We live in an age of “total work.” It’s a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after World War II—describing the process by which human beings are transformed into workers, and the entirety of life is then transformed into work. Work becomes total when all of human life is centered around it; when everything else is not just subordinate to, but in the service of work. Leisure, festivity, and play come to resemble work—and then straight-up become it.
Even our co-circular habits play into total work. People work out, rest and relax, eat well, and remain in good health for the sake of being more productive. We believe in working on ourselves as well as on our relationships. We think of our days off in terms of getting things done. And we take a good day to be a day in which we were productive.
But caring as much as we do about work is causing us needless suffering. In my role as a practical philosopher, I speak daily with individuals from Silicon Valley to Scandinavia about their obsessions with work—obsessions that, by their own accounts, are making them miserable. Nevertheless, they assume that work is worth caring a lot about because of the fulfillments and rewards it supplies, so much so that it should be the center of life.
I think this is an unsound foundation to base our lives upon. The solution to our over-worked state isn’t to do less work; it’s to care less about it.
There are many ways to train yourself to care less about work. Sure, you could become completely indifferent to life and not care about anything, or develop a distaste for working that reveals itself in extreme procrastination. However, both approaches leave us stuck in a cycle of aversion and feeling deep dissatisfaction. The better option is to care less about work because we care more about other things.
Most of us have had meaningful experiences—finding love unexpectedly, feeling awe when asked an intriguing question—that we quickly dismiss as being no more than passing moments, or which turn into nostalgic episodes to be recalled wistfully now and again. But these experiences are clues that reveal a different lens through which we can see life: The more important things take us out of the endless pursuit of “being useful” while enabling us to lose ourselves in the flow of time.
By caring less about work, we open ourselves up to caring more about other dimensions to life—about what matters more. But that’s easier said—or written on a to-do list—than done.
To get started, we need to become less attached to our notions of work. The Buddha helpfully suggests that there are “three poisons” at the root of our attachments: attraction, aversion, and indifference. In this case, to become less attracted to, and therefore less hung up on, notions of career success, you should pay close attention to how those occupying positions of power are often over-extended, run ragged by infinite demands and herculean ambitions. They are rarely leading well-rounded or well-ordered lives. The cost of their single-minded striving for success is unvoiced suffering, loneliness, and the loss of other things worth caring about. If career success too often brings misery, then should it be esteemed as highly as it usually is?
Once you’ve detached the notion of success from that of happiness, you need to work out how else to find that satisfaction—but without actually achieving anything. This exercise opens us up to Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum, “All art is quite useless.” We can refute total work’s claim that only useful things are valuable by taking Wilde at his word, and considering how we can perform fascinating but totally useless artistic experiments in our own lives.
For example, we could partake in the “art of roaming” without an aim or plan. This is an idea advanced by French theorist Guy Debord, who proposed that we let ourselves “be drawn by the attractions of the terrain” and the encounters we discover. Alternatively, we could write a haiku, walk through the woods in the spirit of “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku), or lie perfectly still in a moving rowboat, as 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau reports having done in Reveries of the Solitary Walker. We could take part with others in breaking out of an escape room, immerse ourselves in sensory deprivation tanks, or practice calligraphy, an art that master calligrapher Kazuaki Tanahashi calls “brush mind.” By these means, we can plunge into life, engaging our senses while suspending our buzzing, noisy workaday concerns.
Once we’ve gotten the knack for embracing the idea that certain things in life are wondrous because they’re not focused on getting through, onto, or ahead of something, we can turn our attention to ourselves, inquiring into our own lives. Socrates’ great insight involved showing his conversation partners that they thought they knew themselves, but it turns out that they didn’t.
Following Socrates’ lead, we can ask ourselves, “If I’m not just a worker, then who am I?” Let this question sit in the back of your mind for a few weeks before you try to answer it. “Who am I?” you might ask while getting bogged down at work. “Who am I?” you might think while you notice your thoughts inclining once again toward completing tasks, planning, strategizing, and making insurmountable to-do lists. “Is this who I am? Is this all I am?” This philosophical question, posed over and over again, is intended to arouse great doubt in you, inviting you to prod your deepest ambitions, why you’re here, and what it’s all about.
If your destiny is not to be a total worker, then what could it be?
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Exasperated, a character in Voltaire’s Candide says, “Let’s stop all this philosophizing and get down to work.” What a waste of time, he seems to be saying—and maybe you’re thinking the same thing.
We could, of course, follow his advice and just keep our heads down. Or we could insist upon working less without caring less about work. Or we could try to find a time-management guru who would allow us to continue a regime of total work by plying time-saving techniques. But aren’t these approaches just more of the same: total work in action? If the solution to your anxiety is keeping your head down, easing up a bit, or working more efficiently, you’ll someday regret the awakened life that will have ultimately, tragically passed you by.
Exercises like these shepherd us beyond the world of total work, helping us to remember why we’re here. They allow us to shed our worries, anxieties, irritations, and busynesses. By caring about work a little less, we can afford ourselves experiences of what is truly meaningful, and let us rest for a while in the unfolding present.