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Power Lounging
by Gregg Levoy

Last year I saw a movie called City of Angels. In the opening scene a little girl dies in the emergency room of a hospital and the camera slowly pans away from this scene until we're looking down a long corridor in the hospital, with a light at the far end. The little girl is walking down the corridor, toward the light, holding hands with an angel played by Nicholas Cage.

Halfway down the hallway, the angel turns to her and asks, "So, what did you like best about it?" Meaning life. And the girl says "Pajamas!"

I've posed this exact same question to several thousand people in the last few years in my "Callings" workshops. I've asked them to imagine that they're walking down The Corridor toward the proverbial light, holding hands with an angel-----or with Nicholas Cage if they prefer-----and the angel asks them what them liked best about it. And not one person has ever said work.

They say good food, they say walking along the ocean, they say love in all its manifestations. They say laughing out loud, music, gardens, skiing down a mountainside, the thrill of creativity, the sheer physical beauty of the Earth, and someone usually says chocolate. But no-one has ever said work. And I have to assume that in a roomful of 100 or 200 people some of them do love their work. But no-one ever says work.

And yet, most of us----myself included-----spend the vast majority of our days on Earth working. If you live to be 90 years old, you'll spend 30 of those years sleeping, and of the remaining 60 years, you'll spend 30-40 of them working-----and a lot more if you define working broadly to include all our doing and achieving and pushing and juggling and busyness and trying to make those confounded ends finally meet and running from one intensity to another and another and going at warp speed most the time.

We refer to our work as our occupation, but we forget the double-entendre of that word occupation: it also means to be taken over, as in an occupied country. But we like being occupied, even as we complain about it. When we say, "I am so busy!" there's just a whiff of self-congratulation in there, a bit of quiet admiration for ourselves, even if we're keeping ourselves so busy that we're in danger of flaming out.

But even Sisyphus was granted a rest once in awhile. Sisyphus----whom I consider the patron saint of workaholics----is the guy who was condemned by the gods to push a huge boulder up a mountain, but just as he reached the summit, it would roll all the way back to the bottom, and he had to start all over again----the archetype of endless and futile effort.

The true instruction of Sisyphus' life, though, in my opinion, is that every time his grindstone rolls to the bottom of the mountain, he is granted a rest while he walks back down to get it. According to the myth he has to work for all time, but he doesn't work all the time.


Part of what we're up against in letting go of the grindstone is exemplified by something Tom Peters wrote in his book In Search of Excellence. He said that excellence is a high-cost item and you must give up things to achieve it. And what he said you had to be willing to give up for career and material excellence is "family vacations, Little League games, birthday dinners, weekends, lunch hours, gardening, reading, movies, and most other pasttimes." In other words, many of the activities that make life enjoyable, keep you out of divorce court and away from the doctor, and lend life some modicum of balance and grace. A lot of the activities that you're going to be telling the angels about when they ask.

What Peters calls excellence, though, is just another word for workaholism----which, broadly speaking, is simply the compulsion toward busyness. A job, in other words, is definitely not the sole focus of workaholism. You can work yourself silly----and sick----at just about anything: caretaking, ministering, housework, socializing, retirement, vacations, spirituality, saving the world, childraising, and increasingly just being a child. And then we wonder why our obituaries look like nothing more than posthumous resumes.


I was travelling in Mexico some years ago, and one afternoon I watched an eagle dive-bomb into the water of a bay in the Sea of Cortez and thrash around violently on the surface. He'd rise a little and then get yanked back down, almost underwater sometimes, by some unseen force. This went on for nearly a minute. Finally, he rose up with a huge effort, clapped his wings loudly on the surface, and lifted a fish out of the water that was almost as big as himself.

I know for a fact, though, that the outcome of these contests isn't always predictable. Sometimes the fish dives and takes the eagle with it. I recently read the story of a fisherman who caught a halibut that had two eagle claws embedded in its back, the rest of the bird having long since rotted away.

We, too, can sometimes be tenacious to the point of self-destruction, can sometimes take on too much and be pulled under by it. In a short story by Leo Tolstoy called "How much land does a man need?" a man is given the opportunity to own as much land as he can run around in a day. So the man runs and runs and runs and at the end of the day, having run himself to a complete frenzy, he collapses and dies of exhaustion, proving that all the land this man needed was about six feet by three feet.

The amount of land there is to run around, the amount of work there is to do in life, is inexhaustible. We, however, are not. And it's imperative to know when to stop, how much is enough, how much is too much, and when to say "Enough is enough!"

The Japanese have a word for what Tolstoy's character experienced: "karoshi." It means "death by overwork"----and you don't get a word like that in your language unless there are a few statistics to back it up. And whether you love your work or not, workaholism has all the earmarks of an addiction----trying to control life, anaesthetizing yourself. The experts just call it a process addiction instead of a substance addiction.

