Thinking about treadmills

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I’m glad February is short because this month is kicking my ass. It feels like I stepped onto a treadmill cranked up to the highest setting. I’m out of breath, out of shape, and I can’t jump off. Because it’s a treadmill, though, I’m not actually getting anywhere. I’m just running in place. Anybody else feel like this lately?

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There are a lot of treadmills that come up in sociology, especially as applied to understanding the economy and the environment. Treadmills are a good metaphor for what modern society feels like—exerting a lot of effort but always staying in the same place. The treadmill of production is about the way in modern, capitalist societies, there’s a pressure to always be growing and expanding.1 We need to make more and do more and, if you don’t, you’re a failure. Growth isn’t neutral. Growth is how we measure our worth.2

In other words, in capitalist systems, there is no chill. You can’t be content with making just enough money to live a good life and pay your employees well. You have to keep expanding and getting bigger. Adding more locations. Increasing your market. Speeding up production. Just writing about it makes me exhausted.

The treadmill of production sucks in the workplace, but it doesn’t stop there. Everyone and everything feels this constant pressure to grow and expand. I think of music festivals that want to draw bigger acts and larger audiences, instead of just aiming for sustainability and entertaining a local crowd. Or universities that endlessly add programs. These aren’t even for-profit organizations, but they’re still on that treadmill, feeling the pressure to grow, grow, grow!3

The craziest thing about the treadmill is that there is no end goal. You can’t ever arrive if you’re on a treadmill. If you hit one benchmark, you set another one. “Stay hungry,” the treadmill tells you, but you know what? Being hungry sucks. Still, you have to keep going until you collapse, exhausted and burned out. Friends, I am close.

This month, I’ve given in to the treadmill, seduced by the promise of this elusive future. I’m running myself ragged trying to get there. In this future version of my life, I’ve been published in the biggest outlets. My social media presence has exploded. I have that amazing platform I was talking about last week. My novel has finally been published, but more than that, it’s wildly successful. I make so much money I can retire tomorrow and spend months at a time in Sanibel.

Some of these are things worth wanting (especially spending months at a time in Sanibel). Most of them wouldn’t bring me happiness. If publishing one book didn’t make me happy, it’s unlikely another one will.4 Social media itself is a treadmill. If you work hard enough to get that big following, you have to work to keep it and grow it and cultivate it. There’s no chill in TikTok, either.

As February ends and I try to step off that treadmill, I’m looking for a better metaphor. I think it might be a stroll. In today’s society, we are very invested in getting places quickly. Why walk when you can drive a golf cart, right? I guess because the walk is valuable in and of itself. A walk is more than a way to get somewhere. It’s a process. An event. An experience.

Picture of a snowdrop about to bloom
Spotted this snowdrop about to bloom on a stroll this weekend.

The opposite of the treadmill is to immerse yourself in the present. To slow down and notice what’s around you. It’s savoring the act of writing itself and ignoring what happens after. It’s appreciating that writing this newsletter is as much about the process of figuring things out for myself as it is about how many people read it. The opposite of the treadmill is stillness…meditation…not moving at all. The opposite of the treadmill is knowing that you are enough right now, exactly as you are.

What treadmills are you on this week, friends?

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Thanks as always for reading, sharing, commenting, liking! Last chance to sign up for the last winter writing workshop tomorrow—Feb. 22 from 7-8:30. We’re writing love, a fitting way to end. Get your tickets here.

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Don’t make the mistake of thinking treadmills are productive or efficient. They’re not. The treadmill of production leads to irrationalities, like in the article here, where we over-produce milk which we then dump.2

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” right? Only, no, there are lots of states that are neither growing nor dying. The natural world doesn’t deal in infinite growth. Even whales only get so big. There are natural limits and we should pay attention to that lesson.3

You know you’re in an organization or group that’s obsessed with growth when they’re more concerned about potential students/clients/consumers/audiences than they are about their current students/clients/consumers/audiences. The people who have already showed up are never as important as the people who might show up, right?4

Of course, it’s a happy thing to publish a book. It does not make you happy, because it’s external, and happiness is an internal state. You have to make yourself happy. Doesn’t that suck?

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