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
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
A HIGH COST ITEM
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.
THE SPIRIT OF SABBATH
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
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!
A FRIENDLY UNIVERSE
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
Copyright Gregg Levoy.
All Rights Reserved
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.