Re: A Necessary Preference

by The Inmate

a review of
Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life
by Joe Robinson
a Perigee Book, published in 2003
paperback/317 pages/$14.95

How much freedom and human dignity can an employer morally justify buying because someone is willing to sell it?

—Joanne B. Ciulla, The Working Life:
The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

What if this is not the first time you are living your life?  What if this is the 100th time or the 1000th time or the 10,000th time?  Pretend, for a few minutes, that the life you have lived, are living and will live will be repeated exactly as it was, is and will be throughout all eternity.  What then?  Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, called this idea Eternal Recurrence.  Whether or not this is literally true is not important.  What matters are the implications an idea such as this might have upon the way we live.  Would you want to repeat your life?  If not, what things could you change in order to desire to live your three-score-and-ten again and again and again across the vastness of time?

How can we in the midst of this culture of overwork live a satisfying life now?  This is the central question Joe Robinson asks his readers to consider in his new book, Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life.  Too often in this society of overwork our enjoyment of life is something we plan for the future, but not for the present.  The present, however, is all we have, all we will ever have.  If not happiness today, then when?  It is sobering to consider the many, many people in American society who will give and have given their lives to the false idea that work is the basis for meaning only to come to the realization after the anniversary gifts, the plaques and the speeches that their careers ravaged their lives and left them for dead at the doorstep of retirement.

One of the great things about this book is that Robinson has listened to workers and reveals their stories.  There are both harrowing and hopeful tales from employees who have been in battle with unquestioned business practices.  Some workers put in 80-hour-weeks and eventually find themselves physically unable to perform their jobs or their roles as parents, spouses and friends.   Others, under the stress of overwork, decide to change their lifestyles opting for more vacation time, jobs they love and, in some cases, even more money.

In addition to truly listening to employees, a rare occurrence in corporate culture, Robinson offers carefully researched statistics about what overwork has done to us both physically and psychologically.  There is an incredible paragraph at the end of the book that ought to be posted in our lunch rooms, conference rooms, hallways, rest rooms and, if possible, on the backs of managers, upper management and CEO’s.  Maybe their posteriors would be more appropriate, since we could kick them there repeatedly to remind them of its contents. In that paragraph Robinson lists some of the accomplishments of overwork:

. . . almost one in two marriages ending in divorce; 40 percent of children of divorce ending up in poverty . . . 75 percent to 90 percent of all visits to physicians due to stress-related causes; 60 percent to 80 percent of work accidents due to stress . . .

There is more, but my corporate lawyers have informed me that overloading my reader’s psyches with the truth is risky business.  Don’t worry, though, Robinson builds slowly to this which allows readers to adequately handle it.  Anyway, this is the side of work that many major stockholders and CEO’s don’t want to acknowledge.  The irony, however, which Robinson chronicles beautifully, is that companies can ultimately be more productive or just as productive by allowing their employees long vacations and reasonable weekly work schedules.  For some incomprehensible reason this also makes employees happier(The Corporate Asylum staff will be looking into this phenomena right after our 4 week vacation).  There are some countries in Europe where employees only have to work 37.5 hours a week.  France has a 35 hour week and, by law, five weeks of vacation.  Yeah, five.  Some employees get six.  It’s true that France has a higher tax-rate than we do, but I wonder how many American workers would be willing to pay higher taxes to work less hours a week, have longer vacations and actually get to know their spouses or children or friends or, possibly, even themselves.

Mandatory vacation time for U.S. employees is the goal of the Work to Live Campaign which was founded by Robinson.  He, and others, are lobbying for three weeks of vacation after a year of employment increasing to four weeks after three years.  By law, at present, U.S. employees receive a whopping zero weeks of vacation.  Yeah, zero.  The argument will be made that companies already offer vacations to their employees.  This is true, but they do not offer as much as our European counterparts nor do vacations get as much priority as they do in Europe.  I once heard Rush Limbaugh say that if you go into a job interview and ask about vacation time you are not a worthy prospect for employment at which time I was able to practice the proper use of profanity.

More disturbing than the absence of a vacation law in the U.S. is the amount of people who out of a sense of duty or guilt work long hours and/or do not take their vacations.  I recently heard a conversation on the elevator(similar to ones I’ve heard dozens of times) between a man and woman.  The man begins.

“Good weekend?”
“No.  I worked.”
“All three days?”
“Yeah.”
“Didn’t you take yesterday[Memorial Day] off?”
“No.”
“Did you come into the office?”
“Yeah.”
“Everyday?”
“Yeah.”
“Sad!”
“Yeah, I know.  Well, at least it’s interesting.  I’m pretty psyched up about it now—I don’t know how I’ll feel after a few more weekends.”
“You still going to have that party?”
“No.  I gotta work.”

