Tom Doyle’s new book, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, opens with a portrait of a severely depressed Paul McCartney, mourning the breakup of the Beatles:
“For the first time in his life, he felt utterly worthless. Everything he had been since the age of fifteen had been wrapped up in the band. Now, even though he couldn’t tell the world, that period of his life was almost certainly over.
“It was as if he’d suddenly and unexpectedly lost his job, been made entirely redundant. He was twenty-seven and of no use to anyone anymore. Even the money he’d earned up to this point was no comfort, made no real difference. This was an identity crisis in extremis: Who exactly was he if he wasn’t Beatle Paul McCartney?
“… Out of work and with nothing to distract him, he was tormented by ghosts from his past; they would rise up, whispering in his head, telling him that, in spite of everything he’d achieved, they knew he’d never really amount to anything. That he should have found a proper job in the first place, just as they’d always said.”
Coupling productivity with self-worth has an obvious and unfortunate byproduct: Once you are no longer producing “content” — no matter how successful you were — you are no longer of value. And if you define your identity solely by your work, what happens when you lose your job?
Every writer who has uttered the words, “You’re only as good as your last column,” can relate to the insecurity that fuels a lot of work. We all need a little ambition, but there is a huge difference between being “driven” and “called,” and this feels like evidence of the former.
The case of McCartney is especially instructive, inasmuch as it would be hard to find a more extreme example of someone who should have been able to rest on his laurels, and yet, couldn’t. Here you had a guy who was very rich and wildly accomplished — having spent years being worshipped for being in one of the most famous rock bands in the world. And yet, upon losing his job (if that’s what you want to call it), McCartney became despondent and utterly unable to enjoy his past success. (Granted, drugs and alcohol played a key role.)
The other week, I wrote about how being unemployed can lead to depression. If this principle holds true for Paul McCartney, just imagine what a lot of (non)working stiffs are going through right now.