Excerpts from, “The Case for Leaning Out”, by Nico Lang

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Recently, a friend of the site sent me an article that really put the issue of work into the realm of the personal. Nico Lang does an exceedingly good job summarizing a lot of the pitfalls of what being a workaholic can do.

Originally, I wanted to republish this in its entirety but it’s almost been a week and I haven’t heard back from him giving me permission. So I figure I’ll link it and share some of my favorite parts with some small bits of commentary here and there.

The first part of the article has Lang discussing how he followed in his father’s footsteps of being a workaholic and how it affected one of his friendships and business deals:

Months of late nights led to increasing fights. The website wasn’t making money, and I was working enough for two; like a nagging spouse, I wouldn’t let my business partner forget that. We walked around Chicago’s Navy Pier as the winter lights of the harbor flickered, and I told him that I had to leave the site for us, so we could be good again. He then asked me a question that has since haunted me: “Would you choose a job over our friendship?” I insisted, “Of course not. You come first.” He paused, straining to look at me; I couldn’t tell if it was the lighting or the incredulity. “Really?” he asked. “That surprises me.”
Eventually your persistent activities that you value over others makes them incredulous when you assert that somehow those activities are not important to you in some way. This isn’t just if you’re busy a lot with certain things, that happens to a lot of us. More of what I’m referring to is when you’re actively trying to make yourself busy and always looking to do something else so you can prove that your “meaningful” and that your life is “important”.
And of course, Lang is lying to his friend and he admits as much in the article. What was on his mind then was his work and friends were just a nice bit of icing he had on his work flavored cake.
In the end Lang lost this friend and lost that line of work for a new one. His devotion to one or the other seems fairly apparent, especially from his own admission.
The concept of “leaning in” itself comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 nonfiction book of the same name. Lang, in turn, mentions actor Amy Poeler’s book Yes Please which he thinks effectively counters the idea of putting a lot of life in your career by comparing your career to a “bad boyfriend”:
Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget your birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you.
This is largely the sort of demeanor I had towards my jobs. I didn’t trust them nor did I trust the people in charge. I don’t think I really entrusted or was going to entrust them with my livelihood in some consistent and very stable way. You probably shouldn’t do that anyways even if, like me, you’re working in a minimum wage job.
Part of the reason for that is because job security isn’t something that seems to be as much of a reality anymore. It’s definitely not something that should ever be taken for granted even if it is a thing. A lot of the things that make you feel “secure” in your job are the same things that can make you also stuck there.
Lang mentions a Washington Post writer named Rosa Brooks who shared their experiences from being someone who tried “leaning in”:
“I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in.”
According to Brooks, her exhaustion was a by-product of a culture where we’re all asked to be ubiquitous. “If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned,” Brooks argues. “If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.”
The problem of work don’t stop at work. Instead, they follow us home and they’re involved in much of what we do.
Lang details in fairly good depth this sort of set up that many people have in their lives:
The problem, of course, isn’t just our jobs: We’re working even when we’re not working. We go to happy hour with our coworkers after we get off, share a beer in the office and loiter socially before we leave, take our laptops home when we just have to finish just one more spreadsheet for tomorrow’s meeting, check emails over brunch, and shuffle outside to take an “important call” while everybody else is ordering mimosas. If you’re a writer, your social life likely consists of going to parties with other writers, who will, inevitably, talk about writing; even when we leave work, we can’t shut up about it.
See, work doesn’t stop even when you’re boss says it’s over. The current culture or climate of work is that it never ends and you’re always strapped into the seat even when you get up. That’s because the physical act of getting away from work doesn’t actually get rid of it. Work has completely transformed into an activity that takes place in both geological and non-geological spaces. You don’t have to be at the construction site to be working on construction anymore.
Lang explains where he got the idea of “leaning out” and what it means to him:

Amy Poehler calls it “healthy detachment,” but the Zen spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh describes it as “letting go.”

Hanh writes, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.”

What does it mean to let go? A friend of mine once told me that his entire life changed when he started to give himself the permission to fail—or rather, to fall short of his grand ambitions. But what can also be helpful is to give yourself the permission to walk away. That project doesn’t need to get done tonight. Those emails can wait until tomorrow. You’re allowed to leave when your workday is over. For me, walking away meant disabling the Internet on my phone: No checking emails when I’ve shut my laptop for the day, and no obsessing about what’s happening online.

Allowing yourself to fail and thinking of processes and long-term projects as things that are going to have bumps (some larger than others) makes your ability to adapt a whole lot better. This is in contrast to the idea that if you don’t reach your assigned goal you’ve somehow lost. That there’s no other way to get meaning or value from your journey because it didn’t take you where you originally wanted to go.

But this is a really narrow and short-sighted idea of how value and meaning can be derived from our processes. This is especially true given that processes themselves can give us a lot of value and meaning all by themselves. We don’t always need to be goal-driven and in fact, it may be disadvantageous to think only in terms of goals. After all, the means and the end are fairly tightly coupled together and not individual articles to be discarded whenever one is more important. Discard one and you risk discarding the other in turn, internally or not.

Ideally your processes should be feeding into your goals and vice versa. And not doing this doesn’t mean you’re a failure but of course things might not be going right for you and there’s no use in denying that when that’s true. When it comes down to it, there’s room to carve out between being a total success or a total failure. Sometimes you can have a bit of both.

I’ll end by quoting Lang’s last two passages:

As someone who is asked for my opinion for a living, there’s this idea that writers have to be always on or plugged in to the conversation. That is a trap, and it’s why so many writers eventually stop writing. You might feel like a bright young thing in the glow of the screen, a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, but really you’re just burning up. It’s not just that living for work won’t make you happy. It’s that the person you have to become to do so won’t make you happy, or at least not happier than the person who goes on vacations, shows up to parties, and calls people back.

When I was a kid and tracing the world with my fingers, I wanted to grow up to be someone I would want to read a book about. Now I just want to be someone I would want to be friends with.

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