I actually wrote this post in the fall of 2022, but am only publishing it now, so – apologies for any eyebrow-raising uses of the word “recent”!
Take a look at this recent Q&A post about burnout on Hacker News (an online forum for nerds), where the author is having some problems being happy in their working environment and is looking for advice. In particular, check out the most popular responses to the post, which (to me) mostly look in one way or another similar to this one:
This advice is going to be hated by a lot of people but… care less. You’re in an industry that values your skills and seems to always have demand. Whether or not that’s true in the future, it certainly is today, so the best thing you can do is put yourself first and worry less about work as a whole…
And, I do hate it! But not because it’s bad advice – let’s dig in a little bit.
First of all, the fact that this is the highest-voted comment on the question indicates that the sentiment really isn’t so unpopular. It’s a rational, sensible statement, right? The author put every ounce of effort into their work, was taken advantage of for years, and now doesn’t feel like all that work has paid off in terms of satisfaction or validation – what reason would there be to stay invested in a job like that?
Just checking out is a clean and simple solution to the issue, and it’s especially alluring given how easy it is. There’s no need for an uncomfortable conversation with your boss, innuendoing about the possibility of quitting, or worrying about your financial future – just a small shift in perspective. I believe it’s for this reason that you’ll find this genre of advice all over the place. To keep on the Hacker News theme, here’s another recent post asking not how to deal with a work situation like this, but instead presupposing that the solution is just “caring less”, and instead asking how to do that.
And recommendations like these (from where I’m standing anyway) are increasingly popular even outside of the sometimes-weird microcosm of Hacker News. Modern takes on corporate workplace culture have also identified the, let’s call it “spiritual difficulty” of being emotionally invested in projects without the corresponding autonomy or decision-making power. For a few examples of these “modern takes” that I enjoyed, check out:
Both of these works (somewhat directly, even) suggest similar themes of “it’s in the best interest of a company’s individual contributors to do the bare minimum in order to not get fired, and absolutely nothing beyond that”.
The problem is that, in my view, this is a pretty toxic solution to an equally toxic situation.
The ability to “care” about our work is part of what makes us human. We are born to use our hands and minds to create! It is in our nature to get invested in a project, to want to see it become the best it can be – whether that’s for our pride, out of respect for our teammates or customers, or even (irrationally?) just for the sake of the project itself.
And, at least in my experience, it’s totally worth it, too. It feels really good to work hard on something and have it finally turn out pretty well in the end. That’s the kind of thing that keeps you getting out of bed every morning. I can’t imagine how a person could consent to giving up on that feeling, to taking that passion and shutting it in a box indefinitely. I’ve tried to do it and it feels terrible.
The reality seems pretty clear to me – the response to working in an environment that’s made it toxic to care isn’t to try mental gymnastics to separate oneself from the human compulsion to do a good job – it’s to find a better goddamn place to work!
I want to very clearly say I’m not trying to tell you, you reading this, how to live your life. If you managed to find peace despite a big dysfunctional workplace, I’m genuinely happy for you, and honestly a little jealous! This is just an attempt to talk about my own feelings and struggles.
I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t believe emotional detachment is a solution to every problem, and I’m not a fan of all this messaging implying it is. After all – the greatest stuff is the stuff made by people who respect their feelings, embrace their desires, and in doing so make our world more passionate, creative and joyful.