Work, Anti-Work, and That Secret “Third Thing”
Are.na user Meghna Rao found herself scarring from ungratifying work. So she quit. In an exclusive Q&A, she navigates us through work, anti-work, and surviving both.
By Meghna Rao
Illustration by Desert Island Comics
Are.na's Arena is a partner column with Are.na, a platform for connecting ideas and building knowledge. This piece was originally published in the 2024 Are.na Annual, a yearly anthology of writing from the people of Are.na.
In the summer of 2020, I got my first well-paying job. Well-paying, meaning I could cover my rent, get take out dinner when I wanted, and still watch my bank account grow. I remember the hot and conflicted afternoon when the recruiter from a software company reached out to me. I was in bed with my laptop, just following up on a $200 invoice for a piece on covid evictions in Queens that I’d spent three months reporting.
I considered it for an hour, then agreed to an interview. Then, I agreed to a second interview. Then, I agreed to negotiate an offer. When the salary came, I didn’t say no. It felt, for the first time, like I was doing life right. It wasn’t just the salary. It was also the 401(k) match. The FSAs. The non-taxable wellness stipends. The Pilates classes. The education stipend that went to that expensive trilogy from Proust.
Of course, I wouldn’t have time to read the trilogy. I would spend the hours that I wasn’t working in escape, dreading my return to work. I found what I did unfulfilling. In fact, one weekend, I picked up David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs and found my exact job on a list he set out; “one so pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing it.”
I turned to friends, who shared similar feelings, sent me anti-work memes, told me that this was our lot in life, that work was a means to an end — the end being safety, stability, travel, family, a home — and could only give us so much. Other friends offered up techniques of evasion, like the Amazon device that would keep your cursor moving so your Slack status would remain active.
A few months before I quit my job, I began to think that something was wrong with these solutions. Maybe these small resistances would eventually add up to something bigger. Maybe there really was something to “quiet quitting,” “laying flat.” But I was skeptical. After all, I would still be at my job. After all, we were all well-paid, working hard, anxious, and searching for meaning.
Says Graeber: “Huge swathes of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed….It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”
What I didn’t want for myself was to scar.
Here is a characterization that indicts me, and maybe it does you, too. There is a sort of disorder that comes with being part of the rising middle class. Many of us can afford to figure out what makes up good work—whatever one’s personal definition may be—but we can’t seem to do so, because of this panic to save as much money as possible in case of a crisis.
Some would say this eventually metastasizes into greed, but that might be harsh. So let us be gentle instead. Most of us can not answer that all-important question: what exactly is it that makes work good?
Tell me, is it work that seeks to improve the world around it, like working at a housing non-profit backed by untrustworthy donors? Or is it working on accelerating artificial intelligence that one believes will fingers crossed/temporarily collapse all jobs so we can fingers crossed/maybe move towards the future? Or is it helping protect those very workers against AI, risking that you might leave them behind in the process?
I found myself overwhelmed with the largeness of my questions, found that many of my friends numbed themselves in response to the complexity of their own questions. On a chance encounter, I found Wendell Berry, a poet I’d known but not quite understood in my youth. He asked:
“Aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work? And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?
And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?”
There was a time when Berry was well on his way to the sort of career considered successful for writers. A recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, Berry spent time teaching and writing in Tuscany, France, and New York. But by 1964, Berry decided that he wanted something else: “I seem to have been born with an aptitude for a way of life that was doomed.”
His heart lay in his home state of Kentucky, where he would return that year to teach at the local university and farm, much to the surprise of his industry peers. For nearly 60 years since, Berry has lived out in Kentucky. His home state, with all its slowness, has been a place where he has worked very hard, writing over fifty books of poetry, short fiction, and long fiction, and asked endless questions, many of which have no answers.
So I quit, carrying nothing more than my hope. A hope that I would be able to loosen my grip a bit, clear my scars, and start to ask myself what I could do with this short, infinitely valuable life of mine.
Q&A with Meghna Rao
Meghna is a writer & editor from Queens. She's helped found magazines like The Juggernaut' and Mercury's Meridian. Her non-fiction and fiction has been featured in places like Rest of World and Catapult. She's currently plodding her way through some fiction.
How has your idea of “good work” changed over the years?
