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Death and Underachievement: A Guide to Happiness in Work

The trite wisdom of contemporary folklore instructs us that the arrival of the New Year is a time to reflect on the achievements of the preceding 365 days and to bear down and "resolve" to achieve more in those to come. Over time, we learn what a hydra-headed beast this is: no matter how many projects or actions we may whack off our ineluctable lists, it seems that yet more (often increasingly ambitious) commitments spring up in their place. With each new year come self-recriminations for our failure to meet the unlikely goals we've set for ourselves—lose weight, read through those piles of books and RSS feeds, start picking up our socks—and a stultifying brainstorm of new projects we'd like to take on.

This New Year as I contemplate my resolutions, it's the underlying concepts of achievement and productivity that are on my mind—and by extension the still grander issues of purpose and meaning in work. I invite you then, patient reader, on a desultory First Night journey with me as I take our mutual favorite hobby—the idle navel-gazing contemplation of productivity—to its most absurd yet logical conclusion: to ask whether eradicating the need for achievement itself might not be the key to happiness in work.

The Ticking Clock

I've always liked the lilting final words of James Joyce's Ulysses, perhaps because they so aptly encapsulate my default stance toward the world—toward any new project or potential obligation that might amble my way—"yes I said yes I will Yes." Although many toxic workplace cultures demand such an attitude, I am an enthusiastic yes-sayer by personal constitution and without coercion, and to this I probably owe a certain wide-ranging, if shallow, familiarity with the world, which I rather enjoy. But at the same time I am often burdened by a nagging awareness of all the grandiose things I intend to do and the inadequate time I have to do them. The ticking clock is always in my ear.

My lifelong preoccupation with accomplishment has always been not so much motivated by a desire for praise or reward as an anxiety about having some concrete achievements to which I can point and say, "look there, you cold and unfeeling universe: something I've done, something I've made, something I shall leave behind." In this way, accomplishment has always been my answer to mortality—a subject to which I devote inordinate amount of thought. I've always felt that striving, however futilely—for perfection and transformative self-improvement—was the way to find happiness and purpose in this brutish and fleeting existence of ours.

Work is, after all, how we spend most of our waking lives. Thus if we are to take life-and-death seriously, we must take work and its goals seriously, and the same in reverse. The words of the beautiful Phil Ochs song (download) are apt here:

… I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it when I'm here.

Yet I've lately been wondering whether all this struggling against the inevitable through yes-saying, list-making, and project-contemplating isn't in some ways contrary to my ultimate goal of finding some satisfaction "when I'm here."

I was recently set to thinking about all this while reading a most extraordinary little tract by a man called Ray Bennet MD, which I stumbled upon in the most unlikely of places: the "stocking stuffer" bin at the middle-brow furniture retailer Restoration Hardware. The book is titled The Underachiever's Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great. Its genius lies in the fact that it does for self-help books what Woody Allen did for thrillers and musicals in Manhattan Murder Mystery and Everyone Says I Love You (respectively)—that is, to be the greatest send-up of a genre and simultaneously its greatest achievement. The central conceit of the slender volume (and, I suppose my central conceit here) might best be captured by the opening paragraph of its chapter on work:

Underachievers are the best, most dependable workers. This may seem counterintuitive but the key here is that while some achievement is necessary and good for productivity, a lot of it is dangerous to you and everyone around you. And if you have a wide enough perspective, you'll see it's also an exercise in futility.

The assumptions underlying this statement can be found among Bennet's "Principles of Underachievement:"

  • Life's too short.
  • Control is an illustion.
  • Expectations lead to misery.
  • Great expectations lead to great misery.
  • Achievement creates expectations.
  • The law of diminishing returns applies everywhere.
  • Perfect is the enemy of good.
  • The tallest blade of grass is the surest to be cut.
  • Accomplishment is in the eye of the beholder.

