Grist for Sisyphus
'There exists above the "productive" man, a yet higher species.'
From Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human.
I am mildly afflicted with the Sunday night blues. The sand has slid through the hourglass too quickly, bringing yet another weekend, regrettably, to its close. And I haven't done nearly as much as I’d planned to.
Is it really the case, as is often said, that we have less time now than ever before? Surely, at least some of this deficiency stems from the fact that we have more demands on our attention than at any time in history. Smartphones, tablets and even watches that hook us up to the bounteous internet, with its YouTubes and Facebooks and Netflixes and countless free, and often excellent, podcasts. I spent a very good deal of my childhood profoundly bored, but then there really were very few options for filling a rainy Sunday in those days. Today, boredom is likely to be the result of jaded indecision in the face of a surfeit of choices rather than the lack of anything to do.
This Sunday night gloom is a common enough malady for most of us. Even if we have jobs that we enjoy, Monday morning can be a drag. How much more so if our employment is actually onerous. Having done many tedious jobs in my time, I now believe that one of the greatest luxuries most people can hope for in life is simply having a job they don't despise.
The luckiest are artists or craftsmen or those pursuing a genuine vocation, getting paid for doing what they love. Then there are those who are happily self-employed, with their own businesses, for whom work is a personal project, an adventure - even a game. Autonomy in work is strongly associated with job satisfaction, as is creative problem solving. The truth is that the majority of jobs entail neither.
Is it not ludicrously obtuse when the occasional politician, high profile entrepreneur or captain of industry berates the working-age population for not being industrious enough, for being lax and complacent, for failing to work the 12-hour days they self-congratulatingly boast of putting in? They express disgust that the mass of humanity doesn't leap out of bed in excitement at the prospect of getting to work. One must assume they have never worked, for example, on an existence-nullifying production line making widgets for minimum wage in the service of some morally vapid corporation.
It is a feeble imagination that cannot discern the gulf of difference between the thrill of running your own Internet start-up and spending eight hours a day cold calling strangers to sell them a crap UPVC conservatory. From Human, All Too Human:
'Whoever has not two-thirds of his time to himself, is a slave.'
Even when we like, or even love ,our jobs we can feel crushed by the sheer repetitiousness of work. As human beings, we are lovers of stories. We want that our lives should be stories too. We crave a linear succession of events, each building on the last, with peaks and troughs to the drama, escalating to satisfying climax - a happy ending. But instead of moving forwards, onwards and upwards, we go around in circles. Work is cyclical. It does not lend itself to a narrative form easily (this must be introduced through the career trajectory - what's your five year plan, colleague?) It is instead more akin to the turn of an inexorable wheel - the daily grind indeed.
Like Sisyphus, we manage to push the boulder to the crest of the hill by Friday evening (or even Saturday for some poor souls) only to find it's rolled back to the bottom again on Monday morning. Groundhog Day without the laughs. We sense we might be frittering away our lives, when our energies should be directed at loftier goals.
What we find unbearable is any hint of meaninglessness. As Nietzsche stated in Twilight of the Idols:
'If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.'
Nietzsche himself struggled under the yoke of a job that he found burdensome and that gobbled up his time; time he wanted to dedicate to his writings, and in particular to supporting the rejuvenation of German culture through the genius of his friend and idol, Richard Wagner. In the mid 1870s, at the age of 30, he was a professor of philology at Basel and had been teaching for six years already, having been elevated to the role of Chair in classical philology at the remarkable age of just 24.
With his Prussian protestant upbringing, Nietzsche had a powerful work ethic and he would teach from seven in the morning until well into the evening, as well as participating actively in the administration of the faculty.
Contrary to our modern idea of Nietzsche as a recluse, the young Nietzsche was socially active, attending dinners and get-togethers with his circle of friends and colleagues. But with his health failing, possibly from stress and overwork, he began to withdraw. He suffered from digestive problems as well as intense migraines and eye troubles so acute that he couldn't write; could barely see in fact. He then had to rely on friends to transcribe his thoughts.
It didn't help that he had foolishly committed to his publisher that he write 10 essays for his Untimely Meditations series over five years. He could really only find time to work on these when he was on sick leave or on holiday.
Unsurprisingly, with all the preceding to contend with, he also was victim to depression and he felt a keen sense that as a teacher he was not following his true calling. Nietzsche had already publicly lauded those who become their 'true selves' in the third Untimely Mediation Schopenhauer as Educator. Yet he was unable to escape his job at the university, not least because he had no other source of income and he was by that time sending money to support his widow mother.
When the question of his life's mission arose among his friends, he claimed he was waiting ’for the right moment to arrive.' Even though he was intensely frustrated, he was a patient man. In a way that he was perhaps yet to fully articulate, these frustrations all served a greater purpose.
Indeed, for all of us, it may seem at times that hours we would like to dedicate to our own individual development are eaten up just trying to earn enough to live on. The most frustrating thing about working a bad job for dreadful money is that the bad job is the very thing that stops you devoting time and energy to finding more satisfying and rewarding work. Mortgages have to be paid. Children must be fed and clothed and, one hopes, entertained.
So, unless we are born into wealth, the challenge for us is to see how time at work, the greater part of our waking hours, can be used in a way that is doubly productive. To earn our crust, and to help hone our skills, knowledge, confidence, experience and, yes, excellence.
This is one of the first principles of the personal development approach I recommend. Use every experience to help achieve your personal goals. All is potentially grist for your mill. You want to cultivate greater concentration - test yourself to stay focused on the dullest of tasks at work. You want to be more productive - set yourself productivity goals - a game you play with yourself. You want to be more confident - ask your boss for a raise, even if you know you won’t get it. You want to be more positive - force yourself to bounce joyfully into work on Monday morning.
Even the most meaningless work can provide opportunities to work on yourself. Sure, you will fail. That's fine. What's important is that you write it all down. Failure is where the learning happens. Analyse what worked and what didn't. Refine your approach and try again. What is crucial is that we are systematic in our exercises and experiments and that we analyse the results - the reason why a journal is so important. Like Nietzsche, we must write it all down.
Remember, the world is your testing ground, your arena, your gymnasium, your laboratory – even your battlefield.
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