A critique of Total Work in a time of COVID-19
Find Your Sweetness!
Don’t “find your bliss!” if “finding your bliss” continues, mistakenly to be sure, to lead you to hunt for that chimera, Meaningful Work.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about finding meaningful work because meaningful work doesn’t exist. The bad news is that you’ve been looking for years or deluding yourself into believing in a phantasm for decades. I say, “Embrace your inner Newhart and — ‘Just stop it! Stop it right now!’”
Instead, find that in your life that is sweeter than work. Since work, however interesting, edifying, or socially beneficial, can never be sweet, ask yourself, “What is it that is sweeter than work?” And let your taste — cultivated and subtle — be your guide.
You’d be wrong to say that forms of consumption like eating a carton of Ben and Jerry’s, binge watching Netflix, masturbating while watching pornography, or puttering about with some hobby are sweet. None of these are. In the end, they’re all sour, even bitter, and, in their candor, they never hide this from us. We just haven’t been taking their word for it.
Sweetness, by contrast, has something of umami: this sweetness is savored without so much as a trace or a hint of anything but savory sweetness. This sweetness lingers and — to mix metaphors here — it also sings. No aftertaste and because no aftertaste no regret or remorse.
This sweetness is peaceful and beautiful at once. Thus, it’s better than all past, present, and future marketing campaigns. Why? Because “You can’t beat it!”
Better still, to taste sweetness, to find what is truly sweet, is a wholesome act of love.
Convulsive Experience and Existential Opening in the Time of COVID-19
During the global lockdowns, individuals are faced with three basic options:
Option 1: Double down on Total Work, the view according to which almost everything is work and work is almost everything; the view according to which you are a Worker tasked with working the world while also working on yourself. (I would not recommend this one: don’t become a secular monk!)
Option 2: Double down on total consumption by watching Netflix, hopping on endless Zoom calls for pleasure, and playing countless video games. (I would not recommend this one either: don’t be a member of Harari’s “useless class!”)
Option 3: Open yourself up to the void. (Five stars! Highly recommended!)
For we are involved, are we not?, in a worldwide experiment in contemplation. You’re forced to sit in a room somewhere while, in a fair number of cases, being alone. I’m sure you’ve heard this old saying somewhere: “All of man’s problems,” wrote Pascal, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” How wonderfully French! What a comic exaggeration! All of humankind’s problems, Pascal? All of them, really? Yet is it not Frenchifully true also? Methinks so.
Let’s consider this third option further.
Step 1: Start with the void. See that you’re restless in spirit (acedia) or dumbfoundedly bored or in the throes of anomie.
Step 2: Convulse in the void. In a Big Think interview, I once stated,
“I think that philosophy begins with a convulsive experience, an experience that shakes you out of your own certainties, out of your way of being in the world. Philosophy comes on the scene to illuminate that convulsive experience.”
Step 3: Bend the questions back on yourself. A convulsive experience could be the beginning of what I’ve also described, in a recent Emerge Podcast with Daniel Thorson of The Monastic Academy, as an “existential opening”:
By the latter [namely, an existential opening], I mean whatever it is that breaks one open in such a way that the questioner is turned back on herself. That is, an existential opening is, well, what opens me to my existence. Rattled, shaken, partially awakened, I look at my face, my hands, the world, and wonder–maybe–whether it is all just a dream. All this, yes. But, even more, once I’m existentially opened, I bend each question I ask back on myself because, if only dimly or inchoately, I know that I am implicated in what it is I seek. In the beginning and in the end, the one I seek is myself. Henceforth, I cannot bracket myself from my investigations.
To recap: First, sit with yourself in the midst of non-doing (which is different from doing nothing). Next, observe how, in ways small or large, your being convulses or writhes (metaphorically speaking) as you see the old verities melt away. Finally, experience questions “flipping back” (maybe even “flipping out”) on you. “Who, really, am I? What the hell is all this about? Do I really know how to live my life?”
Welcome to the very beginning of the examined life!
You Have No Place To Hide!
More good news: you have no place to hide in work! Discard each of these stories about work, one after the other, and then see whether you’re free:
Story #1: Work is pretty good; I’ll just dial back to achieve work-life balance.
Nope, not gonna do it: I critiqued this option in a Big Think interview in 2017. (And, no, the bloodshot eyes do not connote marijuana usage. I was just very, very tired that day.)
Story #2: Everything will be fine; I just need to change jobs.
Don’t think so. Changing jobs will not quell your existential anxiety. No change in job will because none, in the final analysis, can.
Story #3: I just need to change industries.
That’s cute but wrong again. Even if you go from Goldman to Lulumon, you’re not going to find abiding happiness there. At best, less bitterness or sourness but no sweetness.
Story #4: I need to change careers or boost my career.
OK, pretend all you want to that a “career” is Some Thing, but you’re just bullshitting yourself. Careers are lame post-World War II inventions to make work of whatever kind but especially of the employed sort seem zazzier than it is. And if you want to go further with that whole everyone-should-have-a-job thing, then I’ve got the piece for you!
