On Chapo the other day Amber A’Lee Frost raised an interesting point. Regarding the novels of John Steinback, she suggested that he was feeding into a national conversation happening at the time he was writing about what to do about people who just aren’t very good at things, but in a way not generally recognised by the welfare state. We will call these people klutzes. Klutzes are not simply unlucky in the labour market, rather their talents make them poorly suited for it. Klutzes may or may not have disabilities but their disabilities are not of the sort that can be used to make a case for social assistance under the current rules.
I don’t normally write personal essays, but I think that tack is required here. Klutzes are a topic of great interest to me because I consider myself a klutz. I’m dyspraxic physically- meaning I have poor motor coordination. Cognitively I suffer from an executive function disorder that makes me chronically absentminded, and while my spatial reasoning is fine, it works very slowly. These factors led to me being fired from my first ever job as a kitchen hand by my own father (he’s a wonderful dad, I was just a really, really bad dishwasher). Compounding these weaknesses, I have periodic bouts of severe OCD that can leave me suicidal depressed for up to a month at random. I have a certain degree of charisma and customer service skills, but nothing so truly exceptional as to overcome these handicaps. My skills could be summed as:
1.A decent but unexceptional work ethic
2. Reasonably well mannered and understanding, though with a somewhat off-putting tendency towards eccentricity
3. A capacity for Research (though with a tendency to distractibility)
4. Writing ability- both fiction & non-fiction
5. The ability to walk long distances.
There are certain jobs which fit this profile of skills, but unfortunately they’re extremely competitive. Consider, for example, writer. I have made pitches to many institutions and publications including the People’s Policy Project, Current Affairs, The Guardian, New Matilda and The Conversation, and not gotten a reply. At the risk of sounding bitter (and I am) I’ve been told that a lot of media organisations aren’t really interested in cold pitches. If you haven’t already got a portfolio of published work, you need to know someone- or so the story goes. The already dire odds of me making a living in media are further lengthened because: I’m eleven shades too left for the centrist establishment which holds 99% of the money in media and- this essay excepted- I’m generally adverse to personalising my writing or marketing aspects of my life and identity. No doubt I could overcome these barriers were I a genius, but I’m not, and I shouldn’t have to be.
I’m a failson, but I’m not the son of anyone very important.
I have considered a lot of options. Onlyfans? I’m not ugly, but I’m a little too chubby- and even if I lost the weight I’m nothing special. Patreon? I don’t have a large enough audience yet (and I doubt I ever will). Starting a business? Most of them fail, and with my absentmindedness I’m more likely than most. Maybe you’re thinking that if you had my skill set you could do very well for yourself- that I simply lack a certain can-do attitude. Perhaps you’re right. If so, consider “positive mindset” as just another thing I’m a klutz at.
The result is that, while completing a PhD, I work a job that I am unsuited to, to which I hang on- by the fingernails- through people skills and a contract that makes me very hard to fire. Once I finish the PhD and my scholarship money dries up, I’ll make a -probably doomed- attempt to get an academic job. When that fails I don’t know what I’ll do next.
The Klutz is mostly invisible in our culture. The few exceptions are klutzes who manage to find some special niche for themselves. The absentminded professor for example- a trope that some people have told me I fit. Really, such quasi-klutzes are the luck ones. The real down in the dirt klutzes, the ones that have it very hard indeed, don’t have any marketable exceptional strengths to offset their weaknesses. They turn up in our culture from time to time. For example, I don’t know a lot about incels, but if my friend and host of the conditional release podcast, Joel Hill is right, many incels are klutzes with the additional disadvantage of being conventionally unattractive and misogynistic.
None of this is to say that klutzes lack talents, they just lack marketable talents.
I am one of the lucky ones. My klutziness is incomplete. I’m organised enough to fake it and hold down a job. Also, while my parents are not rich, they are very generous and supportive. I suspect I would have spent at least a little time homeless and couchsurfing with friends if my parents weren’t supportive. If I were charmless or just a little bit more disorganized still, my parents would have to stretch their generosity further.
I believe there’s a lot of us klutzes around, though I can’t prove it. There is certainly an outsized number of partial klutzes like me in academia.
Probably, since a young age, many klutzes have been told that they are lazy, because a lot of the time that’s what being a klutz looks like from the outside- e.g.. If you have an average, or even somewhat above average, work ethic and are a klutz, you will look lazy to others, because you get through work more slowly “He couldn’t possibly have forgotten again, he must just be too lazy to do it.”, “He couldn’t possibly have broken something again just by clumsiness- he must not be paying attention”.
What I’m trying to do here is articulate a new group- to impose a new condition of being into your consciousness. The klutz. I’m not going to propose specific solutions here because that isn’t the point- it is not beyond the wit of sapiens to provide a decent life and meaningful opportunities for contribution to klutzes. It just isn’t- it’s a matter of will. Instead I am doing what I most hate awareness raising (*spits*).
So, conditional on us not forgetting the time or location, let us rally. Upon our badly homemade banners, let us raise the sign omni homini habeat valorem, which, if my amateurish Latin translation is correct, means “every human has value” (and if it is not correct, is that not much the better?). Let us fight for a dignity not conditional on technique or power. Arise my silly siblings! Let us chant, “useless, not worthless”.