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Balance, Buddhism, Burnout and More

Long ago, when I was but a lowly undergrad at Williams College, I found myself stuck in an anthropology course solely for the purpose of satisfying a “peoples and cultures” requirement (apparently a wagon load of history classes was insufficient for this task). Besides the fact that I found much of the archaeological component of the course work to be frustrating – dependent as it was on individual interpretation and speculation – I was irritated because I’d selected this particular course over two others because a friend recommended it as “not challenging.” While said friend maintained an A average throughout the course, I was laboring to keep myself above C territory – not unusual in courses I found less than compelling.

On one particular occasion in said class, our professor spent nearly an entire session introducing us to the concept of Ethnocentrism. That a majority of humans tend to view the world through the lens of our own culture is hardly surprising; most of us have probably experienced this in one form or another while travelling or even just watching the Discovery channel. But one of the examples our professor trotted out to explain just how significant the problem of ethnocentrism was from an anthropological perspective surprised me in spite of my innate understanding and acceptance of the reality of ethnocentrism. This example had to do with free time.

Even the non-History majors in the audience are probably aware that our culture today is slightly distinct from the hunter gatherer tribes that were the dominant mode of existence several millenia ago. They are also probably familiar with the idea that over time, hunter gatherers developed agriculture, and over a period of thousands of years evolved a variety of more specialized cultures. Thus children being raised today have the option of being something other than hunter, shaman or berry picker – they can, rather, pick from literally thousands of potential occupations. While it may not be true as we are told when we’re young that we can be anything we want (otherwise I’d be pitching for the Red Sox), it is true that most children raised today in Western societies have more career options than did our human ancestors that spread from Africa.

What’s interesting, however, is the natural assumption for many in the Western world that our particular mode of existence is inherently superior in every respect to the hunterer gatherer lifestyle we left behind eons ago. We have better nutrition, we have medicines, we have the internet, and so on. We also, it’s believed, have more leisure time, because trying to hunt down and gather/grow your own food just has to occupy more time than my 9-5 job. If the assembly line has taught us anything, it’s that apportioning societal tasks amongst different, specialized groups of individuals makes the overall effort more efficient. That, in turn, means that we have weekends, and we have vacation, and that we have more free time than we would otherwise. Doesn’t it?

As you might have guessed, our professor used just that assumption to prove that – despite our intentions – we were blinded by our own culture. Tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, she explained, had considerably more free time than just about any modern Western citizen; on a percentage basis, the delta was quite significant. These tribesman worked quite a bit less than your average office worker, truck driver, or janitor – and had quite a bit more free time to spend doing whatever it was that they wanted to do. Take that, yuppies.

I am reminded of this anecdote every time I see one of these burnout stories. Just as the sun rises and sets, every couple of months like clockwork someone writes an article or a blog entry such as this one lamenting the live-to-work mentality that is endemic to the Western world of ‘today.’ I find something ironic in its treatment as a recent problem, given the American dream of “work hard enough, and you can have everything you want,” but so be it. Whether its a long standing problem or of a more recent vintage, the fact is that a fairly high percentage of the population seems willing – even eager – to work themselves well beyond what human beings have traditionally considered acceptable or desirable.

Why? It’s unclear. To some, it’s an end in and of itself, to others it’s an engrained value. Truth be known, I come from a family of workers; my grandfather labored in the shipyards from the day he graduated high school, forgoing his own education to help put his brothers and sisters through college, my father’s worked an entire career on Wall St where brokers will (and have) step right over competitors having heart attacks to complete a trade, and my younger brother is no stranger to 100+ hour work weeks, and my Mom probably works harder than any of us. If we tallied up the number of sick days for all of our respective careers, I doubt they’d exceed two or three – combined. So we’re as guilty as the next family of contributing to the overwork epidemic.

But perhaps the better question is: what’s wrong with that? Aren’t you more likely to end up ahead, the harder you work? The answer depends on what you mean by ‘ahead,’ of course, but I generally would not take exception to the notion that hard workers will generally achieve more than those who work less hard. The difficulty, as I see it, is that the line between hard worker and overworked is a fine one indeed. And I think the blurring therein has had profound effects on Western society. As evidence, I submit exhibits A and B, which indicate that the country with the longest hours and least vacation – the US – is significantly less healthy as a population than countries with more reasonable working requirements – Canada and the UK, in this case. While the studies cited do not themselves prove a correlation, they certainly align with my experience, which is that the human body can endure significant amounts of overwork, but will exact a price in return. Inevitably.

