We’re going to get a little dark here to begin with. A little bleak. But bear with me as the payoff will be a cheery one. And hopefully a helpful one. I’ll try my utmost.
So. The Misery Tax is an important concept for you to wrap your head around. And it’s a very, very simple one to understand. If you have ever held down a job, if you have ever been an employee, if you have ever commuted to an office or worn a uniform or lived in a big city you have almost certainly paid the Misery Tax in some form.
Let’s attempt a definition.
The Misery Tax- an ad hoc form of expenditure wherein an unhappy worker feels compelled to spend a proportion of their wages on things that allow them to continue to function and work. This usually takes the form of sugary food, caffeine, alcohol and ‘retail therapy’
Are you with me?
Then let’s get in to the nuance.
The Hidden Cost Of Work
The problem with The Misery Tax is that it is almost always unaccounted for. Even by those who are fairly money-savvy and spending-conscious. It nibbles away at various spending envelopes- entertainment, food, clothing, travel- while the impetus behind it remains unacknowledged. At least consciously.
I’ll repeat this point in different words to make it emphatic.
If you don’t like the job you work or the life you are living you will spend more of your disposable income either during work hours or immediately afterwards on things to cheer you up. On things to keep you going and to keep you functioning in the job. This is the Misery Tax.
This compensatory spending drains your resources, which diminishes your ability to save and thus means you become increasingly stuck in the job. Which is depressing. Which means you want to have a beer or a donut or a next day delivery spree on Amazon. Which means...
Now, I know today is the day of rest and that you probably don’t want to be pondering such things. And I know that we normally talk about pleasant things here like going for a nice walk or having some lunch. But I think this one needs to be addressed.
Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and face the facts.
I think many of the things we do for pleasure are mere coping mechanisms, they are more like oil to a machine than balm to a contented soul. Our indulgences are unhealthy not only for what they consist of but for the reason they are used. And that reason is as a surface level cessation of suffering because we don’t have the time or inclination (or indeed courage) to tackle the problem at the root.
Perhaps this is why wages are often referred to as ‘compensation’
The Hustle Hustle
‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’
Now had I more time or the desire to bolster and bloat this piece with facts and figures, I would attempt to lay out a history of all of this. A chronology. But I don’t see the point, in all honesty.
Not to be presumptuous but I know you know what I am talking about with this one. You are reading this during your scant free time and you want solutions rather than an esoteric history lesson. Your time is precious because it is scarce and me writing thousands of words of unbidden labour history would be doing you a disservice.
So, I’ll keep this focused on the present. On you.
Another presumption: When you have previously sensed that The Misery Tax is draining you and that compensatory pleasure spending is diminishing your quality of life you have attempted to solved the puzzle via the Work Ethic solution.
This ‘Hustle and Grind’ fix has been popularised by people with large YouTube accounts and a whole host of courses and books to sell you. They are persuasive. I am not judging you as even I, a shoe-in for England’s Laziest Man Regional Finalist, have been charmed by this siren song.
Because on paper it kind of makes sense. Life is stagnant, you are in a rut, momentum is either non-existent or negative. Rudimentary physics says motions is needed, and motion in this case comes from effort. From change. So more work is needed. The post work hours where The Misery Tax is collected need to be replaced with yet more work, work for yourself, work ON yourself, work to work yourself out of the debt that the seemingly never ending Misery Tax demands of you.
So, as the motivational keynote speakers themselves say- hands up. Hands up those of you who have vowed to start hustling and working harder and achieving success. Okay good.
Now hands up those of you who were able to sustain this for any length of time before sliding back to working the 9-5 and then being tired or vaguely indulgent and hedonistic in the off hours.
I thought so.
See the problem isn’t you. (Fear not, this is not the prelude to a sales pitch). The problem is the approach. The psychology of it.
Simply put if you keep beating yourself up you’re going to knock yourself out.
If you keep doubling down on a bad bet you will just lose the game quicker.
If you keep treating yourself as a slave, as someone unworthy of respect or care or love then this will manifest in your demeanour and actions and therefore your results.
And that is about the worst methodology for achieving that I can think of.
So the way to get a rebate on the Misery Tax is this. Give in. Let go. Take it easy.
Drop the guilt regard your off-hours productivity. (I’m going to ask you to continue reading on for a little longer with an open mind. This is not defeatist nihilism, I assure you.)
The above idler mode is one of the leitmotif of these newsletters so far. Why. Because it is effective.
Now, some people are extremely driven and so the hustle mentality comes naturally to them. The people who actually give the motivational keynotes don’t have to be told to hustle, it is in there blood.
