Life Is Not For Managing

by Mary Hrovat

A couple of weeks ago, the main healthcare provider in my city sent me a newsletter. One of the items was a brief blurb about how laughter is good for you, with a link to “Learn More About the Benefits of Laughter.” No! If you think laughter is good for our health, link to a video of a cat riding a Roomba or bear cubs on a hammock. I might click through to see those; I might even laugh. I’m not going to look at an article about the benefits of laughter, because it will become another open tab, a nagging chore, an obligation that stands between me and the conditions for laughter.

David Graeber wrote about bullshit jobs, which involve activities that are not in themselves necessary but provide an appearance of something valuable. Sometimes it feels like I fill my life with bullshit activities, things that look valuable or even essential but that I wouldn’t miss if they were gone.


I thought of this again when I started reading a book of advice on writing. I want to learn about the practical aspects of writing for money and the options for people who do the kind of writing I do. I was taken aback to find, in the first chapter, a couple of action items: Write a mission statement and begin writing down goals, for example, a target word count for each day.

My spirit is downcast by the phrases mission statement and action item. Even goals is sicklied over with the pale cast of performance reviews past. These words remind me of office jobs, of confinement and boredom and other people’s agendas. In addition, there’s nothing about organizational mission statements to suggest that the concept is useful for capturing my aspirations for a writing career. These highly abstract communications operate in a realm where solutions are provided and expertise is leveraged.

Moreover, corporate mission statements can be vacuous, hyperbolic, or even meretricious: “to fuel a shared passion of self-expression”—Foot Locker; ”to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”—Microsoft; “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”—Starbucks; “to encourage all women and girls to develop a positive relationship with beauty, helping to raise their self-esteem, thereby enabling them to reach their full potential”—Dove. “What good amid these, O me, O life?”

Besides, I’ve only just started reading the book. I’m hoping to sell writing in several subject areas and a variety of forms in a way that will give me flexibility and a more consistent income. I’m reading the book to learn about how the publishing business works, about my options and how much time and energy each one would require of me. After I’ve done that, I can work out the steps I’d like to take. And anyway, daily word count goals make me antsy. Onward to chapter two, I think.

But the book’s recommendations follow standard practice. At least in theory, the mission statement sits atop a hierarchy of objectives, goals, and so on. Meaningful activity is supposed to emerge under the weight of all the action items.


The mission statement I’m supposed to write is intended to clarify my purposes for writing—for example, self-expression, income, reaching a particular audience, gaining recognition. It’s meant to be an honest look at why I’m going to put in the effort and what I hope to achieve. In my purely personal writing, I don’t usually think in terms of sitting down to write a statement of any kind, but if I did, I’d think of this as maybe a statement of purpose.

The thing is, though, that I don’t generally think of using any label in the context of this kind of writing. Ideally, I write because I want to clarify my ideas and because writing helps me articulate my thoughts. I may refer to the written piece later, but most of the value lies in the act of writing. I don’t write because I think to myself, “I need a statement of purpose.” I may work from open-ended questions or writing prompts, but I rarely think of an end product.

Thinking of an end product, in this case a mission statement, puts an artificial barrier between myself and my words and thoughts. The to-do item “write mission statement” is exactly the kind of thing I would procrastinate over, berating myself for not taking my writing career seriously but also being stymied by the disconnect between my hopes and the sterile form into which I’m supposed to pour them. Like the article about the benefits of laughter, it would stand between me and life.

Lately I’ve been paying more attention to this kind of shift, from activities like writing and laughing, that feel natural and occur in response to internal and external stimuli, to attempts to manage these activities. It seems to represent a common tendency, in my life and I think in society.


Motivation and action are nonlinear and complicated. They involve emotion and memory as well as planning. Motivation begins with things like affinity, desire, curiosity, exploration, and interest. The transition from hope to implementation is often subtle and uncertain. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a prescribed process (system, app, etc.) that will guide me through these activities, and I’ve come to believe that by and large I need to trust myself to figure it out. The uncertainty of working it out for myself leaves me open to the pleasure of curiosity and exploration.

Moving from an idea to a polished piece of writing can also be a slow process that you have to feel your way through. I suspect I’m not the only one who usually writes to find structure, not to fill a structure. Although the common recommendation of using an outline has always confounded me, part of me wishes that outlines worked for me. As a result, one of my besetting sins as a writer is that I lock myself into a structure before I know what I’m doing. The fact that I’ve chosen a structure or an outline suggests that I do know what I’m doing, which in the end causes more confusion than it alleviates. Structure is necessary, in life as well as in writing, but I think it’s often found by taking small steps and being willing to meander and backtrack.

We have many ways of truncating or tidying life’s messiness in an attempt to make it fit into a framework of some sort. Education, for example, is nowhere near as linear or easily evaluated as you would think from the vast apparatus of curricula, testing, and grading. A recent Atlantic article on procrastination cited a study which found that 70% of university students procrastinate on their schoolwork. I wondered if one reason might be that schoolwork maps poorly onto the things that draw people into a course of study. (Or perhaps the late teens and early twenties are not the optimal time for college, and we need to adjust our default structure for the course of a human life.) I wonder how often procrastination indicates not individual failure but poor alignment between human needs and some system.

Filling in forms is another example—there’s always something that doesn’t fit into the boxes or onto the lines provided. In the days of paper forms, you could sometimes find space to write an explanation or give additional information. Online, it’s not so easy. One reason is that people set up the forms we use without knowing all of the ways they might be used. An article on lesser-known features of human names inspired many other articles about the simplifications required to digitize the world.

It’s probably impossible to gracefully accommodate every variety of human naming and other conventions electronically. But I think we sometimes extend the use of a neat simplified framework to areas where it’s not necessary or useful.

I’ve wasted so much time trying to come up with paper lists or spreadsheets or even databases for all of my various works in progress according to subject and stage and next steps—again, a top-down approach from outside of my work rather than something that develops naturally as I do the work. I’ve come to doubt the value of these attempts. I’ve even come to agree, more or less, with this article suggesting that the to-do list be abandoned.

The sources of writing, or laughing, or living well, are not to be found in articles about their benefits or attempts to impose structure. Trying to gain control of my work before I’ve actually done the work, like reading about the benefits of laughter, feels like a surrogate for work and for life itself. I increasingly trust flexibility and incremental changes (even if the increments are sometimes very small). That’s why I like the Quaker proverb: Proceed as way opens.


Image by Michael McGuire from Pixabay

The quote at the end of the fifth paragraph is from Walt Whitman.

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