Total Work #57: What Happens When You See That Work Cannot Save You?

Plus: Announcing The Winter Escape Total Work! Course

Dear all,

In this issue, I’d like to share two things with you:

I. An announcement: the next Escape Total Work! course starts in February.

II. And an essay: what happens when you see that work cannot save you?


I. Escape Total Work! A 4-Week Course

“Escape Total Work” is a 4-week course running from February 7th to February 28th. The course will likely be capped at 12 people.

3 spots have already been pre-filled and 2 have already filled out applications but have not yet paid. The fall course filled up in less than 3 days. So, if this course really resonates with you, then I suggest that you hop to it.

Here’s what one past participant had to say about her experience:

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

To learn more and to apply, go here.


II. What Happens When You See That Work Cannot Save You?

An Unspeakable Disquiet

For many of us, the holiday season is now coming to an end. Some, accustomed to seeing family members in non-Covid years, may have experienced a strange restlessness, an unspeakable disquiet. Alone or solely with immediate family, what was it like at the edge of your consciousness?

Slightly forlorn, you may have longed, without telling anyone, to get back to work. At least then the patterns of ordinary life would resume.

What happened? What is right here for you, waiting for you to inquire into?

Celebration in Secular Modernity

Upon further reflection, it becomes immediately clear that celebration is strained to the point of impossibility in secular modernity.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a good place to begin our inquiry. Reviewing the etymology, we discover that celebrate (v.) comes from

celebrāre to crowd, to attend in large numbers, to frequent, inhabit, to observe, to honour with ceremonies, to practise, exercise, perform, to praise, extol, to talk about, discuss, to make known, to cause to be honoured, to confer distinction on

We’re invited to imagine a vivid scene: many people are crowding about, observing and performing certain ceremonies in the name of something worthy of being esteemed and honored. Perhaps it is the birth of Christ or the death of Christ. Perhaps it is the coronation of a quasi-divine king (cf. the divine right of kings doctrine). Undeniably, this celebration has nothing to do with work and everything to do with the suspension of the workaday.

I submit that celebrations must be religious in nature in order to truly be celebrations. In his book Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, sociologist of religion Christian Smith argues that the essential condition for anything to count as a religion is that there be, front and center, a “superhuman power.” He adds that said superhuman power needn’t be supernatural (though it can be). Witness, for instance, Daoism: the basic nature of reality, or Dao, is the warp from which, out of which, through which, and on account of which everything is woven.

Plainly, religion requires something not just other than human for an alien might count; instead, it involves the metaphysical recognition that the human is situated in a cosmos and, so situated, understands himself or herself thus. It’s not for nothing that religion so often occasions reverence and awe for in reverence and awe one “looks up” at what is above one and also “looks down” at what is always beneath one’s foot. Religion, to speak in Zen language, is like the open sky—so vast, so empty, so boundless—and the stable ground—the source from which you come, that which supports your every footfall. But then true celebration is the ways in which we ritualistically and communally “encode” these acts of “looking up” and “looking down.” To celebrate is to open ourselves to what is beyond us, behind us, beneath us, and before us.

I trust you can see where I’m going with all of this. If not, here it is unfolded: in our own experience, we are surprised, even shocked when we come to realize that celebration without the superhuman power component is impossible. In secular modernity, we try and fail. Samuel Beckett, from Worstward Ho!, is worth quoting here: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try harder. Fail harder. Fail better.”

Except that, in this case actually, it’s wise to cease trying harder and to stop failing better. Trying to continue celebrating the human within a humanist world-picture is like trying to make work of any kind into something meaningful: futile, impossible—save for the delusions we harbor within.

Disquiet Revisited

There you on Christmas or New Year’s Eve feeling disquieted, bored, and out of sorts. Do you see how you’ve been checking your phone or your email? Uncanny how quiet the work front is right now and yet the itch to do something to come to temporary relief is real, alive, undeniable.

You are wriggling on the head of a pin. You looked forward to the holidays because you wanted a break from you. Now that they’re here you can’t celebrate but you’re supposed to. And you can’t work on anything but something in you wants to nonetheless. This is affliction indeed!

What Happens…?

Let’s look at two very common scenarios I’ve heard about while philosophizing with various individuals over the years:

Scenario #1: The Horror Of Getting Everything You Want

One man, eight years into his startup, recently bought a very nice house outside of Los Angeles. He has a fine BA and a finer MBA as well as a beautiful wife (formerly in consulting; also, an Ivy League grad) and two kids. His startup may be sold in the not too distant future and, if that were to happen, he’d be wealthy.