But to many of there audience who do have to be told, especially to those who have more artistic and creative leanings, it is poisonous. It does no good.
And given the signal I put out and the fact that like attracts like there is a good chance that you, dear reader, fit into this demographic.
So I tell you from experience to relax.
I tell you that if you do so the chain of events will run something like this: First, you give up on beating yourself up and hustling and unnecessary early mornings and cold showers and all the rest of it. Thus, you signal to yourself that you care for yourself. You feel a little happier. You loosen up. This alone makes work marginally more bearable. This reduces the extent of the Misery Taxation (I.e. the boozing and pizza demolishing curbs a little). Sleep and physical health improve.
And then one day, while lying in the park and looking at the drifting clouds, while napping on the sofa, or indeed while sipping a coffee and reading the weekly emails of some slugabed stranger who lives half a world away you have an idea. An honest to goodness creative idea. It excites you. You want to pursue it.
And then, without a bucket of coffee or deafening music or the scream of a guru bellowing at you from a Silicon Valley stage, you get to work. Because you want to. Because pursuing the idea doesn’t feel like work.
You don’t care about the outcome, you just want to have fun doing the thing. And so you do.
And so with no expectations and no stress, with no received ideas weighing you down and with a thankful heart and actions that have signalled to yourself that you actually care about yourself, you begin. And under these circumstances you actually start to get somewhere.
And even if you don’t, you have received such a rebate on the previously ruinous Misery Tax rate that you now barely feel it at all.
Until next time,
The Commonplace is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I'm a little late to the party, but a mention of this comments thread on Twitter brought me here. Wow, it did not disappoint. Firstly, what an eye-opening and brilliantly observant article, Tom. Then enhanced by the quality and depth of engagement of your readers (particular mention to the comments of Conor, Axel and Alicia). I'm going to leverage my own anecdotal experience but hopefully the underlying principles can be extrapolated more generally.
I think this message to relax and to consciously step outside of this hustle game cannot be said loudly enough. I believe that our compulsion towards goal achievement and continued progression can partly be explained from an existential perspective; a need to provide meaning to one's life through output and material success in the brief time we have. For me, this yearning and hyper-productivity has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Perhaps the antidote to this is to come to terms with our mortality and to recognise the intrinsic value of existence without a need to actualise anything. Whilst I think striving to leave the world a better place for future generations is extremely important (although the pursuit of creating a long lasting personal "legacy" might be driven by egotistical desires), this article highlights the importance of living life in the moment, day-to-day (I would add, without falling into the Eckhart Tolle shame-if-you-cannot-achieve-it type mindfulness).
The approach Tom is advocating is a path towards liberation. Liberation from the tyranny of to-do lists, listening to podcasts whilst engaging during every second of free time, alarm clocks on the weekend, multitasking, weekly schedules, tracking personal metrics through apps and smart watches, more to-do lists etc. Paradoxically - as Tom succulently points out - this approach can also lead to creative inspiration and great works of art. I appreciate that scheduling a set period in the day to write can be useful, but the real creativity is to be find in idle moments of "non-thinking". Shower thoughts. This is where my best ideas have fermented and blossomed.
In many respects, this approach is analogous to certain ancient philosophies e.g. Buddhism. The anxiety and shame that comes from not feeling you're doing enough is a result of comparison with social media, 'hustle' influencers etc. We all know the fallacy of comparison. I'm reminded of Immanuel Kant's maxim to never treat a person as a means to an end, but as an end in and of themselves. We ought to apply the same rationale to our own selves, and to engage in activities as ends in themselves. In this vain, I really liked Conor's daily ritual of forgiveness.
Thank you, Tom (and all the wonderful comments on this thread). These words could not be more timely and welcome. I will endeavour to adopt this lifestyle. It goes against my natural instincts, but perhaps these "natural instincts" are merely a conditioned state. With maturity comes the realisation that wisdom is the un-learning of many things, and that removing things tends to bestow far greater utility than adding things (Nassim Taleb's idea of via negativa).
My only question - which I would love to open to the floor - is how we can create the financial leverage (in an ideal world, obtaining f**k you money) in order to free ourselves from the Catch-22 work environment that imposes this Misery Tax? A very small percentage of creatives may strike gold in gaining traction and achieving such financial liberation, but it appears that an unbalanced workload is required to some degree in order to create such a space in one's life (using Taleb again as an example, he worked as a quant trader for a decade - hardly a docile industry).
This is great. It worth rereading every weekend.