The Thankless Work of a Pioneering Slacker – the Leif Pettersen Story

As promised last week, I’m following up my post on the destructive culture of over-work here in the US with a little background on my personal research in the field of Slackerology. And when I say ‘field’, I’m largely referring to a desk, in a cubical, in a secured, windowless room, that was at times in an underground bunker. Yes, I’m speaking of my nine years working for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Like fine wine or the Cohen Brothers film catalog, my Slacker Zen over the years has had exhilarating spikes and demoralizing dips. My time at the Fed started with the former and ended with the latter.

Now, I should start by saying that I am not at all bitter about my time at the Fed. All things considered, they treated me well, paid me a decent wage, offered excellent benefits and the opportunity to develop my career. Which I did. Eventually. But not after a fairly wonderful interval that I now refer to as the “Underachiever Years”.

The Fed was my first permanent job after university. Over the course of two backpacking trips in 1993 and 1994, I spent roughly six cumulative weeks in Spain, where I first got the crazy idea that your job shouldn’t dictate every facet of your life. Despite the long-suffering, stoic, Norwegian-Minnesotan gene pool from which I sprang, I acquired a rather immediate penchant for the Spanish lifestyle. And who wouldn’t? There’s a very good reason that American and English Spring Break revelers and retirees head to southern, Latin locales instead of Poland, Siberia and Winnipeg.

Obviously, six weeks of semi-sober backpacking didn’t exactly make me a sociological expert on the collective Spanish temperament, but it doesn’t take years of field research to note broad patterns. Namely, Spanish adults seemed to be better rested, more at ease and generally enjoying more idle time than most kindergarteners do in America. Even in such chaotic and seemingly demanding places as Barcelona and Madrid, I watched people amble to their jobs at a civilized hour, astonishingly wide awake and lively, where they would work diligently yet causally until noon. Then, on a silent, nationwide cue, all work promptly stopped so that everyone could return home to feast lavishly, hump the spouse (or sometimes the neighbor’s spouse) and take a nap. At 3-4pm everyone returned to work with a satisfied glow, working until 7-8pm, when it was time to rendezvous with the family for a group walk, a pleasant dinner and, God love ’em, a televised sporting event.

When I returned to the US to reluctantly begin my career, in my youthful naivety, I decided that I would live as the Spanish lived. I would place priority on my personal life no matter the cost, and if that meant eliminating any trace of professional ambition and languishing in eternal mediocrity, well then that’s simply how my life would have to be.

Conveniently, with the dire state of the entry-level job market in 1994 and my hard-won Theatre Arts degree, I really didn’t have any choice but to embrace an impoverished, Euro-slacker lifestyle in the beginning. Indeed, I immediately landed one of those jobs specially reserved for people with my unique qualifications: switchboard operator.

This was a job that I’d performed handily during university. I could work a phone with the same technique and élan as a concert pianist, answering and transferring calls for hours without ever looking up from my book.

Having, I felt, ingeniously found a job that only required 5% of my brain processing capacity, there was little stopping me from staggering into work on two hours of sleep in the throes of a raging Rum-and-Cokeurism. Staying true to my inner-Spaniard, I would skulk off and nap during lunch. Since time and distance prevented me from returning home for my siesta, I had to sidle into one of the ‘resting rooms’ at the Bank, meant for sick people and lactating mothers.

This went on for two of the most carefree years of my adult life, before things like TV brainwashing, peer pressure and wretched envy finally got the better of me. Actually, more than anything, I’d had enough of watching people earning twice what I was earning who couldn’t even print out envelopes without assistance. I slowly let go of my pursuit of leisure, hobbies and rum and clawed my way up the ranks of the Federal Reserve, jockeying and leaping up the pay scale through five jobs in six years until I’d hit the big time. I was getting a comfortable check, I had my very own high-walled cubicle, and I was the proud owner of all the essential Bank-issued status symbols: a laptop, pager and cell phone.

At about the same time that I achieved what I’d coveted for years, I realized that I’d unintentionally smothered my inner-Spaniard. My career had taken control of my life and as a result I was the least content that I’d ever been. I was 32, divorced, overburdened with a house full of superfluous crap that I didn’t really need, working an occasionally insane on-call work schedule, dangerously dependent on caffeine and muttering darkly about life.

A series of hangover-driven moments-of-clarity occurred, making me realize that I was in serious danger of spending the rest of my life as an over-worked, media-programmed, mindless consumer. I needed to act fast or I would irrevocably descend into a lifestyle that no sane Spaniard would approve of. And act fast I did. In a frenzied six-week period, I implemented a critical mass of rash and irreversible decisions, quitting my job, selling my house, car and all earthly possessions, buying a laptop and flying to Europe with the intention of breaking and entering into the travel writing industry.

My Slacker Zen went supernova for a few years, until I succeeded in carving out my new freelancing career. Admittedly, as an ironic but important footnote, I now generally work harder than I ever did at the Fed – for far less compensation. Being my own boss turned me into an obsessive workaholic. Who would have guessed? Yet my overall contentment level is still notably higher than my final years at the Fed, so there’s that to consider. Also, I’m still dangerously dependent on caffeine.

To this day, the work-versus-contentment paradigm fascinates me. Obviously, it’s virtually impossible to avoid work, but does it always have to be a resolve-testing bummerfest? And what makes it that way? Is it the hours we work or the job we have or the attitude we carry? Even if we don’t live in Spain, can we live and work like they do? And why, for the love of Buddha, after working ourselves to the brink of mental and physical breakdowns, why do we spend our fleeting nights, weekends and vacations doing things like home improvement projects or running frantic errands? The cultural pressure to be constantly productive has invaded our homes and downtime.

I realize this is more autobiographical than informational (some of you may have noticed that I stole a lot of this text from this post), but trust me, I’m building to something. Next week, I go into absurd detail about the founding elements, as I see them, of Slackerology. I’ll also touch (read: rant) on the pattern of rash consumerism in the US that I refer to as ‘Common Senseless’ and how, with a little planning, one can live like a European in the US.