Go For It!!

Inspiration. Motivation. Ambition. Similar words with different connotations. We’ll look at the impact of all three on loving your work, pursuing your passion, finding your true calling. First up:  inspiration.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed 6.5 million times.

Larry Miller TED

Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses:  What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

Larry Miller Book“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[1]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Sound like fun, doesn’t it? Inspiration throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, and replaces them with a world of new possibilities. No wonder it has a “history of being treated as supernatural or divine.” Truth is, the brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all that punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable, unlikely, and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” and the roar of approval when you wave the field goal unit back to the sideline. We get a rush of it when we bust out, try new things, take risks. George Bernard Shaw wrote the dopamine manifesto in his Maxims for Revolutionaries:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I wrote the following about inspiration in another context:[2]

Reason only works in the bright light of hindsight, and by definition, new is what hasn’t yet been. Therefore reason doesn’t know anything about it, doesn’t understand it, can’t explain it, and definitely can’t trust it. If reason is going to create at all, it looks at where we are and how we got here, then projects its conclusions into the future, reverse engineering what worked in the past so we can do more of the same in the future.

We call people who operate that way realists.  They can cite facts, data, track records, past performance. We credit them with being more in touch with reality than daydreamers and visionaries. We trust them to not lead us astray.

Each of us has that realist’s voice inside us. Do something new? No way. It’s not reasonable.

Inspiration isn’t impressed. It wants idealists:  unreasonable people who don’t give a rip about reverse engineering. Inspiration buys what Einstein said about imagination being more powerful than knowledge. It pushes boundaries, asks us to believe what’s irrational, illogical, impossible, even irreverent and heretical.

Doing any of that is hard and unpleasant and of uncertain outcome, which is why we usually choose to be reasonable and adapt ourselves to the world. We keep our day jobs, hedge our bets, cut our losses, try to be prudent and practical…

And so status quo goes safely on, and we keep living our reasonable lives until one day inspiration comes along and turns us into unreasonable people who want the world to adapt itself to us, and who are prepared to give ourselves to the dangerous ways of mania to make that happen.

Inspiration wants response, not reason. It hooks our hearts, then reels us in. Inspiration isn’t just thrilling and fun, it’s also unrelenting, insisting, demanding… even violent if we leave it no other choice. If it weren’t, nothing creative would ever get started. Or finished.

Dopamine-powered inspiration will get you moving, alright, but we talked about “the dangerous ways of mania” in a prior post and will go there again next time, when we consider motivation.

[1] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[2] Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania, available here as a free download.

Finding Your True Calling

The_Summoner_-_Ellesmere_Chaucer-300x282

The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” A century and a half later, in the 1550’s, “calling” acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”

Put calling and vocation together, and you’ve got an appealing notion:  that you would be summoned by name to a specific occupation as a matter of divine destiny:  “Here, do this, it’s what you were born to do.”

What do you suppose are the odds? First, how many workers are there? The world today has about 7.7 billion people. A couple years ago, when there were about 7.2 billion, this comment string on Quora said that about 5.0 billion around the world had jobs.

Okay, that’s total jobs, but what about different jobs? Recruitor.com says there are 40,000 careers. Careerplanner.com puts the number at 12,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 820+ occupations. Trade-schools.net zeroed in on 31 jobs in 2019 that fit “almost every type of person.” Flexjobs.com says there are 13 most common flex-work jobs. Thejobnetwork.com listed ten most popular jobs for 2018. Business Insider listed seven hot jobs for 2018 and 2019. And on it goes.

That’s not particularly helpful, so let’s just play with some numbers. Suppose those 40,000 different jobs were distributed among 5.0 billion workers. If every job is a called vocation, then each position represents 0.000008 of the total — eight in a million. That isn’t the same as the odds of it happening, but the chances seem pretty low, which we know from experience anyway.

No wonder Chaucer didn’t like the Summoner.[i]

Yet, despite the odds, we still hold onto the idea:

“Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?”

The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith

“[O]ne third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling.” Does that seem high to anyone else? Does that mean that “the rest [who] will not find meaning and purpose in their careers” should give up the dream and follow advice like the following?

