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AN UPDATE FROM ARTHUR
September 6, 2015
With Labor Day upon us, many of us are shifting focus from summer fun back to work. But what if you come back from vacation to find that you’re just not as fulfilled by your work as you used to be?
This phenomenon is the theme of my latest New York Times column. Keep reading if you want to hear my diagnosis of the problem — and how career advice I found in the Bhagavad Gita might contain the cure. And if anything in here rings true for you, let me know on Twitter @arthurbrooks.
STRESSED IN THE WORKPLACE?
I open the piece stating the obvious: humans are hard-wired to want to climb the ladder of success. But many can attest that, at some point, the climb yields less and less joy. Think of the once-satisfied professor who is now a grumpy dean. Or the formerly prolific writer who now spends his time managing and editing the creative pursuits of others.
According to the famous “Peter Principle,” the way organizations are structured means that people rise to their level of incompetence. Employees get promoted until they land in a role that they can’t execute well enough to merit another promotion. Well, let’s call our new hypothesis the “Yuppie Peter Principle”: Ambitious people seem to climb to their level of unhappiness.
While this may seem like a privileged problem to have — pitying the poor individual who “has” to be a manager or CEO — research shows that it is in fact a problem. In the piece, I discuss one study that found that stress actually rises as people’s incomes continue to climb beyond the middle class. Money and prestige seemingly have diminishing marginal returns in terms of happiness but readily buy us more stress!
You can find more evidence for the “Yuppie Peter Principle” in the drinking habits of the upper class. Research has shown that more than 80 percent of adults who earn more than $75,000 annually drink alcohol, versus 66 percent of people who make $30,000–49,000 and just 46 percent of people earning under $20,000.
So, if you want to avoid cursing yourself with success-driven unhappiness — and drinking too much in the process — what can you do?
The logical answer could be to just go back to the “bliss zone.” Give up your position of leadership and rejoin the masses. But most of society deems any retrogression as failure. The CEO who gives up his post to return to his beloved department is more likely to find himself misunderstood or disrespected. The key has to be finding fulfillment in our current position.
I finish the piece sharing the best career advice I have found on the subject. It comes from what you may think is an unlikely source — Eastern religious thought. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that “The renunciation of work and work in devotion are both good for liberation. But, of the two, work in devotional service is better than renunciation of work.”
In other words: Stop fantasizing about quitting or retirement. Instead, convert your daily projects into a source of personal liberation by offering them up for the good of others.
Instead of looking at your to-do list as full of obstacles to spending time on yourself, try viewing each item as a new opportunity to serve others. Easier said than done, to be sure. But if you succeed, you might find yourself just as happy as you were in your good days — but with the power to improve more lives.
And your liver will thank you, too!
There was some material in the first draft that made it too long and we had to cut, but I was sorry to see this paragraph go. For example, here’s a gem from ancient Rome that shows how rare it is to move back to the bliss zone:
“Leaving a post of power and leadership voluntarily is so odd that it is the stuff of legend. In 460 BC, Cincinnatus was plucked from his humble farm and appointed absolute dictator to repel an invasion of Rome by the dreaded Aequians. He succeeded spectacularly in this task — but that is not why he is remembered today. Rather, he is famous for resigning his commission afterward and returning to his simple life. People are wired for progress, and regression looks and feels like failure. Furthermore, rapid deskilling can quickly render one incompetent in the high-skill field in which one was previously, happily employed.”
A DC cook illustrates the human cost of raising the minimum wage through her own story of immigration from Argentina.
My colleagues from AEI’s education policy department have a great piece in US News & World Report: “No participation trophies for Common Core.”
Reforming occupational licensing could play a huge part in rejuvenating economic mobility.
LISTEN TO THIS
Are you feeling grateful?
I have always liked the song “Gracias por la música” by Cuban salsa artist Willy Chirino. The opening line is, “I thank you, Lord, for all the beautiful things you have given me.” He goes on to list all the beautiful things in his life. (By the way, one of the things Willy is not grateful for is the Castro dictatorship. He lives in Miami and is active in the Cuban dissident community.)
See you in two weeks—
P.S. The next edition of this newsletter will be dedicated to Spain, where my wife was raised and where I spent years of my life. If my colleagues get their way, the newsletter may even contain some old footage of yours truly playing the French horn with the Barcelona Orchestra.
P.P.S. If you’re liking this newsletter, please do forward it along to a friend and invite them to subscribe here!
************ Arthur C. Brooks
President, American Enterprise Institute