So what’s the answer? We can’t all go back to being hunter gatherers, can we? Of course not. The answer, to me, is evolving your own personal system aimed at achieving balance – what the Navajos might term hozho. This balance should be aimed at tempering your professional responsibilities with the things you need to keep you fresh, keep you happy, and keep you sane. Those things – the elements that help maintain your balance will vary, often widely, from person to person.

If we look at how some very smart people have attacked this or similar problems, we may learn something. Anne has explored buddhism and mindfulness, Brad evolved a specialized system for work/life balance, Caterina climbs while Jeremy flies, and Adam unplugs for the month of August.

What do I do? It varies. Part of what keeps me fresh is workplace; whether I’m working from an office or home, I need to get away from the desk regularly. As Paul Graham says,

When I’m writing or hacking I spend as much time just thinking as I do actually typing. Half the time I’m sitting drinking a cup of tea, or walking around the neighborhood.

Also important to me, as it is for John and Mike, is fishing. Fishing, for me, is like an off-switch for my mind, much like piloting seems to be for Jeremy. [1]

Further, I do not currently carry a Blackberry, and I have no plans to. One client in particular has taken strong exception to this because I’m not immediately reachable, but a.) I don’t believe that our business demands that (we’re not doctors), and b.) I believe that Blackberry’s can have a negative impact on your interactions with the people actually around you. When I’m not at work, I don’t want to be at work.

For that matter, I’m occasionally asked why I continue to work at RedMonk, when I could potentially make a lot more elsewhere. Lifestyle is a big part of that – it’s not often that one has direct control over their career, their travel, their work, and their future. So too is helping to build something that we – all three of us – can be proud of.

And this summer, I’m going to try something else new. Taking a page from Adam, I’m going back to Maine for the summer. Many of you have asked why, particularly since getting out there and set up is likely to be an ordeal, but the answer is simple: it’s a good place to live and work. There’s nothing like sitting in the hammock watching sunsets like the one pictured above, or taking the boat over to fish the Kennebec for blues and striper.

These, of course, are just the things that tend to balance me. Not everyone, I’m sure, would see driving cross-country or stomping around ponds at 12,000 feet as relaxing and therapeutic. But I’m convinced that how you achieve that balance is relatively unimportant; what matters is that you look for it in the first place. not only are you likely to live longer, you’ll have more fun along the way.

[1] For those of you who find the idea of fishing as demanding of focus curious, I should be clear that I’m not doing spin fishing – only by flies. The difference is significant, in that where spin fisherman toss a line out and wait for the bait to attract fish, fishing by fly is a continuous activity of cast, retrieve, and cast again. Constantly. Fly fishing is the only outdoor activity I practice where my brain is completely shut off. Where hiking, running and so on are fun, they leave your brain woefully underoccupied, which usually means that eventually I start thinking about work. With fishing, all I’m thinking about is casting mechanics, current patterns, likely habitats, fly selection and so on – there simply isn’t time for work. It’s a nice break from the office.

Categories: Essays.

  • http://www.annezelenka.com Anne

    Your summer in Maine sounds wonderful. And your description of fly fishing reminds me of activities that bring me to mindfulness and flow. I used to fish a little–not fly fishing, though–but my favorite outdoor activity has always been hiking, which I hope to do a lot of this summer. I’ll also be adding professional tech work to the mix which is some balance that I really need after six years at home with kids.

    Your post made me realize something I must have already known, but forgot: that balancing is an activity more than an end result. The concept of hozho makes that clear as it is translated as “walking the beauty way.” It’s an activity, not a destination.

  • http://canadafishinginfo.com Sam Clark

    Ahhhh…Maine is a wonderful place. I have lived here all my life and would not trade it for any other place. There is so much to do and the change of seasons always brings about interesting conversations …Ayuh…

    I grew up on the kennebec in Winslow Maine. I love the rivers of maine and look forward to retiring on one someday.

    As for the blackberries or crackberries…I tossed my cell phone away about a year ago and I don’t miss it…I DONT want to be accessible 24-7…And I agree, when it is work time, work…when it is not…play

    I enjoyed reading your post