It is much easier to suppress a first desire than to satisfy those that follow.  Benjamin Franklin

Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire. Epictetus

The power of unfulfilled desires is the root of all man’s slavery. Paramahansa Yogananda

Maybe, but there’s a pervasive feeling among the Left Behind that they’re missing out big time. For them, cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett offers some perspective from academic research:

  • There’s a difference between a harmonious and obsessive calling. The former gives you vitality, better work performance, flow, and positive mood. The latter is also energizing, but leads to anxiety and burnout.
  • As the quote above said, it’s better not to have a calling than to have one and let it go unanswered.
  • The work you already do might become a calling if you invest enough in it. But that doesn’t mean you should just Grit it out — so says U of Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who wrote the book on the topic. Don’t sit and wait for revelation, she says, instead get out and take on some new challenges, and besides, you might find your source of energy and determination elsewhere than in your job.

For more help, this Forbes article provides a daunting list of twelve things it takes to have a calling and not just a job. The writer also says this:

“Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis … about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:

‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’

‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’”

Ah… now I think we might be onto something. We’ll explore Lewis’s ideas further next time.

[i] A SUMMONER was there with us in that place/ That had a fire-red cherubinnè’s face/ For saucèfleme he was with eyen narrow/ And hot he was and lecherous as a sparrow./  With scal èd browès black, and pilèd beard,/ Of his viság è children were afeared./ There n’as quicksilver, litharge nor brimstone,/ was no Boras, ceruse, nor oil of tartar none,/ Nor ointèment that wouldè cleanse and bite/ That him might helpèn of his whelkès white,/ Nor of the knobbès sitting on his cheeks./ Well loved he garlic, onion and eke leeks. / And for to drinkèn strong wine red as blood;/ Then would he speak and cry as he were wood.

Working With Passion [2]

I’m wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

From the Broadway show “Pal Joey,”
Rodgers and Hart

(Click here or on the image below to treat yourself to the silken sound of Ella Fitzgerald.)

Ella Fitzgerald

The ManagementSpeak argument for working with passion is that disengagement is expensive and risky:  it compromises products and services, generates client and customer dissatisfaction, stirs up co-worker resentment and mistrust, impairs leadership judgment, exposes the firm and the people in it to ethical and legal hazards.

The Compassionate ManagementSpeak (if there is such a thing) argument is that disengagement wears down human beings: it makes us unhappy and unproductive at work, and sours the rest of life.

The Working With Passion Remedy is that we need to fall in love again — with work, to be sure, but if we do, we’ll probably also fall in love again with being alive. The company wins, and so do the people in it.

jokerTrouble is, there’s a joker in the deck:  the part about love. Love involves an unpredictable mix of brain and body hormones that generate its familiar delights and dark sides. This article from Harvard[1] catalogues the hormonal progression from lust to love to long-term bonding:  testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin. The dynamic blend of these volatile hormones accounts for both delight and disaster. Not only that, but falling in love can “turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior, including parts of the prefrontal cortex. In short, love makes us dumb.”

The Dark Side of Dumb includes addiction and bipolar disorder — both of which involve a condition known as “mania.” According to the Mayo Clinic, mania is characterized by:

  • Feeling abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired.
  • Increased activity, energy or agitation.
  • Exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria).
  • Decreased need for sleep.[2]

There’s more, but if we’re desperate, just that much makes us think what’s not to like? It sure beats the usual drudge. What have we got to lose?

A lot, actually. Passion turns us into high risk takers at best, delusional risk takers at worst. We go to a workshop (like the ones I used to lead), we take a vacation, go on a retreat, read a self-help bestseller… and we get a hormonal jolt of inspiration. It feels good — way better than business as usual, in fact so good that no amount of warning (I also gave plenty of those in my workshops) can deter us from taking the plunge.

I’ve done it myself:  I was in the grip of it when I made my bumbling exit out of law practice. I wrote a book about that experience, and here’s what I said about mania:

When we’re in [a state of mania], life has a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, serendipity and synchronicity rule the day, and everything in and around us is an amazing unified oneness – perfect, whole, and complete. It’s the place where auspicious connections are easily made, where imagination makes visions and dreams come true.