He extensively employs the language of pathology to describe what he calls the "dangerous addiction" to achievement, which he diagnoses as an ultimately fatal disease:

Consider: how many brilliant careers are coupled with disastrous marriages? How many talented, hardworking people smoke too much, exercise too little, or drink themselves into oblivion each week? At the other extreme, how many fitness-crazed or hyper-competitive individuals tear up their knees running marathons or risk life and limb scrambling to mountaintops? How many brilliant and ambitious people dream of winning accolades for their genius, only to wind up working for their C+ colleagues? And even if you do manage to just about maintain a full-sprint schedule of personal and professional achievement, it can take something as commonplace as the flu to throw your whole highly tuned enterprise stressfully out of whack. What you've never realized all these years is that it's your commitment to excellence that is at the source of your trouble.

Which is an intriguing way of looking at it. Bennett's ideas turn my longstanding notions about the need for achievement in the face of life's brevity entirely on their head. And I'm increasingly inclined to buy his interpretation.

Futility and Insignificance

It is surely worth taking a few moments away from our quotidian busywork to step back and ask why we're doing what we're doing and whether doing it differently (or, more importantly, thinking about it differently) might improve the satisfaction we're able to derive from our work and life. In his manifesto, Bennett is calling our attention to the ultimate futility and often self-defeating character of the human ambition to create, excel, and win, with the reasonable expectation that this might encourage us to calm down a bit and perhaps even phone it in from time to time.

He is certainly not the first to do this, nor should he be. The fundamental relationship between death and how we spend our time is the single most important issue with which a human must grapple. How are we to decide what to do on a day-to-day basis unless we have an answer to this problem firmly in our heads?

Ancient Greek religion provides us with the story of Sisyphus, the king who put Death in chains and in so doing freed humanity from mortality. This didn't last long, alas, and the gods punished the king's cunning by compelling him to an eternity pushing a rock up a hill that was condemned always to escape him and roll down to the bottom again, forcing him to begin his efforts anew. Sound familiar? Here's David Allen:

How would you feel if your list and your stack were totally—and successfully—completed? You'd probably be bouncing off the ceiling, full of creative energy. Of course, within three days, guess what you'd have? Right—another list, and probably an even bigger one! You'd feel so good about finishing all your stuff you'd likely take on bigger, more ambitious things to do.

The unending struggle of Sisyphus is often used as a metaphor for the human condition, but some of us resemble it more than others—and we tend to be the ones with the more ambitious lists. Robert Burton, author in 1621 of the brilliant, sprawling Anatomy of Melancholy rightly lists this sort of ambition as one of the causes of the subject of his book, saying that those under its sway "may not cease, but as a dog in a wheel, a bird in a cage, or a squirrel in a chain…they climbe and climbe still, with much labour, but never make an end, never at the top."

The essential point that we must confront here is that the achievements which seem so important and for the pursuit of which we perpetually torture ourselves are on the one hand futile and the other utterly insignificant. What is the ultimate summit we expect to reach? And if we can't answer this question, why do we exert ourselves as if we're heading towards one?

The eloquent everyman-philosopher Alain de Botton puts it this way:

The advantages of two thousand years of Western civilization are familiar enough: an extraordinary increase in wealth, in food supply, in scientific knowledge, in consumer goods, in physical security, in life expectancy and economic opportunity. What is perhaps less apparent and more perplexing is the way that such impressive material advances may have gone hand in hand with a rise in levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, by which is meant a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income.
A sharp decline in actual deprivation may—paradoxically—have been accompanied by a continuing and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it. Populations blessed with riches and possibilities far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors tilling the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe have shown a remarkable capacity to feel that both who they are and what they have are not enough.

De Botton continues for the rest of Status Anxiety to show that much of our concerns about achievement are extremely localized—relative to those around us and to the expectations with which we were raised—rather than viewed relative to our place in the universe or the gestalt of our personal existence. What we need in order to judge the irrationality of the things about which we fret is a sense of scale and perspective. De Botton is providing us with a long historical view; the great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gives us a genetic and probabilistic one:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

