(Not So) Quiet Desperation

As a society we are coping with the glorification of busyness. It’s important to counteract the obsession with task achievement and its devastating personal and professional consequences.

Lots of people are familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s quote from his book Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Many people only remember the first part of it, however — the part about quiet desperation.

This clause is so resonant because it reveals the rarely, if ever, acknowledged truth that most people are insecure about today and scared about tomorrow. Beneath the polished veneer of life as usual — with its overt politeness and threadbare platitudes — the vast majority of individuals feel as though they’re watching a creepy horror movie… starring them. Despite people’s best efforts at presenting a poised and composed package, in the small (or sometimes large) moments of life — with a close friend, out at a bar, with a therapist, in a personal-growth workshop — the hidden truth emerges.

  • How will I turn this marriage around?
  • How can I get out of this dead-end job?
  • How might I ever retire one day?

This is normal, par for the course.

As an executive coach and consultant, however, I’ve seen a disturbing trend, especially in the past five years. I’ve seen business executives and high-level professionals operating in a state of perpetual anxiety. The quiet desperation has become less quiet; the fearful questions are uttered regularly and with great trepidation; and the horror film, once a private screening, has become a drive-in theater double feature.


Arianna Huffington has done some of the best writing on this topic. Her book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder deeply explores some of the tradeoffs that people are making in today’s workplace. At the core of her message she describes a calamitous decision that many people make at work: they feel pressured to perform for short term results, which causes them to cut out activities that replenish and nourish. Then, when these depleted souls struggle to focus and deliver results with limited internal resources, they cut further back on these non-urgent activities, as though they can “out work” their exhaustion. It’s obviously a trap because nobody can out-hustle their own need for energy.

But as plain as it is to others around them, they do it anyway, usually out of a sense of panic or confusion.

This creates two serious problems:

1) Results suffer.

Rather than all this over-drive helping, the opposite, of course, happens: it generally leads to lousy results. It’s like driving eighteen hours a day — sure you might make it a little bit farther the first few days, but eventually your depleted resources adversely impact performance, so you mis-navigate, run out of gas, or crash the car.

2) Leads to an energy crash.

Working this hard isn’t sustainable. Back to the car analogy, driving eighteen hours a day may work for a few days, but eventually you’ll lose all ability to continue and have to take a few days off to recover, which likely slows down the overall effort.

Stephen Covey used to remark that common sense isn’t common practice. This is the certainly the case here.

I’ve actually had the experience a number of times where I was seeking the help of a professional with something only to end up counseling her through a professional crisis.

In my coaching and consulting work I notice that many executives permeate fear in what they do. Their meetings are hastily organized sessions that lead to little positive movement. Their level of engagement in conversations is appalling. They are usually multi-tasking and reciting canned slogans when talking to their key people.

It must stop.

Beyond the toll it’s taking on human lives, it’s also leading to inferior work. A previous client of mine used to say that completing a major project felt like “dragging the corpse across the finish line.” The process was miserable; the outcome was poor — but at least it’s done!

Our twenty-first-century economy can offer more than this.


Thankfully, Huffington offers a way though this false choice. But before launching into solutions, it’s key to confront the reality of any sort of behavior change.

Beliefs drive behaviors and behaviors drives results. If we don’t like the results, we can try changing our behaviors… but they’re unlikely to last unless they’re anchored in a new belief. That’s why most changes don’t stick.

The sad truth is that many of the following beliefs pervade our society:

  • Being busy means running scared.
  • Results must come at any cost, even to one’s health and well being.
  • One cannot slow down, even for a second.

These beliefs must be challenged on individual and collective levels. Remember that the doing world is strengthened by the being world. People are more than their title , what they earn, or the success of their last project. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Huffington’s work suggests, once values are confronted, include the following daily rituals:

  1. Listen to your inner wisdom. The voice in your head telling you to do or not do something is often profound.
  2. Live life in gratitude. Reflect on and share with others what you’re grateful for.
  3. Take time each day to disconnect from technology. It’s an addiction, like any other addiction, and it can ruin your life.

Living a life of abundance is a choice. Choose wisely.

This article first appeared on The Good Men Project.