Neuroscientists locate that state of mind in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s where the brain tells us all is well, where all of our perceptions come together into a meaningful whole, in a happy stew of the right hormones and chemicals in the right balance to make us feel really, really good.

Compare that to the opposite state of depression, where all is disjointed, fragmented, without meaning or purpose, where social bonds are severed and life is a random walk of disintegration, where the most basic life activities are burdensome, and fruitfulness is a pipedream.

But watch out, the neuroscientists tell us:  you can have too much of a good thing. Get the wrong mix in your neurotransmitter soup, and your natural high can be replaced with delusion, hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s Disease, addictions.

Not the prettiest list.

That’s why mania is plutonium for the for human soul:  powerful almost beyond measure, equally suited to creation or destruction, and tricky to control once we let it loose. But dark side or not, mania is why we dream big dreams, and the bigger they are, the more mania we need. If we want to make our dreams come true, we risk mania’s dark side.

atomic bomb

“Mania is plutonium for the human soul.”

Love risks mania, so does working with passion. Both create, both destroy. That doesn’t mean don’t go there, just keep your eyes open if you do. I don’t regret my personal Working With Passion Remedy, you might not regret yours either.

But then again, you might. And now you’ve been warned.

You also hear about finding your calling or purpose in your work as a cure for the disengagement blues. We’ll talk about that next time.

Layout 1

I tell my mania story in Life Beyond Reason:  A Memoir of Mania. It’s available as a free download here, or you can get it inexpensively in print or digitally from Amazon here. I’m currently writing a sequel about how I’ve been learning to make mania safe and sustainable.

[1]Love, Actually: The Science Behind Lust, Attraction, And Companionship,” Katherine Wu, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website ( Feb. 14, 2017).

[2] For more on mania, see also this article from Psych Central.

Working With Passion

work with passion steve jobs

Hmmm… love… passion… Happy Valentine’s Day!

Now back to work.

Is there really such a thing as loving your work/working with passion? Yes.

What does it mean, to work with passion? I don’t have a good definition, but you know when you’ve got it.

And it certainly isn’t what ManagementSpeak calls “engagement.”

work with passion

Google “work engagement,” and you get a truly stunning number and variety of results, many of which are monotonously unoriginal and insultingly obvious, and some of which are just plain scary. Consider this article from “OSH WIKI,” sponsored by the EU version of OSHA[1]:

“Work engagement is defined as positive behaviour or a positive state of mind at work that leads to positive work-related outcomes. Employees with high levels of work engagement are energetic and dedicated to their work and immersed to their work.”

We’ll ignore the redundancy and wayward preposition for a moment and notice all the strong adjectives:  positive, energetic, dedicated, immersed. No issues there. Wikipedia adds a few more:

“Work engagement is the ‘harnessing of organization member’s selves to their work roles: in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally during role performances. Three aspects of work motivation are cognitive, emotional and physical engagement.’”[2]

Okay, got it:  when you’re engaged at work, you’re “physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally” all there. Hard to argue with that. But then you also need to be “harnessed” to your “work role,” with the ultimate objectives of “role performance” and “work-related outcomes.”

Um, no thanks. I’m pretty sure I’m busy that night. The robots can handle it while I’m out.

Thus far, we only have descriptions of what it’s like when you are engaged.  But how do you get there in the first place? That would seem to be where “passion” comes in. But where does that come from? Maybe we’ll find some clues in an article with a catchy title:  Is Your Colleague A Zombie Worker?

“They walk among us, dead-eyed, with heavy tread. They are the colleague sagging at the coffee machine, the project manager staring out of the window. Meet the zombie workforce: an army of employees who’re failing to find inspiration at work.

“There are more of these ‘working dead’ than you might imagine. According to a recent study by Aon Hewitt, less than one-quarter of the world’s employees are classified as ‘highly’ engaged in their jobs, while only 39% admit to being ‘moderately’ so.

“This leaves an awful lot of the 5 million people Aon surveyed ‘unengaged’, which the more gruesome-minded of us might take to mean ‘haunting office corridors like reanimated corpses’ where once they might have been valuable staff members, full of life and great ideas.”

We all know people like that. We might be that ourselves:  according to the research, look left and look right, and two of you don’t have a pulse. The working dead can’t find the “inspiration at work” they need. Hence no passion.

