What Good is Sitting Alone at Your Desk?

In The Washington Post, Elsa Walsh takes issue with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.  Walsh thinks Sandburg’s tactics are pretty good instrumentally, but she’s a bit sickened by the kind of success Sandberg is using them for:

I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.

Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.

“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

I had similar concerns in an On the Square piece for First Things (“The Sad Secular Monks”):

Many of the most high-status jobs for the well-educated make a virtue of intensity and commitment. Investment banking boasts 80-hour work weeks; Teach for America’s emotional crucible results in a high burnout rate; and jobs in the political sector spawn articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cri de coeur. Have a Type A personality? These jobs are ready to push you to (or past) your limit, and isn’t that what excellence is all about?

There’s a word for people who turn over their entire waking life to one cause, and willingly sacrifice the possibility of a family for the opportunity to serve: monks (or, more archaically, oblates). Just like the driven twenty-somethings of Rosin’s article, monks and nuns have made a commitment so total that it precludes marriage. But in the case of vowed religious, the form of their service is meant to be elevating, not just useful. I seldom hear people claim that spreadsheets are good for the soul. Even for people doing high intensity work for the public good (the teachers, the social workers, the public interest lawyers, etc.), the form of their work may still be deadening.

Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love. It’s possible to make a short-term decision to put life and relationships on hold, in order to make a high-intensity commitment to a cause (this is the model for the oft-touted national service draft), but it’s unhealthy to let these crisis-mode jobs give shape to your life.

I realize that my concerns in the First Things essay and Walsh’s in WaPo are mostly framed in terms of the tradeoff between work and family, but the structure of high-intensity work sets up perverse incentives for those who choose not to have children or marriages, as well.  If you’ll permit me to put on my Nisbet hat for a moment, the work-at-all times mentality makes it hard to have non-job related communities.

Someone who comes home exhausted in the late evening, or a person who is constantly on-call doesn’t have the temporal or emotional space to help out with community theatre or put up fliers in the apartment elevator for a book club or work on (or just attend!) a block party.  And why should she?  There’s no reason to expect that people working  jobs similar to her will have the time to show up.

So, although you may carve out time for people you have an obvious obligation to (family and work), weak connections of friendship and proximity get neglected.  With fewer non-job connections, you may experience evaporative cooling of beliefs (including the belief that this is a natural work schedule!).  There’s less cross-talk to push your ideas and philosophy, less chance of correcting errors, and less chance of inspiration.

And less chance to practice loving the people who aren’t as easy or obvious for you to love — people you’re drawn to initially through the happenstance of storge instead of the similarity of phileo.  That’s less chance to expand your understanding of the incredible diversity of the way Christ works through us and the surprising ways He might work in you.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • grok

    “Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love.”

    Well said!
    I find that Sheryl Sandberg quote terrifying: “Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

    Even granting her “lean in” idea (women should focus/prioritize work? I haven’t read the book yet) that way of operating is not even the most efficient for work purposes. The Biblical idea of Sabath rest, besides being God’s law, is firmly grounded in human biology/physiology/psychology. Here is Hemingway’s advice:
    http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/seven_tips_from_ernest_hemingway_on_how_to_write_fiction.html
    “3: Never think about the story when you’re not working.
    Building on his previous advice, Hemingway says never to think about a story you are working on before you begin again the next day. ‘That way your subconscious will work on it all the time,’ he writes in the Esquire piece. ‘But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.’ He goes into more detail in A Moveable Feast:
    ‘When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.’ “

    When I go to noon-time daily Mass, it’s sometimes a little bit of a struggle to unplug from work and focus on prayer. But God is good and it’s seldom a long struggle As the Benedictines say “Ora and Labora”!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pray_and_work

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    One huge, huge difference between the secular monks and the oblates themselves — The Oblates Themselves, released May 14 wherever fine books are sold — is that those in a religious community are in fact still in a community. There is the furious dedication, but deliberately it is a whole way of life which gives plenty of opportunity to avoid the pitfalls you’re worrying about.

    … weak connections of friendship and proximity get neglected. With fewer non-job connections, you may experience evaporative cooling of beliefs (including the belief that this is a natural work schedule!). There’s less cross-talk to push your ideas and philosophy, less chance of correcting errors, and less chance of inspiration.

    … less chance to practice loving the people who aren’t as easy or obvious for you to love … That’s less chance to expand your understanding of the incredible diversity of the way Christ works through us and the surprising ways He might work in you.

    Actual monks still see people, and they probably see the same people more intimately than we can in a busy, noisy world. (Not to romanticize the difficulties and banalities of religious life, but this is simply true of the monastery lived faithfully.) By comparison our sad secular monks are indeed even more sad and secular. It is not really possible to exaggerate the immense advantage a monk has over the career man married to his job.

