Isabel B. Slone is a writer living in Toronto.
I was born in 1989, part of a generation for whom gold stars and cheerful posters proclaiming “If you aim for the moon, you’ll land amongst the stars” were plastered on the wall of seemingly every elementary-school classroom. I was relentlessly conditioned to believe I could achieve everything I wanted to achieve, and for a long time, I believed that to be true. So far, the defining feature of my adult life has been a recalibration of expectations. Every year, the success and accolades I once imagined for myself grow further out of reach. I will not be everything I wanted to be. That’s why I started giving myself participation ribbons for achieving the bare minimum.
It’s generally accepted that people are supposed to find purpose, or at least a modicum of stability and satisfaction, in the institution of marriage, parenting and home ownership. But having little interest in the first two and priced out of the latter, I look to simple tasks such as making the bed, watering plants and cooking a meal to find purpose in my life. Like so many other millennials, I live in an overpriced city with diminishing job prospects in my chosen field. But rather than fantasize about torching my current situation in favour of moving to a cabin, a less expensive city or, worse, grad school, I have committed to finding pleasure in the life I currently inhabit.
As someone who has spent most of my life working toward the next lofty goal, my life got a whole lot better once I stopped searching for ways to improve it. Mundanity is my succour. Consistently completing tasks such as keeping track of my expenses or remembering to take my library books back on time – all loosely tied together under the umbrella of “adulting” – are a form of revelling in my own mediocrity. Although “adulting” is a puerile word I can barely bring myself to utter in seriousness, I embrace the definition of the term as a duty to myself. My ability to complete the tasks that most people have been trained to view as tedious, or a waste of time, is my way of making peace with living a life that is by all accounts totally unspectacular.
In essence, adulting has become my hobby. On an average day, I will wake up early, make coffee, then immediately get to work on my laptop. But my day is constantly interrupted by unavoidable duties such as cooking, washing the dishes, sweeping, watering plants, scrubbing the bathtub, doing laundry, taking out the garbage, keeping track of expenses, getting toothpaste from the drugstore. I do not rush through these activities with an attitude of resentment, or believe I’m too important, or even too busy, to be completing these tasks in the first place. Instead, I do them, consciously – mindfully, even. Ticking every item off a to-list gives me an inordinate sense of accomplishment.
Ironically, what makes these tasks enjoyable is the fact that, technically, I don’t have to do them anymore. We live in a world of utmost convenience where almost every single prosaic activity can be outsourced. We no longer have to learn how to take care of ourselves, because as long as we have enough money, there is always someone who can do it for us. There is no incentive to cook, thanks to Foodora; for driving, there’s Uber; for leaky faucets or putting together furniture there’s TaskRabbit and for any random activity someone is willing to perform for $5, there’s Fiverr. This aversion to grunt work advances the mindset that domestic tasks have little value, and therefore ought to be outsourced in order to devote time toward more esoteric pursuits.
More often than not, these esoteric pursuits turn out to be more work. “Free time can always turn into productivity, so when productivity is properly managed, there is no such thing as free time,” Malcolm Harris writes in the 2018 treatise on millennial culture, Kids These Days. Mr. Harris argues that present social conditions lead kids as early as preschool to view themselves as human capital who must work toward fulfilling their full potential or else risk certain failure. Human capital views time as an investment: If an individual is going to be spending time on an activity, it had better pay off.
Technically, nothing about these compulsory duties ever pays off; like a millstone around the neck, they’re a permanent weight that never quite lifts because they invariably need to be performed over and over again. A dirty floor will just get dirty again, so why bother sweeping at all? Answer: because the routine completion of these tedious tasks helps life to flow more smoothly. If I go through the trouble of picking up milk while doing errands, the next morning I will be able to enjoy coffee made to my own specifications instead of frustrated and crabby at the inconvenience caused by failing to perform a last-minute errand.
Earlier this year, writer Anne Helen Petersen published an essay on Buzzfeed about her inability to complete these small tasks. Ms. Petersen self-diagnosed her inability to go to the post office as “millennial burnout,” a generationwide exhaustion that comes with every moment of one’s life being optimized for work. After the essay was published, it received widespread praise, then inevitable backlash: It failed to take into account the generational trauma faced by people of colour, and also, the problem of exhaustion isn’t unique to millennials. Two months later, Maureen O’Connor wrote a similar story for The Cut about the outsourcing economy, admitting that she eschews trips to the grocery store in favour of ordering perishables through Amazon Fresh. (One time, a single onion was delivered in a furniture-sized box.)
