Do Nothing: Review

Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving

Celeste Headlee

Harmony Books, 2020

Do Nothing book cover

There’s a good deal to think about packed into this little book. Its essence is yet another reminder that much of our culture, and especially our work culture, is rather bad for our health. (It’s bad for the planet’s health too, for the record.) Headlee free ranges all over this theme, discussing human evolution, screen addiction, the history of work, and a whole section of practical advice. But what really caught my attention was the chapter entitled “Do We Live to Work?”. My copy of the book has every other page of this chapter dog-eared for future reference.

After conclusively if indirectly answering this question in the affirmative, Headlee asks “Is it possible that the recent decline in empathy around the world is due at least in part to the fact that our phones serve as constant reminders of our jobs?” There is evidence that thinking about work makes us less compassionate. Those that believe that hard work is its own reward are most likely to judge others harshly if it appears that those people are not hard at work. Or not as hard at work. And we are all suffering from an obsession with working hard, being busy, being important. We rank ourselves based upon how busy we are. It is the basis of our status.

Being “at work” constantly in the form of responding to work needs through email and phone calls at all hours is status signaling for many. (Few workers actually need to be on call — not only because whatever the issue, it can wait; but also because whatever the issue, you’re not going to solve it when the rest of the world is not at work.) But being seen as so necessary, so important that you must answer work messages at all hours or the world will just stop, apparently goes to our heads in many ways. Busy people don’t have time to care much about those around them. They are too important for empathy. Having that reassurance of importance in your pocket has a constant dampening effect on compassion. You are less inclined to think of others when you carry your status symbol with you at all times.

Think about this. In our culture, being constantly at work carries more prestige than education, family name, even wealth to a certain extent. We lionize those who claim to work more than they sleep (if they claim to sleep). But those same idolized people who work all the time are generally the most sociopathic members of our society. We want to be like them, but we don’t necessarily like them. Still, we tend to blame their personality. We say some trait causes them to be a workaholic and another causes them to be jerks. But what if these (mostly) guys are incapable of empathy specifically because they are pursuing the high status that comes from constant work? I believe Aaron James asks this question in other terms in his book, Assholes: A Theory. What if our culture of excessive and obsessive striving is breeding assholes?

Curiously, I don’t think Headlee goes this far. There are a few places where she gets close to really questioning the foundations of our culture and then steps back. For example, in the paragraph following this question that had my brain going for hours, she says “There’s no denying that hard work helped build nations and the global economy. It’s hard to view the Industrial Revolution as anything other than an economic success…” Which had me scratching my head. Because I do indeed view the Industrial Revolution as anything other than an economic success. And it is not premised on doing hard work but rather wrenching hard work out of other humans and a good deal of fossil fuel slaves. The Industrial Revolution is about avoiding work, if anything. And economically, it has been a disaster for the majority of humanity (and probably all of the other-than-human planet). But though she lays the blame on our culture, she does not seem to advocate culture change. Her advice is to you, the reader, to enable you to live within this insane world rather than to you, the society, to fix the insanity — or just burn it all down.

But if our culture is breeding assholes, then I think we need to ditch it. There are myriad problems that need to be fixed and all of them are exacerbated by a lack of empathy. If nobody cares, then nothing will be fixed. If we’re all engrossed in performative preening through screens, then we are unable to even see what needs to be fixed. If we’re all too busy being busy, then we aren’t doing what needs to be done. And much of that busyness is, of course, contributing to most of the problems. That is, your busyness is killing the planet. And you.

On a fundamental level, a culture that creates sociopaths is a failure. We are failures. The harder we work, the harder we fail. Of course, a culture that creates sociopaths is also doomed. By definition. When most people either are or aspire to be society-harming (the approximate translation of sociopath), then society will stop functioning and therefore no longer exist.

So think about that the next time you are tempted to check your phone for work messages during dinner. Or on the subway. Or while brushing your teeth. That glance at a screen to feed your need for self-importance is wearing away at the very society that values such things. You are directly contributing to the downfall of society. As well as harming yourself. 

And there is much harm in this obsession with work-image. I’ve already gone on far too long on essentially one sentence, but Headlee’s book is brimming with good reasons to fear this culture of overworking — from damaged relationships to actual brain damage. This book is a chilling reminder that much of what is wrong with our health comes from what we do to ourselves. So go get the book and read it. With your phone turned off.


©Elizabeth Anker 2021


Wednesday Discourse

What do you think? Is our culture eating itself through this cult of busyness? How do you feel about your work? Is it how you define yourself? Is it something you love? Or is it something you do to feel better about yourself? Or do you work merely to earn money? In any case, do you bring work home? And how is that affecting your life? Is work your life?

The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I like it. Most days.

1 thought on “Do Nothing: Review”

  1. You know I was raised that I was supposed to go to college and have a career but I decided to major in English and then decided I did not want to teach so the career pretty much went out the window. I struggled with that for about 5 minutes and have ever since been so gosh darn happy to not have a job I am married to. I am currently working in an academic law library doing circulation and interlibrary loan and other things here and there. When my day is done I leave work at work. The previous library director was such a workaholic that her family had to beg her to take vacation so they could see her. She absolutely did not understand me and held it against me that I had no ambition. Ha! I have plenty of ambition, just not the kind she thought I should have. I start work at 7:30 a.m. and frequently have emails from people sent after 10 pm and sometimes in the wee hours. I am not impressed by that and personally think they are idiots who need to get a life, because working is not living.

    Liked by 1 person

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