Robinson’s point throughout his book is that we don’t have to excessively work.  We have convinced ourselves that we do and have allowed corporate culture to dictate and influence our ideas about duty and meaning in our lives, but there is more to life than work.  Much, much more.

The problem of overwork is obvious, particularly after Robinson’s search light catches it trying to escape our notice, but what do we do about it?  Robinson offers many solutions for those who feel like Sisyphus.  His favorite is the long vacation to foreign countries or national parks, a kind of adventure to reawaken our sense of wonder.  This might include hiking, camping, ancient ruins or fossil digs.  He also advocates taking time off to learn something new–maybe a language or furniture making.  All these activities help to reinforce the fact that we have a life outside of work that needs to be nurtured.  He also explains how to negotiate more vacation time, how to say no to overtime, what laws your employers don’t want you to know, how to successfully break “The Ten Office Commandments of Working Life,” and our need for sleep, rest and leisure.

Some books tend to be idealistic with no acknowledgement of reality and others present a reality that seems so impregnable that even Don Quixote throws down his lance in despair.  Robinson acknowledges the reality of modern corporate culture and offers real solutions to working within the system as it is today, but he also takes up the Don’s lance believing that the good changes for employees in the past give us hope that they can also be achieved in the future.  His last chapter is excellent offering us “Six Principles for a Sane Workplace.”  Idealistic?  Yes.  Attainable?  Possibly.   Every Sancho Panza needs his Don Quixote.

One of the things I disagreed with in Work to Live turns out to be a typo.  On page 61 it reads, “We’re born with only one fear, and it’s not programming the VCR or even ring-around-the collar.  It’s the fear of failing.”  That seemed to be a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to prove and I argued so in the first version of this review.  However, in an email to me Robinson wrote, “By the way, the fear of ‘failing’ is a typo. It’s supposed to be the fear of ‘falling.'”  This, of course, makes perfect sense–not the inability of the corporate publishing company to fix the mistake (though that’s typical), but that infants are born with a fear of falling.  I still have that fear.

The structural short-coming of Work to Live is its length.  A shorter book would have given readers the same material with much more punch, though this book still has plenty of that.  Because of its length it is sometimes repetitive.  In a way it’s understandable.  A lot of what Robinson presents is not new so why haven’t millions and millions of workers started living their lives outside of work?  Maybe a little redundancy will finally shatter those illusionary business ideals.

All workers can benefit from Work to Live, but it is primarily a white-collar perspective.  Obviously, this is a big plus if you are a white-collar worker.   There is much talk about email, voicemail and the cubicle lifestyle.  I, however, don’t have a cubicle, a computer or a phone line—a burden I gladly bear and plan to continue bearing.  Robinson also mentions workers who are reluctant to take vacations and leave the office at a reasonable hour because of peer pressure.  That is simply not a problem in my blue-collar world.  Where I work most of us are elated to take vacations(and gloat about it) or leave the office as early as possible.  However, white-collar workers, I have not doubt, will be nodding their heads in agreement so vehemently that Robinson should be entitled to kickbacks from their chiropractors.

The problems, however, with Work to Live are minor and should not dissuade anyone from not only purchasing it, but actually reading it from cover to cover(Do it on your breaks or on a long vacation that includes a lot of hammock time).   This is an excellent and important book.

One of the most gut-wrenching quotes in Work to Live comes from former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw and it sums up what Robinson is decrying throughout his book.  A CNN colleague asked Shaw, on his last day, to reflect on his career.  He replied: 

“It wasn’t worth it.” 

His reason for that response was that he didn’t see his family enough.  Robinson got a chance to talk to Shaw about this.  “Nothing conspires more against a loving family,” Shaw said,  “than work.”

The title of Herman Melville’s famous short story about a young scrivener is often shortened to “Bartleby” or “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”  However, Melville’s full title, which helps much in understanding the story is, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”  The narrator of the story, a lawyer, businessman and Bartleby’s boss, is dumbfounded when he asks the young man to perform a task and Bartleby replies without animosity or pretension, “I would prefer not to.”  No matter how hard the lawyer tries or what arguments he uses Bartleby continues to say, “I would prefer not to” and refuses to do what his boss asks.  The narrator can’t believe it.

It seemed to me that, while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made: fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.

The “paramount consideration” for employees, Robinson reminds us again and again, is that of living a meaningful, happy and contented life today, a life in which work is not our sole priority.  Might we all stand as strong as the young, misunderstood Bartleby when our corporations and bosses and managers and guilty consciences ask us to give up our weekends, our vacations, our families and our health.  Along with Bartleby, let us reply calmly, but firmly and with resolve: “I would prefer not to.”

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