I’d like to set out a clear description of the concept of Voluntary Work. I think I can do that best with a pinch of autobiography.
I came to appreciate the beauty of Voluntary Work recently, in my mid thirties, and I’m still learning. Before that, I’d been intrigued for various periods of time by trends that I broadly categorise as ‘anti-work’. A good percentage of internet traffic is generated by promises of lots of cash with little or no work, à la ‘The Secret’ and probably even worse. Move on, dear reader, and don’t dally there!
Tim Ferriss’ promise of a 4-Hour Work Week has become prominent and the book does have some interesting content. Even though Ferriss himself works a lot (on a computer or in meetings, at least), I think the overall flavour of the book and the community overlooks the virtue of work and sometimes glorifies idleness. Outsourcing everything is boring and weakens muscles we all should be developing – muscles of self-reliance.
Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme approached the issue as a mathematical problem, writing excellent articles on how a person could stop working after only a few years of saving 80% or more of their income (I prefer to reframe that as living on 20% of the income) as well as being generally anti-work (he never promoted hedonistic early retirement, however). Even though I enjoyed his writing and learned a lot from it, I struggled to get excited about his idea of a post-retirement life that seemed to me to comprise a lot of reading and web-surfing. Eventually he seemed to feel this too, and took on paid employment as what I call a Voluntary Worker. To be fair, Jacob does discuss in his book the virtues of being a Renaissance Man and he does place a fair amount of emphasis on the ability to avoid paying others for things by learning to do them oneself.
Mr Money Mustache (warning, some strong language – use a profanity filter if you like) is a newer voice in the personal finance wilderness. Jacob pointed readers there when he stopped blogging, and I’m pleased to have discovered the blog where MMM shares about his lifestyle of frugality and what I think of as ‘optimised spending’. I find him a thousand times more interesting and useful than the proliferation of vanilla personal finance blogs. He also touches on the virtue of hard work in some of his writing, and that got me thinking about and developing this idea of the Voluntary Worker. There’s a lot of good writing and commenting over at the MMM blog, but I felt there was a need for (swearing-free) discussion in more depth on the virtues of Voluntary Work. Hence this blog.
Returning to my own life for a minute might help draw out some of the concepts. In my mid and late twenties, before reading the 4-Hour Work Week, I experienced ‘retirement’ for a couple of years, living off a decent income I received passively and doing things like travelling and spending quite a lot of money. Overall, this time was empty and unfulfilling for me. I resumed paid employment at around 32 and I’ve been working since. Initially my living expenses were too high, though, and it was only after learning how to live frugally that I could really think of myself as a Voluntary Worker and learn to love the combination of freedom and good hard work. That freedom has allowed me to spend the last few months on ‘vacation’ producing a lot of sweat restoring our new old cottage to a livable standard. Some days of hard work feel very much like – well, hard work. But I’m seeing more and more the benefits of learning to put my head down and work at something strenuous, difficult or boring until it’s done.
Why am I writing? I think this blog will help me to clarify my thoughts on Voluntary Work and to learn to write better, and I’d like to get a few people thinking about the virtue of work, the evils of idleness, and the reality of Forced Work. One of the main reasons, though, is that I’m tired of hearing people talking as though Work is the chief evil in the world – something to be avoided at all costs, with the most ‘successful’ person being the one who spends the most time lying down. By that definition a man in a coma is doing pretty well, so there’s clearly something wrong with aiming for a life with no productive activity.
It may be that this blog ends up as a collection of a dozen or so essays. That’s fine by me, as I don’t want to feel compelled to create posts daily or weekly or even monthly. If you think you might be interested in what I’ve got to say in the future, please do subscribe but don’t feel cheated if another article is some time coming. I have lots of other things to do!