“A…silent assumption that leads to anxiety and depression is ‘My worth as a human being is proportional to what I have achieved in my life.’ This attitude is at the core of Western culture and the Protestant work ethic. It sounds innocent enough. In fact, it is self-defeating, grossly inaccurate, and misleading.” -from Feeling Good by David D. Burns, MD
One of the many sad ironies of the appropriation of Stoicism on the part of legions of Silicon Valley tech bros is that it fundamentally trips over the core ideal at the heart of the Greco-Roman school of philosophy.
It is this: virtue — ie our ability to be fundamentally good, decent human beings — is the sole good in life, and everything that is outside of our control — including our wealth, our social status, and ultimately our work itself — is as ‘nothing’ to us.
At first, this sounds absurd. After all, while our wealth, social status and job may not be entirely under our control, the odds are that if we work hard, find ways to be more productive, and take pride in our efforts, we will be rewarded with more money and better jobs.
Moreover, every productivity writer on the market today buys into the idea that being a productive worker is an intrinsic good that gives meaning to our lives. You hear this now in almost every podcast or blog discussing startup culture. Business is no longer something we do to make money, but part of humanity’s great search for meaning. They couldn’t possibly be wrong.
And yet the relationship between productivity and happiness, when you look at, murky at best. Worse still, the belief there is a direct, causal relationship between the two can lead to psychological disaster.
To better understand why, consider Mike. He is very good at his job, is handsomely rewarded for it, and has held a position at his company for a long time. He is always reminded in performance evaluations and from his bosses about how valuable he is to the company. His family looks to him as a source of strength and security.
Eventually, through no fault of its own, market forces fundamentally disrupt the company’s industry. Soon, they are forced to downsize. Though it pains Mike’s bosses, they must let go of some of their most talented employees, and this includes Mike.
Mike, however, has spent his life accruing skills specifically for his industry, part of what made him so great at his job. What is worse, he is in his 50s, not the easiest time to learn a new set of abilities or get a job with comparable pay. So Mike, now out of work, has to take some less glamorous work for significantly less money.
Of course, none of this is in any way Mike’s fault. The disruption to Mike’s industry was quick and unexpected, along with its consequences. Because Mike had for so long attached a sense of worth and self-esteem to being good at his job, he is devastated, and later suffers significant bouts of depression, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.
This, as you know, is not an uncommon story. While we’ve all heard or seen or even experienced it before, we refuse to accept its message: your worth as a human being does not derive from your work which, while fulfilling, is often beyond our control. In fact, the entire concept of “worth” itself is dangerous and unhelpful, as Dr. Burns hammers home in the cognitive behavioural therapy bible, Feeling Good:
Realize that “worthy” and “worthless” are just empty concepts when applied to a human being. Like the concept of your “true self,” your “personal worth” is just meaningless hot air. Dump your “worth” in the garbage can! (You can put your “true self” in there too if you like.) You’ll find you’ve got nothing to lose! Then you can focus on living in the here and now instead. What problems do you face in life? How will you deal with them? That’s where the action is, not in the elusive mirage of “worth.”
We can’t always control whether we lose our job or how quickly we can find a new one, but we can control how we choose to respond to these kinds of obstacles — and that’s where real purpose and meaning resides.
But we don’t want to hear that because accepting this truth means asking a lot of complicated questions about our society, in which work is glorified as the pinnacle of self-expression, and personal earnings are viewed as a measure of merit and esteem.
Instead, we would instead read about buy into the idea that success in our work life is a merely a matter of being more productive. If you just follow the ‘right’ set of algorithms or rules, you too can achieve ‘success’ in your work life, along with fame and recognition and a fat bank account.
This is why the personal productivity industry is booming today, and why a small army of snake oil salespeople are successfully pushing the idea that individual fulfilment is only a seminar, book, or set of lifehacks away.
We can even go bigger here: the idea that our work is our worth is the fundamental lie that drives most of us in the West, a useful lie which lets obscenely wealthy executives peddle the idea of starving millennials sleep-depriving their way through a hard-hustling gig economy as the route to personal fulfillment.