But even if all your works are good works, even if all your busyness is in the service of worthy and noble causes, when the means to those ends is an addictive process, the end result is a loss of soul and a depletion of spirit. In other words, you can violate your own true nature as readily by overworking as you can by refusing a calling altogether.


A few years ago, I decided to take a sabbatical. Or perhaps it was decided for me. I had just finished my first book, after 15 months of 12-hour days, and reached a point of burnout, which is usually what it takes to get me off the hamster-wheel. Some kind of meltdown, some experience of being drop-kicked into consciousness. And having reached that point, I took the spirit of Sabbath and extended it to outlandish proportions by taking four months off, living off savings, and for a relatively brief period there in the middle of my work-life seeing what it would feel like to simply not work! To make time for the kind of creative idleness that an acquaintance of mine calls "power lounging."

What it felt like was a head-on collision----the car stopped but the passenger didn't----because a lifetime of working sets up a tremendous momentum that doesn't end just because the work ends. And this is what set the tone for the first half of my sabbatical: an absolutely maddening restlessness that routinely propelled me back into my office----despite my policy statements to the contrary----in a kind of trance state. And this is precisely what we're dealing with here: a trance of monumental proportions. And if trying to reprioritize your life feels like you're pushing a boulder up a mountain, it's because the workaholic trance is not just a personal trance, but a cultural trance, and increasingly a worldwide trance.

The whole Protestant Work Ethic, in fact, is a kind of trance----the idea that hard work and material success will earn you the key to the cosmic washroom, or secure you a place in heaven, among God's elect-----which is absolute horse-puckey. Spirit can certainly come through one's work, but you don't work your way to heaven. Heaven is not Studio 54, with God standing on a platform outside the club picking only the successful and the cute and the rich people to get in.

The fact is, there is a juggernaut of a machine in the boiler room of this culture that pumps out a very powerful and insistent message: "Work!" Value adheres to what you produce and you are what you do, and if you're not doing something then you're not of value. So we're constantly doing something.

And when you're busy doing you don't have to be busy feeling; feeling that maybe you're burned out, or you need a change, or your heart isn't in the work anymore, or that work itself, which normally gives you a sense of control over your life, has instead made your life feel like a parody of being in control, like you're frantically trying to shovel coal into a furnace that 's burning it up faster and faster. Working in that condition is like bitten by a rattlesnake: you panic and run and work harder and harder and it only causes the poison to travel faster through your system.


I've learned in my own work-life that motion is not necessarily progress or productivity, any more than noise is necessarily music. People use the term "vegging out" to describe not doing anything, just hanging out, taking it easy. But I learned something important a few years ago about the absurdity of equating vegging-out with inactivity, if not uselessness:

Off the coast of French Guiana, on the Atlantic side of South America, is a place called Devil's Island, which used to be the world's most notorious penal colony, a place where the French sent men they wanted to disappear. Ten years ago I visited that island, about 40 years after the prison was closed down and abandoned, and in that time the jungle had almost completely reclaimed it, torn the buildings limb from limb with its vines and roots, and rotted the iron bars clean through with its humidity. In barely 40 years it reduced that prison to rubble.

When I think of the term "vegging out" or "vegetative state," this is clearly not a description of not being productive. A vegetative state is a very productive state, the vegetable section of the supermarket is called "produce," and "vegging out"----doing nothing----can also be a very productive state, especially if we're talking about work addicts, or anyone trading off health for productivity. For them, not-working is definitely progress, because when you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress can be defined as taking one step backward!


The brute fact is that taking this step backward is much easier said than done. But I don't think it's more work that's going to help us feel secure enough to do it; reaching some ideal state of security and achievement. It's a little more faith, a little more trust.

This may simply be trust in your own ability to survive and adapt to working less, or it may be the kind of trust that Albert Einstein was referring to when someone once asked him, "Of all the questions you've posed about the mysteries of the universe, which question do you think is the most important?" And Einstein responded, "Is the universe a friendly place or not?"

How you personally answer that question may determine your willingness to trust in life enough to occasionally unharness yourself from the plow and let yourself just wander in the pasture and graze. And the act of stepping away from the plow is an act of trust, a way of communicating to your own soul that you have faith in its intimacy with the creative force of life.

It's also a way of acknowledging that half of success is simply noticing it! Stopping long enough to notice it, to partake of it, to understand and act on the knowledge that life is meant to be savored and not just worked at.

© Copyright Gregg Levoy.  All Rights Reserved

Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life (Random House)--a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Quality Paperback Books, and One Spirit Book Club--as well as This Business of Writing (Writer's Digest Books). He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Psychology Today, Reader's Digest and others, as well as for corporate, promotional and television projects.

Gregg is a former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, and a former columnist and reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and USA Today. A full-time speaker and seminar leader in the business, educational and human potential arenas, he is also a frequent guest of the media, including ABC-TV, CNN, NPR and PBS. His website is www.gregglevoy.com.


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