    Our monk is secular with none of the advantages it brings — despite seeing more bodies than a real monk, he sees fewer people. Despite being in the world he is of the world. Despite all the money and prestige and stress and exhilaration, he is sad, or at least hollow. He is far less alive than the cloister’s meanest chorister. (You might say his life are less … illuminated.)

    I guess all I’m trying to say is that in comparing secular monks to actual monks, monks triumph by comparison, by a long-shot, anyway you slice it. There really is very little comparison except in the staid stability of the life, and the single-minded dedication to it. Other than this, these two groups are basically opposites.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      *is less

  • http://mliccione.blogspot.com Michael Liccione

    Glad you mentioned Robert Nisbet. I took a course from him when we were both at Columbia and read, among other fine works, The Quest for Community. That’s what made me join the NY Conservative Party; 15 years later, I ran for Congress on the Conservative line and lost. Nisbet’s vision of community also caused me to want to be a Dominican. I never got to be a friar, but now I’m a lay Dominican. Of course, most of us are such workaholics that we only see each other at the monthly meeting. :-)

  • Fr.Sean

    Leah,
    the book of Ecclesiastics supports your thesis very well. that was an excellent article in “First Things” by the way. Qoheleth tried a little bit of everything in life and in the end concluded that life at it’s best was enjoyed by embracing the simple things in life, Family, friends and the simple blessings God gives us every day.

  • Alexander Anderson

    Amen. I appreciate these periodic conversations about the proper role and proper order of work and family in one’s life, but I fear that they too often get stuck in a women’s issues hole, where various factions then spout off the same talking points they have for 40 years. I’m disappointed that it isn’t generalized more often, and we don’t talk about how both young professional men and women have a tendency to get swallowed by their work, and we don’t debate how a man should juggle work, marriage, family and community nearly enough.

  • Solarcvat

    OFF TOPIC FOR LEAH
    Leah, I wanted to thank you for your and your blog’s part in my being able to do a Reconciliation this past Friday morning. It had been almost 50 years since I last confessed. The church here is doing a six week Alienated Catholics Anonymous session, I decided to go and it took after only three of the weeks.
    Many thanks again. Ted

    • leahlibresco

      I’m so happy to hear this!

  • Tom

    After reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece over the summer, I realized that the Church, in her wisdom, solved the work-life balance question, long before anyone would have understood what the term meant, by clerical celibacy. Your monastic work is an all-consuming devotion to God, by prayer and physical and mental labor? No marriage. You’re a successor of the apostles, responsible for thousands of souls over hundreds of miles? No family. Your work is your life, both of which, fortunately, are ordered to a far higher purpose than Facebook’s upkeep or even the State Department.

  • Ted Seeber

    This is why I recently insisted in another thread that the Church isn’t a patriarchy even though it looks like it. Celibates in the Church are *servants* not *leaders*- all the way up to Pope Francis, who seems to take some delight in showing the rest of us how to do that.

    • grok

      @Ted,
      Hmm…I’m a big fan of Pope Francis based on what I’ve read so far.
      But I think you are stretching reality to say that the Catholic Church is not a patriarchy…
      cheers,
      grok

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    The basic question is what is success? If what Sandberg calls success is really success in the deepest sense of the term then go for it. Don’t waver between two opinions. If Jesus is Lord then serve him completely. If money, sex, and power are where it is at then pursue them fully. Just make sure you really believe that first.

  • Mike

    This is why we got off FB about a year ago and don’t miss it one bit. We use traditional email to get in touch with our friends now, can you imagine? plain old email, LOL, and of course, the telephone and get togethers. It’s nice, meeting up and actually having something to catch up to instead of re-capping convos on FB.

    As for Sandberg, well I suppose if she’s really that good at what she does, and it gives her that much fulfillment, then why not? Hey, it seems somebody’s got to do it, so at this rate I’d rather it be her than me.

  • Pingback: Stories I’ve Found, 4/26/2013 | homiliesandstraythoughts

  • mrothen2

    …the structure of high-intensity work sets up perverse incentives for those who choose not to have children or marriages…

    A better question than “Why don’t more women want this?” might be “Why do so many men want this?” or even “Do men (or women) really want this at all?” Maybe they don’t. Maybe no sane person does, we’ve just somehow been convinced that the measure of our success is the measure of our exhaustion and overextension.

    • Randy Gritter

      I don’t think the “somehow been convinced” thing is plausible. There must be some need deep inside us that is being met by over-indulging in the workplace. For many women feminism plays a role. They feel they are somehow letting the movement down by choosing family and lowing career goals. Elsa Walsh is a good example. She says she influenced by feminism not to get married and not to have children. She later did both. But she refuses to say feminism steered her wrong. That the central things it told her were false. She still feels like she wants to say nice things about feminism as a philosophy. There is a loyalty there despite the fact that she now sees feminism as having done her serious harm.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X