How do we wake the dead?

I met the world of working dead lawyers right after the Great Recession of 2007-2008. In a stroke of exquisitely bad timing, I left my law practice to start a new venture at the start of 2007. The project bombed, and I was at loose ends. I attended a bar association career change/job search meeting where we did one of those speed-dating things where you meet everybody. It was an eye-opener. Here were all these amazing people — bright, personable, articulate, with wide interests and a desire to serve — but they didn’t see themselves that way. Instead, they saw themselves as victims, helpless, hopeless.

I raced home and sketched out a workshop to help them discover who they really were. I’d never done a workshop like that before, but the ideas poured in, and I wrote them down in a white heat. A couple hours later, I fired off a proposal to the bar association. Weeks later I got an email:  “How’d you like to do your program over lunch next Tuesday? We’ll provide the pizza.” They put a blurb in a monthly newsletter, and 40 people showed up. I’ll never forget standing in front and looking into 40 pairs of empty eyes. The lights were on but nobody was home — or in some cases, the lights weren’t even on, and apparently hadn’t been for a long time.

The workshop morphed into a travelling Continuing Legal Education road show. The promoter called it “Beyond Burnout:  Find Your Passion in the Law,” but then quickly added “Or Out of the Law.” Best intentions aside, most attendees wanted out. Of the hundreds of heartfelt evaluations I collected, the following was by far in the minority:

“I knew I was fairly happy in my career, but I took this CLE because it sounded more interesting than the traditional practice area CLE’s. In working through the exercises, I met some amazing people and realized just how truly blessed I am to be currently working in a job that I love. This workshop got me excited to build my business to an even bigger level – it reignited the passion!”

“Reignited” meant the writer had the passion, and knew it. I said earlier you know it if you’ve got it. Next time, we’ll talk about what that feels like — kinda like falling in love, actually.

[1] In its defense, OSH is in the business of making sure workers are engaged at leaqst enough not tyo hurt themselves or others — a pretty low standard when it comes to passion. Here’s its mission:  “OSHwiki has been developed by EU-OSHA, to enable the sharing of occupational safety and health (OSH) knowledge, information and best practices, in order to support government, industry and employee organisations in ensuring safety and health at the workplace.”

[2] Quoting a 1990 Academy of Management Journal article.

The Lonely Worker

lonely office

In four years, my law firm went from me and my laptop to $800,000 and climbing, and suddenly we were twelve of us in newly decked out offices complete with $100,000 in telecommunications and electronics upgrades.

Obviously we’d hit a sweet spot, and we were having fun. We laughed a lot. We ate together, visited each other’s homes. We took firm ski days and watched the Rockies at Coors Field. We had crazy non-policies like “take as much vacation as you need to come to work refreshed.” We had the coolest Christmas event ever. And we did kick-ass legal work.

But then the numbers got bigger and I got serious. An accountant said our vacation policy was unsustainable — we needed one, in a real live employee manual. I wrote one but never had the heart to show it to anyone. We sat in meetings with consultants formulating heartless strategic plans we all ignored. We had an employee retreat that was just plain weird.

The worst thing I took seriously was myself. I totally blew the lesson basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic founder Pat William put in the title of his book Humility:  The Secret Ingredient of Success. Time and chance had favored us — I’d stumbled  into doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Work had often been a rollicking, happy social occasion. But then I decided I must  have been responsible for it, and paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, and didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.

We’d been in our new offices one week. My wife and I had flown  back the day before from a cushy five-day CLE at a resort in San Diego, and I was heading out to visit our new satellite office when the phone rang. It was the associate-soon-to-be-partner  we’d put in charge. “There’s something going on you need to know about,” he said.

The date was September 11th. The second plane had just hit the second tower.

Our clients — mostly small businesses — got hammered in the mini-recession that followed. As a result, so did we. I sought advice from two Denver law firm icons. They were sympathetic — they’d done that, too — expanded too much too quickly and paid for it in a downturn. A couple other people said you have to let people go — I followed their advice and let one person go — a move I mourn to this day. That’s when I decided we’ll survive or go down, but we’re doing it together.

