Escape Total Work! A 4-Week Course Starting In February
Update (January 6)
This write-up was originally posted on January 4th. I won’t be taking more applications after the end of January 11th.
The Character Of Our Time
It has gone largely unnoticed that our time is defined by Total Work, the long historical process through which human beings have been slowly transformed into Workers as nearly every domain of life — almost every nook and cranny — has come to be, or resemble, work. More and more people live for, and sometimes die for, work while mistakenly construing their lives as works themselves.
How soon we forget! Until the birth of the modern world, work was the lowliest human concern. Seen as an extraordinary burden in the first agrarian states of Mesopotamia, as a curse by the Greek poet Hesiod, and as penance for original sin in Genesis, work was relegated, therefore, to farmers in the Neolithic period, to chattel slaves in Classical Athens, and to peasants in medieval Europe. Yet somehow it started to become sacrosanct beginning in Europe approximately 500 years ago.
The point of this course is to teach us how to break free.
How did work go from being the worst fate imaginable to being at once the keystone of modern life and the moral center of almost every modern person’s earthly aspirations? How did work become, more than a mere tool for individual and collective survival, the very promise of ultimate fulfillment on par with religious doctrines of salvation? And in what ways do we suffer our inherited ideas about work without even knowing it?
It’s time for us to recognize how we’ve become imprisoned by Total Work. Hence, the point of this course is not theoretical: it is to teach us how to break free.
Who’s Teaching This Course? A Work-centric Biography
Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher. He asks and seeks to answer the most basic questions of human existence with others around the world. In 2009, he finished a Ph.D., left the academic life, and moved to New York City because he thought the most fundamental question of how to live needed to be brought back into our everyday lives. Each day he speaks via Zoom with executives, entrepreneurs, and creatives throughout the US, Canada, and Europe about the nature of a good life. He is also the founder of Askole whose aim is to help technologists examine what, at bottom, they’re taking for granted. His ideas have been discussed in Quartz, The Guardian, Big Think, Wisconsin Public Radio, TEDx, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He and his wife Alexandra are currently exploring the American Southwest.
OK, So Who’s Really Teaching This Course?
I’m a Zen Buddhist and a philosopher. I care about people. I want to live a wise and loving life, and I want to do my part to end unnecessary human suffering.
How did work go from being the worst fate imaginable to being at once the keystone of modern life and the moral center of almost every modern person’s earthly aspirations?
Signs Of Total Work
Are you burned out? Often anxious? Frequently overwhelmed? Feeling overburdened? At wits’ end with no end in sight?
Are you excessively enthusiastic about the work you do? Do you regard what you do as “a calling” or “a vocation”? Do you pine for “meaningful work,” “fulfilling work,” “socially impactful work,” and the like? Do you dream of being the next CEO of a unicorn?
Do you put work before pretty much everything else? Do you rank order people according to whatever mark of status is associated with the work they do? Are you over 40 and single? Is “What do you do?” almost always the first question out of your mouth?
Do your thoughts and feelings run in endless loops around work and work-related things — tasks, projects, meetings, deadlines, strategy sessions? Does it seem almost impossible for you to put work down? Do you turn to having a drink, smoking a joint, or watching Netflix in the hope of “unwinding”? Do you have trouble sleeping just because your mind keeps racing?
Is “What do you do?” almost always the first question out of your mouth?
Is social media the kind of work you — hopefully ironically — call “personal branding”? Are your social media accounts scrupulously checked and meticulously updated with a view to presenting a manufactured self that’s too impressive for others to overlook or ignore? In your posts, do you tend toward overniceness so as not to offend anyone or toward provocation in hopes of winning others’ (transient) attention?
I could go on, but by now I think you get the drift. For a more artistic sketch of the Total Worker, you may wish to read this still popular Aeon article.