To some, these facts may be depressing; to me they are comforting. But we'll deal in a moment with what to do with our newfound perspective; for now it's enough just to note the facts. And all the facts point to a universe that is utterly indifferent to your body-mass index, your latest promotion, or how well-organized your reference filing system is. You neighbors may pretend to care—and then proceed to think of you with acrimonious covetousness or jealousy—but, as the Copernican principle reminds us, in the long run your neighbors are just like you: a speck, on a speck, on a speck. (Listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson's interview in the last part of this Radiolab segment to have this concept dizzyingly driven home.) But even if we were to abandon all reason and evidence and assume the human race enjoys some sort of privileged status in the affairs of the universe, we need only remember that each of us is one among 6.6 billion people (give or take), and that even if you were to attain a level of accomplishment that (let's face it) you could never even dream of approaching—say, becoming prime minister of Canada—the vast majority of people now and ever living will never even have heard of you. Let's further suspend disbelief and presume that measuring your success against those of your peers is a worthwhile and significant undertaking. Remember, then, that with each subsequent rise through a social stratum comes an increasingly insurmountable and intimidating group of competitors. And this is just as true of prime ministers and emperors as it is of district managers and fry cooks.

If we are to accept achievement as the vehicle to guide us through life, we must at least admit to ourselves that it's a ferris wheel we're riding and not a bullet train. I'm ready to make that admission. I say fuck this ride; let's go eat cotton candy.

Hope and Comfort

And indeed this is why there is no despair when we truly confront the empty promises of achievement—and view our work and accomplishments in the light of that insight. We don't give up and shake our fists at the unfeeling universe and embrace total idleness. Nor do we ignore the awesome preciousness of the life and time that chance has bestowed upon us. We try to be nice, have a little fun, and expand our awareness of the world we live in. We do the best work we can, but we don't fret when we fail, nor do we jeopardize the quality of our work—or the happiness of our days—by bowing to the pressure to take on more than we can handle.

Albert Camus was but one of many philosophers and poets seriously to tackle the question of how we are to fill up the time that we have while we are here on earth, but I like many of his answers best. He saw the futilely struggling Sisyphus as a strangely sympathetic figure. Camus—who was in fact one of the more accomplished and ethically upright individuals with which the caprices of the genetic blender have gifted our species—embraced the absurd futility and overwhelming insignificance of our individual lives as a counterintuitive source of hope and empowerment. "The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd [than that of Sisyphus]. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious."

Camus believes that it is not the activity of work that leads us to despair, but the hope for some sort of grand success that will never come. Insofar as we can resist the temptation to view our lives as goal-driven in this way, we have at least the prospect of happiness. As The Underachiever's Manifesto has it: "striving is suffering." It is only by accepting the illusory nature of achievement that we can hope to transcend it. Would it be mawkish of me to invoke Steve Jobs?: "our time is limited, so don't waste time living someone else's life."

There are also more sublunary and practical reasons why the pressure for extraordinary achievement is counterproductive. The diet that permits the occasional bucket of french fries is the one more likely to be adhered to, and the exercise regime that demands only a gentle stroll every day rather than a heart-pounding decathlon is the one more likely actually to be followed. Extreme expectations apply extreme stress and create extreme resistance and procrastination. In so doing, they undermine our ability to get anything we want. We forfeit perfectly serviceable rewards in the pursuit of enormous and unattainable ones.

So calm down. Pour yourself a glass of port, cuddle up in front of the fire with a book that you'll probably never finish, and chill. The hard part of life is done: you are here and alive to read these words. As the Manifesto commands, "stop worrying about being perfect. Dedicate yourself to the pleasures and benefits of mediocrity." For my part, I'm formulating precisely one New Year's resolution. Contrary to what this essay may seem to imply, it's not "be a lazy sod," but rather merely to be easier on myself this year and enjoy the go-round. And, let's not kid ourselves, if you reached the end of this essay, it's probably a resolution you should give some consideration too.

norbauer's picture


Hey Ian,

Thanks for letting me know about Hodgkinson's new book! His How to Be Idle was very popular in the UK when I was living there back in 2003-2004. I finally read it when I got back stateside and positively loved it.

Ultimately, however, I found its conclusions slightly unsatisfying (of the "be a lazy sod" variety that I mention at the end of my essay above.) I agree with his premises in How to be Idle, though. Perhaps the new book is a list of conclusions to those premises. I look forward to checking it out.




An Oblique Strategy:
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