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The puzzling, nonsensical dilemma of the modern worker 

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Hans Mackenzie Main is a writer and columnist.

In some circles, fulfilment could be seen as a fiction, created by the gainfully employed to get the symbolically employed to join them at work. Make your mud cakes, they tell us, then come inside and stick your star on the chart.

The main drive of the modern human is to either look busy or be busy or, if the energy can be summoned, both. I believe this is an ancient instinct from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who, like us today, were stricken with fear of boredom while living in opulent abundance. Painting was a favourite go-to for our forebears, as was dancing. Today, we make up work.

In modern times, everyone who is not making something useful, like puzzles, is in effect nonessential, ipso facto useless. The service sector is little more than a sandpit created for graduates and other achievers to keep busy in while the real work gets done elsewhere. If you’re an administrator, a financial adviser or, like me, you write fairly inconsequential columns, your life calling, in many ways, is the real workers’ best idea on how to keep you from wandering around aimlessly. Make your mud cakes, they tell us, then come inside and stick your star on the chart.

And oh, how many mud cakes are churned out year after year. We’re getting our hands dirty and, no, it’s not fun. The mud cake orders are piling up. The mud cake restaurant needs 15. Clive is hosting a tea party. He needed 20 yesterday. It’s all made up, but who the hell cares? If we don’t bake the mud cakes, who will?

Lockdown brought a maturity in how our species approached the problem of having to pass time in a veritable utopia. The preferred methods of keeping busy were to experiment with sourdough or to puzzle. Many chose the cleaner, drier pursuit of assembling a puzzle. And many were dismayed to find included in their puzzle box all the edge pieces neatly sorted — air-sealed in a bag separate from the other pieces for their convenience.

This was an over-reach on the part of the manufacturer and may have been the result of automation, as all human beings know the real challenge of building a puzzle is to find the edge pieces.

Without thinking, the bags were ripped open and the pieces mixed together, the decision made to find a different manufacturer for the next puzzle. All over the world, little pictures were brought together — interlocked — to form bigger pictures. Finished puzzles were framed; large panels of puzzle-bearing wood were carried around the house. The puzzling went on for months. When lockdowns eased, the holidays were upon us — and we puzzled on … 5,000 pieces, 10,000 pieces, 20,000 pieces. Great achievements were made. New frontiers were reached.

But then the holidays and the lockdowns ended, and it was time to go back to our made-up jobs for the new year. The prevailing feeling, it seems to me, is that 2022, so far, is the busiest year on record. No one seems to be able to keep up with the amount of work that appeared overnight from 9 January to 10 January. Clive from the sandpit has opened a catering business. He needs 10,000 mud cakes. The world will surely end by month’s end if Clive does not receive his mud cakes. Who’s in charge of the mud? Where is the cookie-cutter? My god, who turned off the water?!

The idea that one’s efforts to contribute to the greater good are of little significance is a tough one to take. The reality that stopping what you’re doing gets you kicked off the team altogether is even harder to swallow. The best thing to do — the thing that’s got us, the nonessentials, this far — is to keep our heads down and feign utility. This is the safest course of action as agreed upon by the herd.

A whiteboard is a great tool to use to show the world that you’re at least trying to be useful. The writing on the board must be of many different colours. A mind map is good. A graph or two should stand you in good stead. The other method widely used, a passable simulation of hard work, is to stage Zoom meetings and stage them often. Talking is the currency of the useless worker.

There might come times when you have no one to talk to and are faced with the prospect of just sitting. This is a perilous time for the redundant, as they find themselves, should they succumb to the temptation, closely resembling a useless sitting duck.

What appear to be moments for quiet contemplation are, in fact, the time to write emails. All emails must be marked “urgent” and contain the words “outcomes” and “deliverables” and “indispensable”.

As far as emotional development goes, as you build your non-career, see yourself as heading down a short and dark cul de sac. Fulfilment is a fiction created by the gainfully employed to get the symbolically employed to join them at work. The only way to professional nirvana for the nonessential worker, if they have the courage to do it, is to puzzle on the job. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • This article is brilliant, thank you!

    The truth in this is astoundingly accurate in my own opinion and led me to my current lifestyle of choice.

    I reached the very top of my corporate career in 2019, at the point where I had to decide if I wanted to move up internationally, in a 100% Japanese-owned company’s South African office.
    I have a master’s degree, part MBA, amongst other qualifications, and registration with a professional Board of Practice.

    My decision was to retire at the age of 49.

    I now sit and watch the world, do what I like, and often just breathe the entire 24 hours of a clock-day.

    I don’t do mud cakes anymore. And I refuse to justify why not, as most people will never get “it”.

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