Who Could Benefit From This Course
This course was not easy, but it was one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. I thought I loved work, but through this course I realized that my fascination with work was merely a crutch that was distracting me from the things I truly desire. Andrew has encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Buddhism to modern philosophy and fuses it all into a wide-ranging course that will wake you up to some of the pathologies of our society and to what a good life really is.— Anonymous, Ex-Wall Street, Ex-VC world, Ex-crypto
During a meeting, you may have had the sneaking suspicion that all of this jazzy talk about — let’s say — product development is really just a load of bullshit. Or you may have looked around and wondered, “Am I totally crazy, or is everyone here crazy?”
If you’re someone who, so to speak, is less interested in the nature of Oz and more curious about pulling back the curtain to see who this Wizard of Oz really is as well as how this place we call Oz came into being, then this course is for you. Modern society is not given but made; not self-evidently good but open to investigation. So are you.
You may be a coder at a tech startup, an entrepreneur in real estate, an investor on Wall Street, a creative class solopreneur knee-deep in life hacking, or an executive at Google. (Of course, I hope you’ve already begun to question this work identity, if only in fits and starts.) Regardless of the kind of work you do, you’ve started, if only at the outskirts of your consciousness, to notice that something is off, something missing, something not quite right. And how can this be because don’t you have everything you were supposed to want?
What is this something? Why won’t it seem to go away? And why can’t you seem to put it to rest?
If, in connection with work, you’ve tasted something of what the Buddha meant when he spoke of life having a certain taint of unsatisfactoriness (the Pali term is dukkha) and if you’re someone who is remarkably inquisitive about the things that other people — somehow, you might think to yourself — keep taking for granted, then this course is for you.
The aim is to pull back the veil.
A Provisional Schedule
Andrew is Drano for the soul. — Khe Hy, Founder, RadReads
In this course, we’ll see how, in the words of the philosopher Ludvig Wittgenstein, “a picture held us captive.” Indeed, that picture still very much holds us captive, yet it turns out that we are both the jailers and the prisoners.
To see how this picture frames your thoughts, feelings, and actions is to observe closely, carefully, and directly
- the ways in which “I am the Worker” has shown up in your everyday life;
- the profound grip that “I must do meaningful work” has had on “I the Worker” figure;
- and the power of the drama that, for the Worker, has unfolded in terms of the seemingly endless vacillations between “work is shit” and “work is glory.”
To step out of the picture is thus to see through these illusions.
What, then, is the path?
Week #1: Deepening Awareness Of Total Work
You may be surprised by how little you knew and by how much you presumed.
How do we come, in our daily lives, to see and feel how we’ve been specifically ‘gripped’ and ‘caught’ by Total Work? When and where, exactly, does it show up? In what particular ways have we unwittingly, and rather blindly, been governed by its logic?
At first, it can be quite difficult to shine a spotlight on the various forms that Total Work has taken in our lives. Consider a simple everyday example: your impatience with your significant other may spring from your belief that he or she is taking too long. But his or her taking too long points back to your own self-importance. And when you inquire into your own self-importance, you come to see that it’s stemming from the belief that you have important things to get done. What are these important things? Work things, silly! And now you come to recognize that you’re actually putting allegedly important work things before your tender relationship with your significant other. And this is but one fairly rudimentary example of how your love is severely, often blindly limited by this trenchant, pervasive misunderstanding.
In the first week, then, we’ll start to illumine various particular conceptions — that is, ways in which Total Work specifically shows up for you — as well as more general patterns — that is, how Total Work tends to show up for many of us.
By the end of the first week, you may be surprised by how little you knew and by how much you presumed since theoretical analysis of Total Work is insufficient on its own. This knowledge of ignorance, for the Buddha as well as for Socrates, is where — and how — the genuine investigation begins.
Week #2: Turning Over Every Stone
Have you seen it all the way through to the end?
If in Week #1 we started to be more aware of Total Work’s effects on certain aspects of our lives, in Week #2 we roll up our sleeves and begin the inquiry into completeness. Awareness, after all, yearns for thoroughness. To be thorough with ourselves, we need, as best we can, to leave no stone unturned. We cannot stop the inquiry halfway; we must see it through all the way to the end.
