The week of March 29, 2015
An illustration of Nico Lang leaning out

The case for leaning out

By Nico Lang

When they’re growing up, most people emulate their parents—soaking up the bands they like, their political inclinations, and their religious views, even if they don’t realize it. I was exactly the opposite. My mother was a staunch Catholic, and in high school, I joined a Baptist church to spite her. This backfired when it turned out she was just happy to have me following any faith (except for the “Oriental” ones, of course). My father was married to work, so I dreamt of traveling and seeing the world outside a cubicle. I wanted to spin the globe, point to a spot on its hard plastic surface and just go.

But in the time-honored tradition of young American rebels, I ended up becoming just like them. Years later, I broke up a business partnership to save my relationship with my best friend—or so I claimed at the time. We decided to start a website together, and the cracks were starting to show both in our business plan and our friendship. These fissures continued to spread under the strain of our different working styles and my monomaniacal workaholism. My parents divorced because they were married to different things—my mother to the cross and my father to his job—and I chose my father’s religion. Whenever my friends went out, I explained why I couldn’t come: I was working hard now so I could have a social life later. This ethos might help you focus, but it does not make you well-liked.

Months of late nights led to increasing fights. The website wasn’t making money, and I was working enough for two; like a nagging spouse, I wouldn’t let my business partner forget that. We walked around Chicago’s Navy Pier as the winter lights of the harbor flickered, and I told him that I had to leave the site for us, so we could be good again. He then asked me a question that has since haunted me: “Would you choose a job over our friendship?” I insisted, “Of course not. You come first.” He paused, straining to look at me; I couldn’t tell if it was the lighting or the incredulity. “Really?” he asked. “That surprises me.”

There’s an old saying that other cultures work to live, while Americans live to work. But it’s not making us any happier.

It should have. I was lying to him, and he knew it. A month later, I took a job as a staff blogger for a local media outlet, my first steady, paid writing gig. We kept in touch afterward, pretending nothing had changed. We promised to still watch Cougar Town on my couch, stuffing our faces full of potato chips and supermarket sushi, and make CDs for each other; he instilled in me a love of Patti Smith, and I tried to convince him that British music really is better. (It is.) But it wasn’t the same, and we saw each other less and less over the years. On my last week in Chicago, we had a dinner that could be called “nice.”

Every once in a while, when I’m up late listening to Horses, I text him and tell him I miss him, which is true. He doesn’t respond, and I don’t blame him. I highly doubt the feeling is mutual.

• • •

In her much-discussed 2013 nonfiction book, Sheryl Sandberg instructs women who want to climb the corporate ladder to “lean in” to their careers. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” the Facebook COO asks, encouraging the female leaders to buckle down and speak up to be heard at work. But Yes Please, Amy Poehler’s recently released book of essays, seems to rebut Sandberg’s thesis on the work-life balance dilemma. Instead of investing your entire life in your career—your hopes, dreams, and ambitions—Poehler argues that you should “treat your career like a bad boyfriend.”

Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget your birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you.

During this passage, Poehler stresses that our career is different from our creativity—“that light inside you that drives you”—yet too many of us expect to find fulfillment solely from our jobs. To these people, Poehler quips, “Depending on your career is like eating cake for breakfast and wondering why you start crying an hour later.”

We’re working even when we’re not working.

Washington Post writer Rosa Brooks found this out the hard way. Reading Sandberg’s book convinced her to go the extra mile, both at work and at home. “I accepted every media request,” she explains. “I promised to write articles and reports and books. I leaned in to the other spheres of my life, too: I became a room parent at the children’s school, hosted the class potluck and the mother-daughter book club, and decided that my children would go to school each day with organic, homemade lunches packed in eco-friendly containers.”

Unsurprisingly, Brooks explains that she quickly became “miserable.” She writes: “I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in.” According to Brooks, her exhaustion was a by-product of a culture where we’re all asked to be ubiquitous. “If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned,” Brooks argues. “If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.”

There’s an old saying that other cultures work to live, while Americans live to work. But as Brooks shows, it’s not making us any happier.

I had learned to love the cage.