Suppose the startup does sell and suppose that he does become pretty wealthy. Isn’t lifelong financial freedom the great dream of many startup founders?

Guess what? He tells me now, referencing a koan I spoke with him about: “I’m not at peace.” He had the hardest time during the holiday season because his company was closed for a week. Fidgety and restless, he found himself at the office when he had planned on being home the entire time. What gives?

When he got the nice house, he thought he’d be happy. He’s not—despite the exquisite view and the pool. Before we spoke recently, he thought that once monetized his company, surely he’d be happy. But he wouldn’t really be—and he’s starting to realize just this. My friend Khe Hy calls this the “when-then” trap. In truth, the latter is simply a localized version of what the Buddha called craving (tanha)—as I put it, “no” to this and “yes” to that. The dis-ease growing, the desire also growing…

The natural koan is aroused right here!: what happens when you get everything you want and still you’re not happy? (Don’t say: “I’m grateful.” What a copout that is!) Could it be that it has something to do with metaphysics? What’s it like when you realize that work will not save you?

Scenario #2: The Shock Associated With Not Getting What You Want

A woman, and Total Work Newsletter reader, recently told me about a project that had been downsized. Around that time, she also found out that she was being compensated “at below median.” Prior to that, she had been gung ho about work, not realizing that excessive enthusiasm is one way in which Total Work ideologically captures us.

Now what?

Of course, when we don’t get what we want, we can engage in any number of delusions (again, used in a Buddhist way):

  • We can try harder. (The near-ubiquitous work ethic!)

  • We can try to enhance our productivity. (This just an update of the work ethic!)

  • We can try to be more strategic. (This is cunning in lieu of ‘raw horsepower.’)

  • We can start learning Stoicism in hopes of being more composed in the face of adversity. (This is a denial of our shadow [Jung].)

  • We can, out of sour grapes, look for some other kind of work. (This is vengefulness called by another name.)

  • Etc.

The above, however, are forms of obfuscation. We’ve yet to even begin inquiring into the hurt and, in fact, we’ve been covering up the hurt by, for instance, making it our mantra to “keep trying harder.” (I once asked a woman who’d been married—in her words—to “a bully” for 23-plus years: “Why do you keep trying?” She began crying; she understood deeply.)

The gift is the shock, and the shock is an occasion to wake up. It’s not enough to remain at the perimeter of our understanding of our relationship with work. Instead, we must go to the very root.

I leave it to one past Escape Total Work! participant who put the point well:

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

Let the critical opening be real, raw, fresh, urgent: what happens when you realize that you can’t celebrate and when you see that work is nothing special?

Putting My Cards Right Here On The Table

I submit that all of us—that all 7 billion people—are looking for salvation. Really? Yes, really.

You’re not really looking for something that will provide you with a temporary sense of relief or with a transient sense of pleasure. Think about it. If you pay close enough attention, aren’t you disappointed when the happiness you sought, the happiness you secured fades away? And when your “dream job” turns out to be just more work—what then? And when your relationship with your significant other is not perfection personified—and now? And what would happen to environments if—somehow—the earth were restored to its pre-Industrial Revolution conditions? Then without this climate change mission, how lost would they be?

Tell me: “What really stays put? What is it that is the key to abiding peace and happiness?”

All genuine philosophies or religions are indeed soteriologies. That is, they all provide us with doctrines of salvation, liberation, deliverance, ultimate meaning, or abiding peace and happiness. Zen Buddhism, the one with which I’m most familiar, is but one path.

The crux in my argument is that Total Work is—above all else I’ve written about the matter since 2017—an ersatz soteriology: what it promises it cannot deliver; what we truly seek cannot be found therein. If work is, in truth, not meaningful (except insofar as, rightly understood, everything in the cosmos is imbued with meaning), then only great cultural delusions can hold this edifice up. And only continued efforts on our parts to make work into what is not can prop up Total Work.

Stop it.

Stop listening to all the hype. For goodness’ sake, log off of LinkIn. Stop listening to all of the modern-day future of work evangelists. In short, stop propping up Total Work. When you stop all this, you—right at that very moment—become a genuine contemplative, a true seeker. Genuine questions flower, and a door, hitherto invisible, opens up for you. Which questions flower? And which door opens? The only question is: “Will you walk through it?”