We’ve gone through quite a bit of Isaac’s ideas on work and I wanted to finish off as strongly as possible. So with that in mind I chose two of his pieces, “Working Hard Doesn’t Have to Mean Burnout” and “You’re Never Done Working Hard“.
To pick at something that seems really obvious to me, if you’re never “done” working hard then it seems like burnout is imminent, not avoidable.
I don’t think you can say that hard work is never done but nor does it have to cause you burnout. Whether it’s due to human error or the way that the systems of work that exist now work, burnout seems ever present in our lives. And especially if we take the view that not only should life be a struggle but so should the afterlife (more on that in a second) then we’ve gone way past the inevitability of burnout.
But in Isaac’s view you won’t burnout if you don’t work some place that (and I quote) “sucks”.
Now, allow me to get into why this just doesn’t work as preceding advice to “work hard”.
For starters, plenty of people burnout on things they love. It’s why people switch careers, hobbies, why people develop new interests and so on. I’ve had a long-running (for me anyways) obsession with the comic The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (USG) since May. I am in love with this comic. I’ve written introductory essays about Squirrel Girl (SG) herself as well as reviews of all of the USG issues. Recently, I even wrote about USG and conflict resolution.
The point is, I love Squirrel Girl and –
…Right, the blog post.
So, as I was saying, it’s easy to get burnout from doing what you love. Honestly, it’s hard not to burn yourself out on things you love because they are so engrossing and intoxicating. You feed off the energy it gives you with every second you spend with it, reading/writing/coding/whatever it. And it seemingly can only grow and grow until you do suffer burnout and manage to move on to something else.
For me, what’s made SG last so long as an obsession is that it’s been so consistently good (just look at the reviews if you don’t believe me!) and has been so inspirational and uplifting in a time in my life when I really need it.
Emotionally and intellectually then, the comic really resonates with me on many levels. It’s hard not to enjoy that for a long time and as someone with aspergers I take my obsessions seriously. Perhaps more seriously than your neurotypical nerd, I don’t know. But either way, my obsessions usually last weeks and not months so SG is something special in that regard.
But still, I don’t think I won’t burnout eventually. Maybe it’ll stop being so amazing to me or maybe it’ll be integrated into my schedule and seem much more of a casual thing then it does now. What’s got my obsession still going strong is the fact that the writer and artist (Ryan North and Erica Henderson, respectively) will be around Massachusetts this month and next or at least next.
This is all just to say that even when you have a deep passion of something that isn’t necessarily going to make burnout less likely. See, for example “real programmer syndrome” (see here for my take), which can also involve “imposter syndrome” more generally.
But even if Isaac were right about that, it still would come from a fairly tone deaf assumption that people always can exit bad situations.
Look at how casually he states this:
Don’t do things that make you dead inside. Don’t stay anywhere – home, school, job, relationship – where you feel devalued or depressed every day. Don’t settle or compromise. You may not know what makes you come alive, and that’s OK, but as soon as you find things that make you die, quit. Exit. Leave.
Similar to Isaac’s assertion that people should work for free so they can be free it is very easy to see why people would find this a tone-deaf assertion. It isn’t so easy to leave a situation that you know isn’t good for you. There could be plenty of mitigating factors for why that is. Perhaps you have financial obligations that are tying you down to wherever you are or maybe you have family or friends that keep you going wherever you are.
Now, I’m not saying that you should just use these as reasons to stay when you don’t have to. But sometimes that’s not how these things work out and when it isn’t it’s not always a great idea to just hit the self-destruct button. Especially for folks in one form of poverty or another (emotional or financial).
Then again, Isaac sees this through a “professional” lens, i.e. bailing is something that isn’t dishonorable if it furthers some sort of long-term activity that you want to guide nearly your entire life by. Suffice it to say I have some problems with the ideas of careers in general unless they’re fairly flexible. One way to be flexible with the concept of a “career” is to take a broad category of things you like doing and apply yourself to it. For me, that’s writing. Obviously that’s a huge field full of different things you could do.
One other thing Isaac says that I (ironically) agree with:
If you’re unhappy, slacking off a bit more will not improve the root problem.
