Overwork and the Cult of Ambition

What we can learn from Naomi Osaka.

Quote for the Moment

I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future.

| V. S. Naipaul


In We’re Finally Starting to Revolt Against the Cult of Ambition, Kelli María Korducki uses tennis star Naomi Osaka’s recent travails at the French Open as a case study in the cruel dynamics of ambition, especially for professional women:

Setting aside the unfair public scrutiny that is often leveled at Black women athletes like Ms. Osaka, the tennis star’s choice echoes another, broader phenomenon. Far and wide, in public and in private, workers are choosing personal boundaries over professional ambitions. Rather than comply with mandates to return to the office, employees are quitting altogether. Job vacancies in the United States are at a 20-year high.

The problem, as others have noted before me, is not a sudden scourge of laziness. The problem is work.

Korducki dismisses the backlash against Osaka, where some have attacked her ‘work ethic’ and others view her dropping out of the French Open as a ‘step backward in the march toward gender egalitarianism’. The true problem is work, plain and simple, and people are starting to push back against its unending demands:

Ms. Osaka has given a public face to a growing, and long overdue, revolt. Like so many other women, the tennis prodigy has recognized that she has the right to put her health and sanity above the unending demands imposed by those who stand to profit from her labors. In doing so, Ms. Osaka exposes a foundational lie in how high-achieving women are taught to view their careers.

In a society that prizes individual achievement above most other things, ambition is often framed as an unambiguous virtue, akin to hard work or tenacity. But the pursuit of power and influence is, to some extent, a vote of confidence in the profit-driven myth of meritocracy that has betrayed millions of American women through the course of the pandemic and before it, to our disillusionment and despair.

Osaka, and all the other workers who are quitting their jobs rather than going back to the performance theater of the modern workplace, are putting themselves — their well-being, their desire for a better way of life — ahead of the crushing pressures of work:

Chief among these is the pressure to meet employers’ business-as-usual performance demands amid a year’s worth of unprocessed grief. And then there’s the knowledge that as workers toiled and fizzled, the nation’s billionaire bosses became even richer. One needn’t be lazy, weak or unwell to reassess whether it’s worth bothering.

It’s a hard-won lesson for the goal-setting American worker: that as much as you might love your work, work won’t love you back. Despite the fondness you may feel for the people you work with, you are not a family.

Bosses like to say the business is a family — or a tribe — when it suits their purposes, but not when announcing layoffs. A close alternative is ‘team’ where at least the semantics are a bit more apt. But stewing below all the corporate propaganda is the dark embrace of the cult of overwork, where we talk ourselves into becoming members of a cult that perpetuates itself through human sacrifice.

James Surowiecki might have been the first to use the term ‘cult of overwork’, pointing out that the best-paid workers in The U.S. — driven by ambition — have created this cult over the past 40 years:

Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week.

Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.

Kordurki’s cult of ambition is close kin to the even more insidious cult of overwork, also called ‘workism’. Derek Thompson wrote about this in 2019, in the Atlantic’s Workplace Report:

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

And in If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living?, Andrew Taggart looks into the concept of total work, an alias for workism:

‘Total work’, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after the Second World War in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else. By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

We are on the verge of total work’s realisation.

The answer is for more of us to spend less time on the treadmill, to embrace the exact opposite of the cult of ambition and overwork: minimum viable work. We should work only as much as necessary, and no more.

That means we have to push back on systems of work that use our desire to achieve against us, that want us to love our work before all else, but work will never love us back.

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