We limped along until January 2004, when the new leader of our major referral source called to say they were “moving in a new direction” and March 31st would be the date we were officially toast. For the next three months I wrote job recommendations, we gave people their furniture and computers, sold the rest, archived files….

When I went to the office on April 1st (April Fool’s Day), the place echoed. I’d never felt so lonely in my life. Rotten timing, victim of circumstance, happens to everyone… yeah maybe, but all I could think was I miss my friends.

We don’t usually associate loneliness with work. We ought to, says Emily Esfahani-Smith in her book The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters. She cites findings that 20% consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” that 1/3 of Americans 45 of older say they’re lonely, and that close relationships at work are a major source of meaning. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy agrees and then some:

“There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.

“Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

“In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

“And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

“Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

“These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.”

Work And The Loneliness Epidemic: Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business, Harvard Business Review (2017)

He offers these remedies:

  • Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.
  • Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

And, he might have added, you might want to rethink your stingy vacation policy.

For more, see Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings (2011).

If you like this blog, you might enjoy the new Iconoclast.blog, which explores several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

Total Work 2: Asleep on the Subway

sleeping on the subway 2

I saw it often during a visit to Seoul:  people sacked out on the subway, on the bus, at coffee shops, on park benches… The practice is common all around Asia. The Japanese have a word for it:  “inemuri.”

“It is often translated as ‘sleeping on duty,’ but Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as ‘sleeping while present.’”

”Napping in Public? In Japan, That’s a Sign of Diligence,” NY Times (Dec 16, 2016).

Inemuri means it’s more polite to be present, even if you nod off. In the workplace, that means it’s better to sleep on the job than not show up. Besides, it gets you brownie points:

“In most countries, sleeping on the job isn’t just frowned upon, it may get you fired… But in Japan, napping in the office is common and culturally accepted. And in fact, it is often seen as a subtle sign of diligence: You must be working yourself to exhaustion.”

And of course working yourself to exhaustion is a good thing. Add the Asian practice of wee hours business drinking and you might also be napping on the pavement — another common sight.

sleeping on the subway 3

Run a Google Images search on the topic and the sheer volume of visuals is striking — these are seriously tired people.[1] It’s easy to imagine the impact of that level of fatigue on job performance, let alone daily life. The cognitive impairment and other health risks of sleep deprivation are well documented,[2] It’s especially bad in the professions — lawyers and doctors are chief among the sleep-deprived.

There’s also a deeper, darker side of chronic, overworked exhaustion, as we saw in last week’s post:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.”

“If Work Dominated Your Every Moment Would Life be Worth Living?” Aeon Magazine (2018)

Wait a minute! It’s praiseworthy to work yourself to death?! Believe it. And it’s not just in Asia, it’s all around the world, as people everywhere make the steady march toward the state of total work.[3]

dying for a paycheckStanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer recently wrote a book about workplace-induced ill health and death. The following is from a Stanford Business interview, “The Workplace is Killing People and Nobody Cares” (March 15, 2018).

“Jeffrey Pfeffer has an ambitious aspiration for his latest book. “I want this to be the Silent Spring of workplace health,” says Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. ‘We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.’”

This is from the book blurb:

“In one survey, 61 percent of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick and 7 percent said they had actually been hospitalized. Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year. In China, 1 million people a year may be dying from overwork. People are literally dying for a paycheck. And it needs to stop.

“In this timely, provocative book, Jeffrey Pfeffer contends that many modern management commonalities such as long work hours, work-family conflict, and economic insecurity are toxic to employees—hurting engagement, increasing turnover, and destroying people’s physical and emotional health—and also inimical to company performance.

“Jeffrey Pfeffer marshals a vast trove of evidence and numerous examples from all over the world to expose the infuriating truth about modern work life: even as organizations allow management practices that literally sicken and kill their employees, those policies do not enhance productivity or the bottom line, thereby creating a lose-lose situation.”

The Japanese word for work-related death is karōshi, which Wikipedia says can be translated literally as ‘overwork death.” The comparable term in South Korea is “gwarosa.”Call it what you like, give it a special name or not — death by overwork is total work taken to its utmost.

We don’t like to think about it, talk about it, admit it. It’s not our problem. Let the pros handle it. We wouldn’t know what to do anyway.

