore their job, and therefore their instrumental identity.
An identity derived from our usefulness to an organization, our instrumental identity, is a provisional one. We know the relationship might cease to be. But we won’t cease to be. Some part of us, the non-instrumental part, the simply human part, will continue to be.
This doesn’t stop organizations from insisting our entire identity be derived from the organization. Corporate “perks,” which Silicon Valley takes to ever new levels, facilitates an employee’s investment in an identity situated increasingly from within a company and decreasingly outside of it.
The provisional nature of the relationship also hasn’t stopped the bearers of those provisional identities from trying to define themselves entirely by what they do, their usefulness, their instrumentality. But it’s a fool’s errand. Even the best employee in the best company knows, perhaps better than anyone, they too live under the capricious strictures of instrumentality.
We know, in a deep down place we are too busy to examine, our organizational identities are provisional. We belong, but we might not belong. When left unexamined, this produces a profound and pervasive anxiety.
Double Layer Anxiety Cake: you can’t have your meritocracy and eat it too.
If our perception of the world is one in which our humanity is instrumental and therefore provisional, and we tether our identity to a provisional organizational identity, then we live in a world in which our provisional identity as part of an organization sits on top a provisional identity as a human being. In other words we live with deep anxiety layered on a foundation of even deeper anxiety.
Happy shiny people
The situation isn’t hopeless, it’s largely one of balance, and modern technologized cultures are decidedly out of balance. They have virtually no capacity to nurture non-instrumental connection. Much of the metaphors we live by, our silent assumptions about the world are saturated in commercial exchange, utility, advantage and efficiency. Our lives, for the most part, are arrayed around instrumentality. Non-instrumental human connection is hard to come by.
In this out of balance context we’ve become out of balance people.
By regaining a sense of our non-instrumental selves, which really equates to regaining a sense of our shared humanity, we tether ourselves to an identity that isn’t dependant on the shifting sands of an instrumental, anxious and fearful world.
Our deepest peace and sense of belonging comes from a world in which dignity is afforded to human beings simply by virtue of being human. In this world we know in our deepest sense of self that we afford the same simple dignity to our selves.
Next up, organizations who help the the people within them tether to shared human belonging makes every person within them an ombudsman for humanity. They provide their people with a capability that is independent of the organization and completely transferable in terms of moving toward the world we all want. It is a useful un-usefulness. It doesn’t make for pristine efficiency, but it does make for individual and collective success.