But while these essays expertly zero in on the locus of a problem – that the former goalposts by which we used to measure adulthood have all but disappeared – they fail to provide a way out of the modern morass of convenience that has all but consumed our very will to live. Shifting the small acts that make up “adulting” from drudgery to the sublime is the only way out of this bone-tired corner late capitalism has painted us into. If grunt work can be elevated into something that is inherently satisfying, it will remove some of the control capitalism has over our lives. Sure, I could summon a hot meal or a handyman to my door with the nimble swipe of a finger, provided there’s enough money in my bank account, but why would I want to? The ability to cook and clean for myself is not just an insistence on humility, it’s a way of taking back power in a world that not just expects but profits off of my own helplessness. It’s never been easier to figure out how to do things oneself – “Rule 34,” which dictates that if something exists, it’s been made into porn, applies just as much to YouTube instructional videos as it does smut – but tinkering as a hobby has largely been left behind in the converted garage workshops of the houses most millennials will never own.
I come by this desire to DIY honestly. My family hails from a rural area where self-sufficiency is paramount. The majority of the food they consume comes from a vegetable patch in the backyard, or from livestock raised and slaughtered by the neighbours; the surplus is frozen and feasted upon for the remainder of the year. Groceries are supplemental, as opposed to a necessity. My parents buy next to nothing because they want for so little, and when they do, it can always be found second-hand. Nothing about their life could be described as convenient – they only recently got WiFi and have a habit of unplugging the router when it’s not in use, terrified some internet demon will filch their precious bandwidth – and that’s the way they like it. They’re essentially living the modern hipster’s fantasy of farm life, only that’s the way they’ve always lived.
My boyfriend is convinced my yen for self-sufficiency is somehow a marker of lurking conservatism. But just as the Luddites were painted as the enemies of technological progress for destroying knitting machines in the 1800s, my intentions are easily misconstrued. The term “Luddite” has become shorthand for technological ineptitude; say, a mom who refuses to let go of her landline in favour of a smartphone. But in actuality, Luddites attacked only the factories whose owners upheld exploitative working conditions. They were labour activists, not inept fogeys. By eschewing the technological advances designed to make my life more convenient, I am leading a quiet one-person rebellion against the working conditions that require these services exist in the first place.
The trick is to view everything in life as a success, even the most basic tasks. Once I was able to accord the same level of accomplishment to a trip to the grocery store as I did a long-held career goal, suddenly, my life was flooded with success. For example, if I manage to put on a great outfit and do my hair and makeup in a day, I view that as a success rather than an integral part of daily life. It’s gamifying life, only the stakes are much, much lower. Pouring my self-image into tasks that I actually can accomplish instead of relying on outside validation has done wonders for my self-esteem.
Simply put, to take radical pleasure in one’s own mediocrity is the best way to defang the threat of constant failure. Academically, this concept is called kakonomics, or as philosopher Gloria Origgi writes, the “weird preference for low-quality payoffs.” Ultimately, it’s about renegotiating expectations to avoid disappointment at all costs. If an individual puts little effort into a venture which results in minimal gain, the outcome should be more or less expected. It’s an agreed-upon discount on quality that makes life more relaxing for everyone. Instead of chasing excellence, why not get a few loads of laundry done instead?
In the long-term, Ms. Origgi writes, a prolonged series of these low-quality exchanges will erode the system. Kakonomics regulates exchanges for the worst, meaning that if individuals are continually satisfied with mediocrity, they’ll never have the joy of experiencing excellence. But with the current concern over climate change that has turned almost everyone into a doomsayer, humanity might not have that much time left anyways.
So far, self-care and self-improvement have served as a balm for people hoping to self-soothe in a broken culture, but no matter how many face masks and rose quartz crystals an individual buys, they cannot magick themselves out of reality. Drinking kombucha and lighting scented candles will not cure anxiety or depression; the only surefire way to improve one’s life is to come to terms with one’s own inherent mediocrity.
Putting this philosophy into practice shouldn’t feel like giving up or a failure, it should feel like freedom from both society’s expectations and one’s own unrealistic ideas of productivity. Adulting, when done right, is a way of creating meaning for oneself in a world where it so often is hard to come by. People are trained to feel as if executive duties are a distraction from life when, in reality, they’re the main event.
Every time you suspects your efforts are not enough, I urge you to accomplish one task that will make life a little bit easier, be it wading through the mountain of dirty dishes in the sink, or returning an overdue library book. You will be happier for it, I promise. And frankly, if you can shift your worldview so that laundering your bedsheets becomes the height of accomplishment, life might not be so dire after all.
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