Across a few weeks in mid-March, American life was remade—whether temporarily or permanently, no one could say for sure. To stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus, states and cities closed schools and nonessential businesses, ordering more than 280 million Americans to shelter at home. With much of the economy coming to a sudden halt, the U.S. jobless rate quickly climbed to its highest level since the Great Depression as more than 22 million Americans filed for unemployment. By mid-April, even with social distancing restrictions in place, there had been 50,000 confirmed U.S. deaths. “The COVID-19 disease is highly contagious, selectively lethal, often indistinguishable from colds and seasonal maladies,” wrote The Wall Street Journal. “For many, the isolation has been compounded by uncertainty. There aren’t enough tests. There aren’t enough hospital beds with ventilators. There is no vaccine, and no cure” (O’Brien and Bauerlein 2020).
In reaction to the escalating pandemic, I briefly went into a war-like mobilization mode, urgently thinking of ways that as an academic I could shift my research activities to directly study the unfolding crisis. But after a short time, I ran up against the barriers of reality. Sheltering at home with my wife and our six-year old son, I found myself paralyzed by the radical uncertainty of the moment. My situation was in sharp contrast to the heroes serving on the frontlines of the pandemic war, such as the grocery clerk, mail deliverer, first responder, and emergency room nurse, who each faced a far greater risk of infection. My job was also secure, unlike the tens of millions who were already out of work or the small business owners who had been shut down. And yet by noon on most days, my brain was completely scattered.
So, I decided to heed my inner voice, slowing down rather than accelerating ahead. With a sabbatical scheduled for Fall 2020, I decided that the best way I could help would be to immerse myself in a long-planned book project that explores the science and philosophy of contemplation and what it means for a better way of life in a post-pandemic world, a topic I will be writing regularly about in Skeptical Inquirer.
Seeing Reality Clearly
Graduating from Dartmouth College in 1996, my career has followed a path familiar to many other alumni from elite universities. For nearly two decades as an academic, I have devoted myself to the relentless accumulation of credentials, networks, experiences, and achievements, consistently working seventy-hour weeks. Evenings and weekends were not opportunities to relax but instead a time to catch up on a backlog of research projects, dream up new ones, and write popular articles (like this one). Completing my doctorate in four years, by the age of twenty-seven I had landed a tenure-track position; by thirty-five I was tenured; and by my early forties I was a full professor.
After our son was born six years ago, I knew I had to cut back. But now work became not just about achievement but also about earning more money to support the family. Then, during a brutally cold New England winter in 2017, an alarm bell woke me from a lifelong delusion—a robot way of seeing, thinking, and doing that could have easily stretched for the rest of my life. For several months, I had battled excruciating nerve pain in my lower legs, which doctors eventually diagnosed as related to “muscle tension.”
Years as a professor spent sitting at a desk, crouched over a keyboard, under chronic stress to meet the next deadline had taken their toll. As I slowly recovered, I switched to a standing desk, which helped considerably, but the experience had left me shaken, forcing me to question core aspects of my identity. Like so many in today’s accelerated culture, I had seldom paused to think deeply about the value of a more contemplative, deliberate life and the costs associated with my hyper-speed existence. Life instead had always been about doing more, doing it better, and doing it for longer.
Similar to my educated peers in law, medicine, finance, or technology, I had been working an “extreme job,” according to the Harvard Business Review: one requiring logging ten hours or more a day, 24/7 availability to clients and coworkers, frequent travel, work-related events outside regular hours, and a supervisory load normally handled by multiple managers (Hewlett and Luce 2006). And what would motivate such a life? For the poor and middle class in America, work remains essential to making ends meet. But for an educated elite, it has “morphed into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community,” observes journalist Derek Thomson (2019). One word sums up this condition: workism.
Yet finding oneself by way of an extreme job comes at an extreme cost. In contrast to the aristocracy of yore—who derived their wealth, status, and prestige from land, shipping, or factories—today’s professional elite “cannot realize its income and status without devoting itself, almost single-mindedly, to competitive training and work,” writes legal scholar Daniel Markovits (2019). A lifetime of investment in education and experiences creates a massive stock of human capital that can be translated into “fulfillment” only by way of an equally massive number of hours on the job each week. “The rich now work so compulsively because this is the only way to exploit their peculiar kind of wealth. Human capital more nearly enslaves than liberates its owners,” writes Markovits.
In my “The Examined Life” columns, I will be investigating the many twisted messages about human happiness and flourishing that have dominated our culture for decades if not centuries, along with the major thinkers, writers, critics, and researchers who have challenged them. To do so, I will be drawing on insights from the sciences, sociology, history, philosophy, literature, journalism, and other fields, reflecting on my experiences along the way.
I will be tackling not just our relationship to work and its many forms but also the excesses of the latest self-improvement and “life hacking” crazes, noting the costs to our health, relationships, communities, and politics. In our secular age, I will also be exploring the growing popularity of ancient philosophical traditions, such as stoicism, yoga, and Buddhism, along with other time-tested but too often forgotten practices such as spending time in nature, walking, working with your hands, deep reading, or simply being alone with your thoughts. I will also be training my lens on social media, mobile technology, and other technological innovations that enable all of us to be more connected than anytime in modern history but also more distracted, lonely, and misinformed. These topics and many others will all be part of the journey as I explore a better, more contemplative way of life in a post-pandemic world.
- Hewlett, S.A., and C.B. Luce. 2006. Extreme jobs: The dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek. Harvard Business Review 84(12): 49–59.
- Markovits, D. 2019. The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. New York: Penguin.
- O’Brien, R.B., and V. Bauerlein. 2020. How the coronavirus remade American life in one weekend. The Wall Street Journal (March 15). Available online at https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-remakes-american-life-in-a-weekend-11584293065.
- Thompson, D. 2019. Workism is making Americans miserable. The Atlantic (February 25). Available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/.