Maybe it’s time we learned.

If you like the posts in this blog, you might enjoy Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

[1] See also “Death by Work:  Japan’s Habits of Overwork Are Hard To Change,” The Economist (2018)

[2] For an introduction, see Wikipedia and Harvard Business Review.

[3] See, e.g.,Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health,” The Financial Times (Aug. 2017). See alsoDead For Dough:  Death by Overwork Around the World,” The Straits Times (first published April 6, 2016, updated Oct 6, 2017).

Total Work

Tired woman in front of computer

Andrew Taggart is an entrepreneur, “practical philosopher,” and prolific writer who works with creative leaders at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and social entrepreneurs at Kaospilot in Denmark. In a recent article, he comments on the state of “total work,” a term coined by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his 1948 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which described the process by which society increasingly categorizes us as workers above all else.  Like Pieper, Taggart believes human experience derails when work is the dominant cultural norm:

“Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work.

“And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act?

“Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep.

“Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content providers, knowledge brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

“[Work becomes total] when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

“Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity.”

Hmmm, sounds a lot like the practice of law…. But it’s not just lawyers, it’s everywhere. For the movers and shakers it’s build, fund, scale, execute, maximize, prioritize, manage, lead. For the rest it’s be early, stay late, be nice to callers and customers, and get through all that email — there might be something important in there. And everywhere it’s build the platform, get the clicks, likes, and follows, join the meetups and podcasts, eat healthy, buy the Peloton and the Beemer, learn a new language, take the beach vacation, drink the microbrew, subscribe to the curated monthly clothing delivery… it all counts.

There’s nothing intrinsically “bad” in all of that. I do a lot of it myself. But when everything we do is organized around trading our time and energy for reward in the marketplace, we’re going to suffer, individually and as a culture:

“To see how [total work]  causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

“Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now… One feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness.

“The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness.”

In other words, total work is chronically stressful — a well-documented source of mental, physical, relational, and societal ill health. And the problem is, if we’re not already there, we’re alarmingly close:

“This world [of total work], it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.”

As a result:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus[i] would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.”

More on that coming up.

[i] I had to look up “susurrus.” It means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling.”

He Works Hard (But Not Always For The Money)

University of London economist Guy Standing has championed universal basic income since the 80’s. In Basic Income:  A Guide For the Open-Minded (2017), he tackles the argument that UBI is flawed because recipients don’t work for it.

“A remarkable number of commentators and social scientists lose their common sense when it comes to talking or writing about work. While every age throughout history has drawn arbitrary distinctions between what counts as work and what does not, ours may be the most perverse.

“Only in the twentieth century did most work that was not paid labour become non-work. Labour statistics persist in this travesty. ‘Work’ is counted only if it is for pay, in the marketplace.”

For example, he says, it’s the same work to walk the dog whether you do it yourself  or pay someone else to do it, but the former doesn’t count. If it did, it would add up to a lot:

“In the U,K. — and it is similar in other countries — the unremunerated economy (caring for children and the elderly, housework, voluntary work in the community, and so on) is estimated to be worth well over half the size of the money economy.”

Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test does work that counts and work that doesn’t; either way, he works hard:

“In a speck of a village deep in the Finnish countryside, a man gets money for free. Each month, almost €560 [about $640] is dropped into his bank account, with no strings attached.

“He’s a human lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the west.

“Until this year … he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself … The Finnish [workfare system] was always on his case about job applications and training.

“[He was in the same position as] an unemployed Finn called Christian [who] was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums [picks]. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.

“Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.

“So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as ‘poor.’

“Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children.

“All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.”

Compare his situation to that of Florian Dou, one of France’s “yellow vest” protesters, who has no UBI safety net:

“At the bare bottom of Florian Dou’s shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of $6 sausages and not much else… “My salary and my wife’s have been gone for 10 days,” he lamented.

“How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his paycheck arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for so many others in Guéret, a grim provincial town in south-central France.

“In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?”

That last comment — “going out this weekend” — is a moralistic hot button among UBI foes. Again from Guy Standing:

“More generally, there is a moralistic presumption that poor people, especially those receiving benefits, should not be spending money on anything but the bare essentials, denying themselves even the smallest ‘luxury’ that might make their lives less miserable. As Marx pointed out in 1844, ‘every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need seems a luxury.’”