Accordingly, we may need to go broad and look at our relationship with institutions. Or we may need to be very narrow and granular and examine our entwinement with significant others. Or we may need to occupy middle ground and see how colleagues, mores, and what’s now in business lingo called “culture” inflect and influence and deform us.
To be dogged in this pursuit is to learn to “change the fuel source” from our being a self-propelled, unexamined agent to our becoming a loving inquirer into the truth. It is also to clearly map out how all that we call Total Work operates in your daily life.
Week #3: There’s Nothing Special After All
How, through work, have you tried to make yourself into a Somebody?
Around Week #3, we set foot on the path of coming home again. For all this time, during all these years, we’ve come to think that work must be something special; that “I must be my work”; that it must shine forth with its own brilliance; that it will “make something” of us, transforming us into Somebodies; and that we, in turn, shall be outstanding, remarkable, or special too just so long as we honor its claims and calls. But we are sadly mistaken, and now is the time to lovingly correct our misunderstanding, to see through the tissue of misguided illusions.
Let it be said: “Work is nothing special except insofar as everything in life may gleam with its own specialness.” This is the truth we’ll be investigating. And what is the significance of this truth? Indeed, what does it even mean — at all and especially for us? We’ll see its meaning clearly and immediately as we inquire together.
Week #4: Tasting Freedom
How can we be in right relation with work?
I don’t think that work should be jettisoned for the simple Buddhist reason that anything in life may have its place in our hearts if only we know how to welcome it and if only we also know how to show it the door when it’s time for it to leave. To jettison it is to continue to react to it and therefore still, perversely, to give energy to it, the energy of hatred. To regard work as a great antagonist: this is not wisdom but imprisonment.
Being free from work, then, does not mean never working, in any capacity, again. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be free of sweeping my courtyard nor of the gift of cooking or of receiving a home-cooked meal. Nor would I wish — no, not necessarily — to cease having to do a modicum of work in order to provide for my family.
If, then, work, in myriad forms, is here to stay, the genuine philosophical question is: how can we be in right relation with work? In Week #4, we’ll examine with the utmost care the work ethic, observing how hard work (relabeled today: maximizing productivity) and laziness (relabeled: wasting time) both need to be let go of. Seeing through the work ethic will bring us that much closer to being in right relation with work.
Now, suggesting, as we did in Week #3, that work is nothing special (except insofar as everything is special) does not tell us where and how to find a proper place for it in our conduct and in our way of living. What we’ll learn, in time, through experience, and in our shared engagement with one another, will be how to put work to rest and thus how to be at peace with it. This is true peace, real freedom. It is peace of mind, this is true, but it is also more than this also.
Escape Total Work! includes 4 live sessions, 6 pre-recorded guided meditations to listen to between sessions, 5 chapters from my forthcoming book Total Work, 4 invitations to go deeper plus a post-course design challenge, 4 introductions to pen pals, and a partridge in a pear tree. OK, maybe not the last one.
- “Escape Total Work” is a 4-week course running from February 7th to February 28th. Each class will start at 4 p.m. EST/8 p.m. (20:00) GMT.
- Each class, lasting 1 hr. 45 min., will be held weekly on 4 consecutive Sundays (i.e., Feb. 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th). There will be 4 classes in all. Each student will be expected to come to all 4 classes and to participate in the group philosophical conversations. I will stay 15 minutes after the end of each class to answer further questions that participants may have for me.
- The course fee, intentionally set low, is $425 USD. In the application, I also include instructions pertaining to how you can pay via PayPal.
- Each class will draw on, while deepening the insights from, the prior class. The learning will be experiential in nature: it may begin with a brief guided meditation, move onto a short lecture, and then segue into a group philosophical conversation. The point is to get you to look within.
- Deep readings will prepare you for the upcoming class, and “invitations,” which are akin to homework, will be sent out after each class. The latter will help to prepare you for the next class.
