Discover more from The Study of Happiness
Pigeon Shit Manifesto
Some thoughts on how to feel when you're selling out and how to feel alive.
02/02/2022 — Months ago I spent my day scrubbing pigeon shit off the brick stoops of a meditation hall in downtown San Francisco.
Pigeons eat mostly trash. And city pigeons eat city trash. Imagine shit made of city trash. It’s ultra-hyper-concentrated-weapons-grade-shit-trash uranium. That’s when I was living as a Zen monk. Now I make $150K to sit in a warehouse. And I long for the days of scrubbing shit, mopping floors, and dusting altars.
Why is this so? I can’t quite figure it out. But I’ll take a crack at it.
Below are some lines from a commencement address by Bill Watterson. It’s titled “Thoughts on the real world from someone who glimpsed it and fled”. (This should give you a flavor for where this essay is going… and where I’m going.)
So, what's it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don't recommend it…
We all have different desires and needs, but if we don't discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.
Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your tuition debts within your own lifetime.
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.
To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.
As I think of my longing for pigeon shit scrubbing, I’m half-tempted to do some technical analysis of the psychological principles at work (efficacy, purpose, etc.). Truthfully, I’m not sure how to explain why that work now seems so enviable. I don’t know what the best adjective is – it felt like the opposite of selling out. The word that keeps coming up is soul.
The work felt soulful.
This feeling isn’t practical. And maybe it’s all in my head that I was serving some greater Buddhist cause of ending suffering for all beings. But I was the one scrubbing the shit. And I’m the one earning $1 per minute in this damn warehouse. And I can tell you that right now it feels like my soul is slowly seeping out through the bottoms of my shoes.
(The food is pretty good though.)
If you want to understand why meaning and soulfulness matter, contemplate death. You’re going to die, you know. You’re dying right now (so am I).
Ask yourself this question: When I die how will I know I lived a good life? Really answer it.
Odds are you’ll think about things like to love and be loved, or make the world a better place, or live a rich, full life. I’m guessing money didn’t make the list? How about your title or the prestigious and impressive crap you did? Money is important. Success is great. But it won’t supply all the meaning you need.
The easy thing to do at this point is dismiss this.
“Jackson, you’re a f-cking hippy, man. And a know-it-all”. (Both somewhat accurate). Because if you take this stuff about soulfulness and meaning seriously and listen to yourself, life is going to get a lot more complicated.
What’s the meaning in your work? Does it really matter? Does it align with your answer to the death question?
Are you working in a hospital? Yeah, your work is probably pretty worthwhile even though it’s exhausting. Are you a college professor genuinely invested in your students? I’d say yeah, your work matters. Are you a VP at a large bank? The marketing director at an advertising company? You say you’re making the world a better place. Are you?
I don’t know, maybe you are.
I’m not here to tell you, just to say it’s worth being a bit skeptical. That’s because our culture puts folks like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos on a pedestal. I don’t think those men are bad people by any stretch. However, changing the world or being a business icon is not the same as making the world a better place. Maybe that’s a scorching hot take for an American writer to offer an American reader.
It’s easy for me to say I’m an essential worker. I get industrial supplies from my warehouse to manufacturers all over the country. This work is the lifeblood of the American economy. So on and so forth. Now I'm not making the world a worse place. But it’s a stretch for me to call this work soulful or meaningful. It feels a lot more like churning the gears of a massive economic engine than serving my fellow humans.
So I don’t think you should beat up on yourself. Or get defensive. It’s just that what I don’t want to have happen to bright folks like you is for you to get to the end of your life and think, “f-ck, what did I just do?”.
I might have pretty high standards. And I’d wager that when you’re nearing the end of life, you will too. So make your money. Be successful. And don’t take some writer too seriously… But make sure you don’t lose your soul either.
Selling out often means buying in – buying in to some bullshit definition of a fulfilling life. And in my opinion that’s what our current culture has to offer in the way of personal philosophy: bullshit.
The happiness prescription is to hustle, beat the next guy, rise to the top. Then you’ll have made it. Then you can be happy. But I worry that when you’ve finally made it, you’ll find the only thing you’ve made is an ass of yourself. Because our society’s bullshit happiness advice has made an ass of us all. Don’t believe me? Scroll twitter. Turn on Fox or CNN. Try tik-tok.
How are we doing?
“Totally f-cked” seems like an appropriate summary. Then dig into the stats on anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and ADHD medications. The modern day consumer culture engine feels like one big scheme to rob us of our health and happiness and then sell them back to us.
Now we’ve come a long way since the fun and innocent talk of pigeon shit. And I’m sure you’re tired of my lecture. So what I’ll leave you with is this:
If you want to do the opposite of whatever selling out is, then don’t buy in. Don’t listen to the marketing messages or the Instagram gurus or the bullshit philosophy of our current culture. Don’t even listen to me.
Listen to your soul. Contemplate living a life you won’t regret. Read the wisdom that’s lasted 1000s of years – the Bible, the Buddha, the Stoics… And try to find work that builds you up rather than breaks you down.
This is something you feel not something you think. It won’t always make sense - but my experience has been that you can feel what’s soulful, what’s true, and what makes you happy. And you can feel when you sell out.
My pigeon shit manifesto: work to live, don’t live to work. And don’t settle for anything less than enjoying your life.
(!) PS — This essay is going to be included in my new book. It’s now at rough draft stage. If you’d like free chapter please hit reply and tell me. If you want to be notified at book launch time leave your email here.
Thanks for reading. Please share with a friend. Leave your email if you want a read like this one every few weeks.