Standing also exposes a related presumption:

“It is often claimed that giving cash to those in need is misguided because people will spend it on alcohol, cigarettes, and other ‘bads’ rather than on their children and essentials such as food, clothes, and heating.

“Obviously, this is a thoroughly paternalistic line of attack. Where to draw a line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Why should a rich person have the freedom to buy and consume whatever the state bureaucracy deems a ‘bad,” but not a poor person?”

Good vs.bad, work that counts vs. work that doesn’t, necessities vs. luxuries…  the UBI debate is littered with polarities and prejudices. Suppose the cultural pendulum swings all the way to a state of “total work” — what would that be like? We’ll find out next time.

Work and Money

will work for food

He’s a gentleman with a family
A gentle man, living day to day
He’s a gentleman with pride, one may conclude
Sign reads, “Gentleman with a family will work for food.”

Manhattan Transfer, Gentleman With a Family

Norwegian Petter Amlie is an entrepreneur, technology consultant, and frequent contributor on Medium. Work runs our economy, he writes in a recent article, “but if future technology lets us keep our standard of living without it, why do we hold on to it?” It’s a good question — one of those obvious ones we don’t think to ask. Why would we insist on working for food — or the money we need to buy food — if we don’t have to?

As we’ve seen, at the center of the objections to robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, marketing algorithms, machine learning, and universal basic income is that they threaten the link between work and money. That’s upsetting because we believe jobs are the only way to “make a living.” But what if a day comes — sooner than we’d like to think — when that’s no longer true?

Work comes naturally to us, but the link between work and money is artificial — the function of an economic/social contract that relies on jobs to support both the production and consumption sides of the supply/demand curve:  we work to produce goods and services, we get paid for doing it, we use the money to buy goods and services from each other. If technology takes over the production jobs, we won’t get paid to produce things — then how are we supposed to buy them? Faced with that question, “the captains of industry and their fools on the hill” (Don Henley) generally talk jobs, jobs, jobs — or, in the absence of jobs, workfare.

John Maynard Keynes had a different idea back in 1930, just after the original Black Friday, when he predicted that technological progress would end the need for jobs, so that we would work for pay maybe fifteen hours per week, leaving us free to pursue nobler pursuits. He spoke in rapturous, Biblical terms:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue–that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.”

But then, after a second world war tore the planet apart, jobs rebuilt it. We’ve lived with that reality so long that we readily pooh-pooh Keynes’s euphoric prophecy. Amlie suggests we open our minds to it:

“Work and money are both systems we’ve invented that were right for their time, but there’s no reason to see them as universally unavoidable parts of society. They helped us build a strong global economy, but why would we battle to keep it that way, if societal and technological progress could help us change it?

“We have a built-in defense mechanism when the status quo is challenged by ideas such as Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and even just basic flexibility at the workplace, often without considering why we have an urge to defend it.

“You’re supposed to be here at eight, even if you’re tired. You’re supposedto sit here in an open landscape, even if the isolation of a home office can help you concentrate on challenging tasks. You have exactly X number of weeks to recharge your batteries every year, because that’s how it’s always been done.

“While many organizations have made significant policy adjustments in the last two decades, we’re still clinging to the idea that we should form companies, they should have employees that are paid a monthly sum to be there at the same time every morning five days a week, even if this system is not making us very happy.

“I do know that work is not something I necessarily want to hold on to, if I could sustain my standard of living without it, which may just be the case if robots of the future could supply us with all the productivity we could ever need. If every job we can conceive could be done better by a machine than a human, and the machines demand no pay, vacation or motivation to produce goods and services for mankind for all eternity, is it such a ridiculous thought to ask in such a society why we would need money?

“We should be exploring eagerly how to meet these challenges and how they can improve the human existence, rather than fighting tooth and nail to sustain it without knowing why we want it that way.

“The change is coming. Why not see it in a positive light, and work towards a future where waking up at 4 am to go to an office is not considered the peak of human achievement?”

One gentleman with a family who’s been seeing change in a positive new light is Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test that just ended. He’s no longer working hard for the money, but he is working harder than ever.  We’ll meet him next time.

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