Well of course slacking off at jobs doesn’t solve any root problems, but that’s not the point of slacking to begin with.
Whenever I slack/ed off at my jobs it isn’t to strike at the root but to crush the branches in front of me. Sometimes there are far too many branches in front of you to even see the root problem. In other words, sometimes ameliorative measures need to be taken into consideration instead of just blindly striking at the root whenever you’d like.
So yes, slacking off “a bit” or a lot, probably won’t solve economic inequality, capitalism, how much your job sucks or huge systematic problems. But it might lessen some of the damage it does by keeping your mind busy with other and more important things that actually matter to you. And that’s the point to begin with, as I understand it.
In the second post I mentioned, Isaac regales us with a tale of hard work…in Heaven…
One of my favorite stories is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.
The plot involves residents of hell taking a day trip to heaven. The interesting thing is that most of them don’t realize they were in hell, and don’t like it when they experience heaven. Most choose to go back to hell.
It’s not a fire and brimstone hell, just a grey, bleak, lonely place where all the conversations and concerns are shallow. Heaven is even less like the common vision of clouds and harps. It is beautiful, but also terrifying, painful, and really, really hard. The grass and trees and water are literally hard to the touch for the visitors. Those who have been there for some time have become more substantial, and for them the blades of grass softly bend underfoot. But the visitors are such shadowy, weak, ghost-like beings that they can hardly handle the hardness of the more real heavenly environs. It takes time, effort, and struggle to be able to enjoy the wonders of this heaven. In other words, heaven isn’t easy or safe, but it’s good.
There’s so much one could say about something like this. So the promise land for good Christians is a place of terror, pain and a bunch of hardship?
For starters, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of my weak atheism in my life.
But more to the point, after a life of hard work and somehow not burning out we are promised…more hard work, struggle, pain and terror?
First off, what kind of religion is this?
This doesn’t exactly sound intuitively attractive to most people I’d know or talk to (but maybe selection bias plays a part here in that). But it also just sounds…ugly and mean in a way. In Hell everything is easy and somehow this makes you into some sort of…shadow? Oh…no? Not…being a shadow?
I get that not being able to deal with the difficult things in life isn’t a good thing. But what’s the use of it when you’re dead? At that point it just seems like some sort of cruel joke put on by God. Mayhe because he realized humanity was mostly full of awful people who deserve more suffering. Go us!
And to be honest I am not entirely opppsed to Hell as Lewis sees it either. The problem here on both sides is extremes.
Sometimes I want dullness and safety and I’m OK with there being some lack of conflict and stasis existing in life, it’s really not a huge deal. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want conflict as well and I’m especially happy to have plenty of it when that means it’ll get me great things or at least the chance of it. But I don’t want one or the other. From one extreme to the other it sounds like an awful deal when I’d much rather just have some sort of balance of these two things.
So…Purgatory it is?
I also think Isaac draws too large of a dichotomy between “earning” leisure and not earning leisure.
As I’ve said before slacking can be a form of self-care and there’s no shame in taking some time to yourself even if you don’t think you’ve “earned it” (whatever that means). Things don’t become “less real” for me when I can relax on my bed or lay and stare out at the wilderness. Things often become less real for me however, when I’m at my awful part-time job.
I agree with Isaac that visions are important and the same can be said of goals and challenges. But good God (no pun intended), I don’t need that when I die. I just had this huge goal and challenge (one which I failed or succeeded depending on what you take death to signify I suppose) and now I have to start a totally new one? Think of all of the people you could talk to, things you could do, people you could finally see again in Heaven.
But we apparently are going to spend it in terror, pain and stress? No thanks.
Even as an atheist I can see why people usually value Heaven or see so much value in it. But when Lewis talks about Heaven like this…I just feel like he’s coming at this from the totally wrong angle. Especially if he wants me to worship his God anytime soon.
I wish I was making this stuff up but for some people, hard work literally should never end.
But we also shouldn’t burnout, work jobs for free and just quit whatever makes us dissatisfied?
Somehow, I wish we lived in the world Isaac seems to imagine we do. At least in some ways.
It’s been interesting to take a look at Isaac’s ideas on work. Hopefully I haven’t come off as too harsh and rather from a spirit of interest and inquiry.