Story #5: Right, because I’m going to reject careers and be a rockstar entrepreneur or solopreneur.
I like Nassim Taleb too, at least when he’s not being a total jerk, but all you’re doing, friend, is kicking the can sideways. You still haven’t confronted what Zen calls the Great Matter of Life and Death. You’re still holding onto the centrality of work.
Story #6: Let me go meta, then. I’ll do meaningful work but without needing to have a career and without making myself, not necessarily anyway, into an entrepreneur.
I thought we already established this: unless you’re a Protestant who has been misreading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism while also misreading Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints, you’re bound to see through this delusion, right? Right? All you’re doing is dodging your dis-ease (dukkha). You’re squirming! Just stop dodging! Just stop it!
Story #7: Of course, because I have or am going to have a calling.
In one issue of my newsletter, I established that you “very probably don’t have a calling.” It’s enough here to say that if you’re not Christian, then just drop the calling talk. You don’t have license to use the term otherwise.
If you go through these conceptions one by one — jobs, industries, careers, entrepreneurship, meaningful work, and callings — you’ll ultimately realize, I trust, that none of them can be the true source of meaning in life. Stopping halfway means succumbing to some form of misery.
If, however, you take the inquiry all the way to the end, then while you pass through darkness in time you’ll discover the sweetness of your being, a sweetness that requires nothing because it is everything already.
See, in brief, that the point of a thoroughgoing critique of Total Work is that you can no longer hide in any immodest conception of work.
Infrastructure and Sweetness
We’ve been considering how to smoke out Total Work (Option 1) in order to be able to ask, in earnest, “What is it that is much, much sweeter than work?” If you need to see why we’ve been deconstructing Total Work first, then look no further than the opening statements from Ludvig Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”:
One must start out in error and convert it into truth.
That is, one must reveal the source of error, otherwise hearing the truth won’t do any good. The truth cannot force its way in when something else is occupying its place.
To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth.
We are in the midst of finding that path — the path, in this case, from error to the sweetness of truth.
A schema might be of help here. Suppose, in my utopia that is, I submit, very much a topia, that we were able to get into “right relation” with work. If that were so, then we would be able to put work in its proper place. And where would that proper place be? Here —
Work would be purely infrastructural:
1. Its chief purpose, as it has almost always been, would be to support individual and collective survival. (The coronavirus pandemic has called us back to some sanity in that more talk has turned to livelihoods — and rightly so — as more people are suffering from lacking just these.)
2. Work would be interesting enough without being mistaken for being ultimately fulfilling (which it can never be). (In other words, in this topia, work would not be drudgery.)
3. Work would be socially beneficial inasmuch as whatever I created or produced would be properly useful and helpful to others. (This also blocks work that does or can harm others.)
4. In terms of what the Greeks called chronos or chronological time, work would occupy no more than some part of my days, and there could very well be periods in my life — call them “sabbaticals” — when, apart from housework and other chores needed to maintain my household, my days would basically be leisurely in nature. Indeed, there would also be sabbaths, as I argue in my TEDxABQ talk, when work would be set aside in order to appreciate higher goods.
5. Performing some modicum of work, pace a decadent aristocratic society, would be a modest instrumental good insofar as it would enable me to cultivate appropriate moral virtues and insofar as it would teach me to take responsibility for whatever falls within my ken. What’s more, I would begin to learn how to confront my own physical pain or mental suffering and, in this sense, it would be a spiritual nutriment.
That’s it! No more and no less!
In short, what I’ve just outlined could be called a conception of right livelihood. (I say more about this in my IHMC Talk: “The Brief Story of How Work Took over the World and Made Us Who We Think We Are.”)
What, then, of the sweetness? Ah, I invite you to see for yourself! As Nietzsche once said, “This is my way — where is yours?”
For after you’ve had an existential opening and in view of what (outlined just above) is a very modest, humble conception of work, one that can no longer occupy that much of your attention or much of our esteem, to whom or what does your heart thrill?To God? To poetic love? To beautiful creations (that needn’t be called “work” yet surely may be called “art”)? To mystical contemplations? To boundless compassion?
Go ahead and see for yourself.
Don’t Start a Revolution from Your Head or from Your Bed!
Instead, start a peaceful revolution with the rest of us.
Take a critique of Total Work to be a leverage point in GameA. See, right now, that a peaceful revolution could start from the void —from an experience of stopping — right here, right now! — in the no-thing-ness and in the non-doing-ness.
Don’t wait. It’s already begun and soon you’ll see that this peaceful revolution is right underfoot.
I’m currently writing, via serial publication, an ebook on Total Work called The Total Work Manifesto. You can join fellow participants, read along with us, and take part in regular Zoom conversations.
Thanks to Paul Millerd, who hosted me this past week as I spoke, with 30-plus others, about “Life beyond Work In a Time of Crisis.”
Special thanks as well to Total Work Substack participants, especially Jacqueline, James, and Carsten, who recently asked me whether I’d written anything about the question I posed during our last Zoom call: “What is it that’s sweeter than work?” I hadn’t then, but I have now.