That’s a big question. The truth is that I didn’t think work could be good or bad, that it could have qualities other than just being work. I come from a pretty typical immigrant family, where work is a means to an end, that end being safety. And safety can come from money, it can come from prestige, or it can come from both. It took me a long time and a lot of ill-fitting jobs to understand that I was feeling sad because there was another dimension to work that I was ignoring, one in which work could be meaningful, gratifying, something that brought you closer to yourself.
That’s where my definition sits now. It’s different for everyone. But I think it takes separating income from good work. We can’t always afford to do good work. Not everyone’s stars line up like that. Good work can be a job. It can be everything you do outside of your job. It can be your side job that you turn into your real job, it can be your housework, taking care of a child, taking care of your parents.
What do you think is the root of the movement toward anti-work?
I think it comes from a very valid place, which is that people want to make work that is meaningful, gratifying, brings them closer to themselves. But there are outside factors that make this difficult. Rent, insurance, food, transportation, student debt, life, and then the hollowing out of many industries that many have wanted to make their careers in; media, for example. This, plus what remote work wrought for some of us. For me, it was a certain obsession with working all the time, to get away from the news and the discourse, but also an ease with which I could log back on. That left basically no time to think about good, fulfilling work, and even less time to do it. And our full-time jobs become the scapegoat, when the issue is so tangled with everything else.
I find it unkind to call people entitled, unrealistic, privileged because they want to find gratification. Who I try to address in my piece is the tiny sliver of people who hate work and aren’t able to see that they can afford to make a change. To try and reorient themselves, try something new, take a break to think, rest.
What advice would you give people who feel stuck at work now?
Advice is weird. I’m the type of person who likes to figure out my problems myself. And feeling stuck at work hints at a larger issue that isn’t always solved by quitting. So when I’m going through it, I go to my friend who is the best listener, who asks me lots of leading questions to help me get closer to my answer. If you don’t have that friend, you should reach out to anyone who’s made you feel heard, ask to talk. If you can’t find someone to talk to, become that person for someone else. I find that even doing that helps me understand myself better.
Oh, but I do have one piece of advice, which is not to underestimate the power of small steps, and to give yourself credit for them. It is a long, difficult, rewarding journey that I’m still on. Don’t forget to reward yourself.
What did you do to get organized before you quit your job? How did you prepare yourself?
Here’s my list:
- Go through your work email and chat and make a sheet of every single person you have interacted with, especially if they’re from outside your job.
- Forward important documents and emails to your personal email address.
- Screenshot work you’re proud of.
- Read through your insurance document and see if there are any perks you’ve missed. The week before I quit, I got a year’s free of online Peloton classes by doing that.
- Make sure you’ve used up any stipends.
- If there are people you’ve worked with who’ve made your time better, make sure you tell them.
- Try to have your quit date be on the first of the month, so you get the whole month of insurance.
- COBRA is really expensive. If you’re under 30 and don’t have any health risks, Oscar’s insurance that only covers the emergency room should suffice. If you do have health risks, think about whether you’ll do part-time work after you quit. I had a potential employer offer to get me on the marketplace, which is slightly cheaper.
- There’s no perfect amount to save. Think about what you need to feel peace. Imagine yourself a month from now, three months from now, six months from now. I did that, and I paid my landlord six months in advance so I could write in peace.
- Consider downshifting a little. Take a look at your life and cut out anything that isn’t good enough. The subscriptions, the Ubers. I eat out, but I make sure every meal I eat is amazing.
Lastly, I had a big project in mind that I wanted to spend my time on. You don’t need to have one. I certainly didn’t during my first career break. But I’ve found that reminding yourself you’re in pursuit of something larger keeps away the nihilism.
How are you spending your time now?
I'm working on some fiction, a novel and some short stories. But I'm mostly just learning about craft. What makes beautiful sentences, why some books are so hard to put down, how some characters stick with you for years. It’s learning, which means I’m not always very productive. But I think it’s helping me in a non-obvious way, that I think will—one day—allow me to write the kind of thing I want.
If money was not an object, and you could do anything, what would it be?
I thought a lot about this question and, for the first time ever, I think the answer is that I’d probably be doing the same thing as I am right now. Maybe with some nicer stuff in my apartment. It’s weird to write that out?