- The course will likely be capped at 12 people. As of this posting, 3 spots have already been pre-filled and 2 have already filled out applications but have not yet paid. Know that the autumn course was full in less than 3 days from the time the write-up was initially posted.
- A reading list, consisting of articles on Total Work I’ve written over the past 3 years, chapters from my forthcoming book Total Work, important books on the history of work, and more, will allow you to dive deeper into specific subjects during the course or, more likely, after it concludes.
- Through pen pal writing (NB: I’m not generally sympathetic to social media), you’ll have the opportunity to engage, in a more personal, considered, and thoughtful way, with at least 4 course participants. After the course, you may wish to continue these email exchanges or to form small groups. In past Total Work courses, others have done both.
- In Week #4, a deep investigation of the work ethic will bring us home. After the course, you’ll have a chance to engage in a life design challenge, one that will help you apply the experiential knowledge gleaned from the course to the rest of your life.
Andrew is the real deal: a rare mix of accessible wisdom and actionable insights. He’s a major part of my own development, my pursuit of wisdom, and my mental well-being. I’m honoured to work with him and, more importantly, to call him a friend. — Daniel Eberhard, CEO, KOHO
Like some during COVID, I found myself working where I live, or perhaps living where I work. The Total Work program I attended this summer allowed me to see how my relationship to my work, which I find quite meaningful, was profoundly unhealthy. Since attending, I have been better able to step away from complete immersion in my work and to tie less and less of my sense of personal value to my professional accomplishments. I appreciated hearing from others and being asked tough questions about why I made the choices I made and where I truly wanted to be as a human being. — Jerrold McGrath, BMW Foundation Responsible Leader
The course was a real emotional journey for me. The second session broke me into little pieces, so to speak, and left me in a very reflective mood, questioning my craving for attention and validation through work and online endeavours. By the final session, I felt quite lighthearted and able to look at my relationship to work with a greater degree of equanimity, neither ignoring it nor being resentful towards it, but recognising its place as a way of securing right livelihood without asking it to bear such an existential load. — James Simpkin, College Tutor, University of Craven
The first step to fixing a problem is to admit you have a problem. Unfortunately, almost no one admits they have a problem with work. Many people complain about their job, many resign themselves to it, many try to ascribe meaning to it, but few examine their relationship to the actual concept of work. Yet work consumes the majority of our waking hours. Andrew uses insights from a variety of philosophies to explore this conundrum. Seeing work in this light opens you up to examining your life through a new lens. — Anonymous, former real estate private equity
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. How can I expect this course to change my relationship with work as well as my relationship with domains outside of work?
Most succinctly put, you’ll come to see work as it truly is: as nothing special, as neither glorious nor vilifiable, as something you can, with grace and ease, pick up and put down. This direct form of seeing what work truly is will translate into a complete reorientation of your life toward matters of ultimate concern (NB: the design challenge takes this up explicitly). As a result of these changes, you’ll begin to experience less dis-ease (dukkha), more peace, and greater clarity. Realize, though, that this course is just the first step on this path: as Eloah points out below, insights will continue to deepen as you inquire more deeply after the course ends.
Q2. Is this course oriented toward career and lifestyle changes?
No, it’s not. In fact, I’m skeptical of careerism of all kinds. Instead, the course will reveal to you that the emperor has never had any clothes. You’ll begin to prise apart (1) questions of care and meaning as well as (2) questions of identity from matters related to work. In the language of Silicon Valley, work simply cannot “solve for” the things we care about, for what ultimately matters, and for what we truly are. This is just not something work of any kind whatsoever could ever do. It is we who have been asking too much of it.
Q3. You seem to be pointing us to forms of personal inquiry, but doesn’t this inquiry also need to bring us to systems change?
Yes, of course, though the topic of systems change goes beyond the scope of this 4-week course. Consider, for a moment, Ken Wilber’s 2 x 2 quadrant (AQAL). In the lower right, we find questions about systems; in the lower left, questions concerned with culture; in the upper right, questions about measurable behavior; and in the upper left, questions connected to interiority. In a complete deconstruction of Total Work, we would need to explore our personal relationships with work (UL), the role of ascertainable achievements (UR), the culture of work in general and various work cultures in particular (LL), and modern systems (LR). In this course, given that it is limited to 4 weeks, we focus almost entirely on the UL.