Last week, an old friend, Alok, bought me coffee after work, and we discussed what might be the least surprising research results in human history. The Office of the New York City Comptroller recently found that New Yorkers have the longest work week of any city in the country, with a combined 49.1 hours spent either at the office or commuting, its own singular form of hell on the Dantesque subterrains of the MTA.

The stereotype about New York is that it’s a depressing, lonely place filled with people who don’t know their neighbors. However, the issue isn’t that we’re an island of 7 million strangers; it’s that no one ever has the time for each other. Alok and I live six blocks away from each other in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and we kept making plans to get together ever since I moved down the street from him. It took us six months. A month before our coffee date, I made plans with a large group of friends to go to the T.G.I. Fridays in Times Square, as part of a quixotic mission to eat at every single terrible suburban chain in the heart of Manhattan. Fifteen people confirmed via text message. Only four showed up. The rest couldn’t leave work, sticking us with an embarrassingly empty table.

But what the numbers hide is that when it comes to the New York work week, this situation is distressingly typical. While our 42.5 office hours might be slightly above the average of major U.S. cities, New Yorkers lag behind San Franciscans, whose 44.01 hours lead the nation. We’re also behind five cities in Texas (Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston); Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and Charlotte, N.C.

Every single fact you’ve read is true: Around half of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day last year.

The problem, of course, isn’t just our jobs: We’re working even when we’re not working. We go to happy hour with our coworkers after we get off, share a beer in the office and loiter socially before we leave, take our laptops home when we just have to finish just one more spreadsheet for tomorrow’s meeting, check emails over brunch, and shuffle outside to take an “important call” while everybody else is ordering mimosas. If you’re a writer, your social life likely consists of going to parties with other writers, who will, inevitably, talk about writing; even when we leave work, we can’t shut up about it.

New Yorkers love work so much that they hoard jobs like an old woman who catalogs newspapers from the 1970s. You have the job you do for money, the job you do because you like it, and the job you’re doing because you hope it leads to better gigs later; if you don’t like any of these jobs, just get another one. At a website I used to write for, four of its editors have left for other publications in the past four months. This isn’t a matter of bad blood but simply of culture: You keep moving or you die.

A few years ago, a friend who had helped give me my first break as a writer astutely observed that I’d become an “opportunist” and a “careerist.” While it bothered me to know I had upset him, especially someone whose work I admired and I personally looked up to, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: “Is there any other option?” I had learned to love the cage.

The problem of busy culture and the work-life balance is a think-piece topic that never dies, as if the new complaining about being busy is busy people complaining about other people who complain about being busy. Every single fact you’ve read is true: Around half of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day last year. We sleep too little and work too much, and it’s actually killing us. While hunkering down and getting shit done might help Sheryl Sandberg’s book sales, we don’t need to learn how to work harder. We need to learn how to work smarter, and as the numbers show, that means working less.

The sweet life begins when we learn to lean out.

The Italians have a concept called “la dolce far niente,” which translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.” In context, that phrase might recall Diane Lane tromping through the vineyards of Tuscany, stepping on grapes, and having PG-13 romances, but for the overworked cubicle dweller, the sweet life begins when we learn to lean out. Amy Poehler calls it “healthy detachment,” but the Zen spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh describes it as “letting go.” Hanh writes, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.”

What does it mean to let go? A friend of mine once told me that his entire life changed when he started to give himself the permission to fail—or rather, to fall short of his grand ambitions. But what can also be helpful is to give yourself the permission to walk away. That project doesn’t need to get done tonight. Those emails can wait until tomorrow. You’re allowed to leave when your workday is over. For me, walking away meant disabling the Internet on my phone: No checking emails when I’ve shut my laptop for the day, and no obsessing about what’s happening online.

As someone who is asked for my opinion for a living, there’s this idea that writers have to be always on or plugged in to the conversation. That is a trap, and it’s why so many writers eventually stop writing. You might feel like a bright young thing in the glow of the screen, a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, but really you’re just burning up. It’s not just that living for work won’t make you happy. It’s that the person you have to become to do so won’t make you happy, or at least not happier than the person who goes on vacations, shows up to parties, and calls people back.

When I was a kid and tracing the world with my fingers, I wanted to grow up to be someone I would want to read a book about. Now I just want to be someone I would want to be friends with.

Illustration by J. Longo