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The Unrealistic Idealism of Online Manifestos

• October 10, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Piracy manifesto installation by Miltos Manetas, design by Experimental Jetset. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Finding creativity by quitting your job and chasing dreams may not always be feasible.

Shared by millions and translated into 12 languages, the Holstee manifesto is a massively popular online treatise whose proclamation is simple: “This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often.” It goes on: “if you don’t like your job, quit,” “travel often,” and “when you eat, appreciate every last bite.” Not just an encouragement to grab life by the horns, it is a wholesale philosophy that insists that “life is simple” and “all emotions are beautiful.”

Through an online store, the Holstee company also promotes a wide range of motivational products, from posters to T-shirts, wallets, and note cards. An accompanying “Lifecycle” video repeats the mantra through a Critical Mass-like parade of bicyclists, inspiring its audience to do what they want to do and chase their dreams.

And the Holstee is not alone. There are many other populist motivational screeds found online, from the lululemon manifesto to the Expert Enough manifesto, each of which is filled with pithy aphorisms in typographically mismatched fonts (“the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness”) that encourage individuals to ignore the skeptics.

This Horatio Alger-esque belief that all it takes is personal willpower to overcome life’s obstacles is endearing, but it often has little to do with reality.

While there isn’t anything wrong with a dramatic encouragement for people to enjoy life, seize opportunities, and open themselves up to new experiences, many of the Holstee manifesto’s other pronouncements are either inapplicable to some or outright wrong for most. Life is not always simple and not all emotions are beautiful. And not everybody has the economic freedom to quit their job and travel.

Frustrated idealists may be holding themselves back from chasing possibilities out of fear of failure, but for those without trust funds and comfortable bank accounts these fears are a legitimate concern. Failure can mean spiraling into poverty and destitution. Each utopian idealist compelled by a vision to better the world in their own unique way must compute whether chasing their dreams is worth living without the regular income, health care, paid vacations, sick days, and other comforts of stable employment.

But the makers of the Holstee manifesto did live true to their own words. Previously working as ad salesmen, the perennial optimists who penned these words quit their day jobs to chase a dream. And with the success of the manifesto, those dreams have been realized. The irony is that the original dream had nothing to do with writing manifestos. The Holstee company was formed to sell T-shirts with pockets on the side instead of on the breast, mimicking a gun holster. “Holstee” = “holster” + “tee.” The T-shirts did not catch on, but the declaration of independence from mindless drudgery did. To be truer to their words, the Holstee’s creators should be encouraging more people to quit their jobs to sell inspirational proclamations.

Certainly, there is always a possibility to turn creative thoughts into successful ventures, but more often than not it takes a hefty amount of struggle, talent, persistence, money, connections, some luck, and a good, original idea to realize that success. This Horatio Alger-esque belief that all it takes is personal willpower to overcome life’s obstacles is endearing, but it often has little to do with reality.

I can relay personal stories of friends and acquaintances who, having believed in the power of their convictions, chased ideas about transformative video game concepts or building websites that revolutionize how people share to-do lists. They were all interesting ideas, but like most businesses, the majority of them failed to garner attention or profit. These intrepid entrepreneurs can often only conceive of running their own business because they come from relatively wealthy backgrounds or have day jobs to depend on for regular income.

Encouraging anybody who is stuck in a rut to simply quit their job is unsustainable. Bureaucracies can be oppressive and depressing, but for everyone to start anew is a subtle admittance that reform is impossible. It says that changing lives through political and social means is feckless. Everybody simply has to chase their dreams and become their own boss. That everyman entrepreneurial rhetoric is not far removed from the multi-level marketing job offers found on telephone poles in highway median strips, late night infomercials, and the back page of newspaper classifieds that offer anybody a chance to “quit your job, work from home, and turn your computer into a cash register.” Most of these offers just happen to be pyramid schemes for piecemeal work. They place the entire burden of running a business—finding leads, advertising, accounting—on the employee, while returning only a sliver of the revenue they generate by selling cosmetics and kitchen supplies to their friends and family.

This free-spirit approach to economics may seem enlightened on a personal scale, but it won’t function at a global level. Not everybody can do whatever they like all the time and hope that the world progresses. Most people are bound to work that is demanded by others in the supply and demand of labor in a free-market system. What would you do without the janitors and garbage men and other trade professions that don’t fulfill an idle office worker’s dreams?

That said, the simplistic idealism that these manifestos traffic in is inherently appealing. The image put forward in the “Lifecycle” video, with its glowing post-rock soundtrack and utopian vision of youthful exuberance joined together across social and economic divides, strikes a chord in anybody dwelling in their own frustrations. It harkens back to the popular “Hilltop” Coca-Cola ad of 1971, where denizens of youthful idealists converge on an Italian hilltop to sing in unity about how they’d “Like to Buy the World a Coke.” The implication being that a soft drink could bring everybody together and solve complicated international disputes.

The Holstee manifesto and others like it take that youthful idealism one step further into a full-fledged philosophy of personal liberation through self-indulgence. Discontent is a temporary inconvenience whose only solution is to be reminded that other jobs are easily accessible and life is great. Just do what you want. While this may largely appeal to members of an upper class looking for creative inspiration, there are plenty of people for whom socioeconomic concerns take more precedence over needing to be reminded to appreciate food.

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones
Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C., writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic The Los Angeles Review of Books, Toronto Star, The Awl, and The Morning News.

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