Q4. I’ve noticed, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, that Breakout Rooms on Zoom are becoming commonplace, yet I’m not terribly keen on speaking about personal matters with strangers. Is that a requirement for participating in this course?
It’s not. If you’re worried that there will be Breakout Rooms during which you’ll be paired up with a complete stranger and urged to speak quite personally with him or her, fear not: there won’t be any breakout sessions. We’ll be convening in a large group the entire time, and you’ll be able to participate as much or as little as you like. Additionally, via pen pal exchange, you’ll be able to contemplate how much you’d like to share, with whom, and for how long.
Q5. I find philosophy daunting. Will the subject matter go over my head?
This is not a course on philosophy and, as past course participants can attest, I tend to use ordinary language, the language we share in common. That said, the course will, as Socrates urges us, invite you to be open to examining yourself closely. If you’re open to this invitation, then you’ll be fine. Furthermore, if you’re open to playing with certain Buddhist concepts such as clinging and equanimity, then you should also be fine.
Q6. You suggested that the course fee is intentionally set at a low rate. It doesn’t strike me that way. What gives?
Context helps. In the tech ed space, course fees typically range from $500–2000, with some on the high end going up to $10,000. In this context, then, $425 is quite reasonable.
Q7. I’m interested in the course, but I’m not sure that I can make it to all 4 classes. Should I participate anyway?
If you know almost for certain that you can make 3 of 4 classes, then you’re probably fine. If, however, you expect to miss 2 or more classes, then it would be wise to sign up for a future course that better fits your availability.
Please note that the classes will not be recorded. One key feature of this course is the living discourse that emerges, here and now, as we join one another in contemplating these matters.
Q8. I’m curious: are there any prerequisites?
Yes, a few modest ones. While you needn’t have a daily meditation practice, you need to be open to meditating a bit together. Also, you need to have an open mind as well as an open heart because we’ll be engaging with Total Work on many levels: intellectual (yes) but also emotional, somatic, and intuitive. Lastly, before the course begins, I’ll send all participants some things they can read if they wish to get a head start.
Q9. The course sounds good now. However, if I pay the course fee and if I’m not satisfied later on, can I get my money back?
Let me compress a lengthy argument down to its essentials. The reasoning below is loosely based on a bed and breakfast model. First, if you have considerable reservations at the outset and if, upon further consideration, those reservations can’t seem to be put to rest, then it’s probably wise not to sign up for the course. Second, if, after paying the course fee, you realize that you can’t attend the course 2 or more weeks in advance of the first class, then you can expect to receive 100% of your money back. Third, if you realize that you can’t attend the course and if that realization comes less than 2 weeks before the course begins, then you can expect to receive 75% of your money back. If after the first class, 50%. If after the second, 25%. Anytime after that no refund will be issued. Of course, I’ll be willing to consider extenuating circumstances in cases that diverge appreciably from the norm.
This course gave me a signal to wake up and be curious about my life in a deeper sense, to look beyond doing and to explore being. Months afterward, the sparks of awakening that began during it are still having effects on my life; in fact, they are still guiding me. — Eloah, Coder
If this course resonates with you, then you can fill out an application as well as pay the course fee of $425. Both will secure your place in the course.
- The application can be filled out here.
- At the top of the application, I include instructions pertaining to how you can pay via PayPal.
- We’ll convene on Google Meet, which I prefer to Zoom. If you haven’t used it before, don’t worry: it’s easier to use than Zoom. I’ll send out the Google Meet link to all participants before we begin. I’ll also send out a reminder 1 day before each class.
- If you have any questions about the course, you can ask them by filling out this contact form.
I’m eager to meet you and to inquire with you. With kindness and gasshou (palms pressed),