how much work can you withstand?

I’ve already had the rant about how The Man is gamifying the office and turning it all into a Kafka-esque numbers game. But you can eventually buy your way out of The Man’s filthy paws.

However, it appears that The Man is not the only bad guy in getting the balance between Work and Life right. The enemy is embedded within us, according to this NYT article on mindless accumulation. (hat tip to Monevator)

“[earning more than you can use]It’s a waste of effort,” he added, “But once people are in action, they can’t stop.” […] Dr. Hsee said strongly suggested that both groups were driven by the same thing: not by how much they need, but by how much work they could withstand.

I’d have berated the good prof in an earlier life, goddamn it, I need to work to earn all the money to…

buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress people I don’t like?

Damn. I was that guy, and heck, I didn’t even have the need/want for the yachts of the Wolf of Wall Street [ref]What’s up with this yachts thing on Wall Street – and where are the customers’ yachts anyway[/ref]

Till one day, in Tesco as the picture in front of my eyes shimmered and dissolved into a jumble of meaningless lines as for a second the thin line that keeps the delicate fire of reason alight failed. Slowly I gathered my wits and drove back. Really slowly. And then asked myself WTF just happened – and the short form of the answer was basically ‘wrong way, do not enter, turn back now‘. I was lucky, some colleagues discovered they had taken more than they could withstand when they wake up in hospital from a stroke or heart attack. I had to form an exit plan. I was happy as an engineer and with what I was doing, but the micromanagement, targets and bullshit I grew to really hate.

The prof is right. I haven’t earned any notable amount of money for over a year and a a half. And yet I could still go into any Ipswich car dealership and buy a car, new, with cash[ref]we don’t have any Lamborghini or Ferrari dealerships in Ipswich, it’s not that kind of place[/ref]. Because of the paradox he hinted at – I needed the extra cash when I was working to compensate me for the bad experience and the way it stopped me following my own interests, hopes and dreams. Now I can do that, I don’t need the cash – I’m already six months into extra time from when I thought I would run short.

Nobody will listen to the good prof though. Michael Norton put his finger on the problem at the end of the article.

Still, he said, choosing happiness or leisure over earning is challenging, in part because accumulation of money — or candy — is easier to measure than, say, happiness. “You can count Hershey’s Kisses,” Dr. Norton said. Being an involved parent or partner is not so quantifiable. “Most of the things that truly make us happy in life are harder to count,” he said.

Well that’s a bastard then. We are losing our complex values to the simplicity of one-dimensional numbers. We are becoming number-savvy and value-blind.

I walked away from working before the strokes and heart attacks. But I haven’t recovered all intellectual facility. I still occasionally look at things and feel shit-for-brains as I think to myself when faced with a task that once I would have been able to do this easily. I find concentration and focus hard to hold for more than a few hours, though it is slowly getting better – but the recovery time is measured in months and years, not days and weeks. It isn’t all bad- I find it easier to see the big picture and not dive down ratholes of detail. It’s one of the things that helps with not spending badly – I don’t mind spending more for something that I use every day. Or means something to me, but a lot of advertising and a lot of overspending is because the customer doesn’t stand back, ask themselves whether they need this class of thing or service in their life, and if so, do they really need the best or will cheap do. Often the best and dearest is the cheapest – if you use it often, this is the Vimes Boots theory why the poor pay more for many things. Boots happens in other areas too – Adnams had an offer on beer, it wasn’t a huge saving, but since everybody seemed to be both skint and on the Carol Vorderman misery diet[ref]Why the hell do people do stupid things like that – you’reb etter off drinking 10% less all year than nothing for a month and then going on a bender in February, which seems to be the way people deal with the end of the 28-day detox, from observation[/ref] and beer keeps, I’ll save the tenner. We buy coffee from Garraways in London by mail order as beans and grind these, rather than getting itty-bitty bags from Tesco. I take higher insurance excesses to keep premiums down.

So back to The Man – now that’s a problem you can do something about. But the enemy within, who blinds us so our values compass spins and knows no north as we focus on the countable at the expense of the valuable, against this there is little defence. You find out how much work you can withstand by discovering how you can’t withstand and easing off from there. If you’re lucky…

Compared to the enemy without, the enemy within is a trickster. Reining that one in comes down the the old Gnostic maxim, ‘Know thyself’. Getting to do that usually takes two qualities that are in very short supply in the modern world – reflective introspection and time.

Know Thyself in Greek in a stained glass window
‘Know Thyself’ in Greek in a stained glass window



9 thoughts on “how much work can you withstand?”

  1. I’ve stopped caring so much about the bullshit, I mostly just ignore it now. But that might be because I’m not being micromanaged or targeted very much in my current role. I do see colleagues who seem to get really angry about stuff that doesn’t matter, where there is no need to try and win an argument.

    What mainly gets to me is the tyranny of work, trying to arrange family life around its schedule, the lack of free time, the waste of my life doing something that is moderately interesting but I’m not passionate about.

    This morning I almost came to work by car, so fed up am I at cycling in the rain because I have to be in the office at specific times of day. Then I remembered the point of work is to save money to buy freedom, not make life slightly more comfortable now. So the car stayed at home and I got wet, but I was dry by 10.30!


  2. I’m a firm believe in Vimes Boots theory.

    Thanks also for the Garraways tip. I’ve recently invested in a coffee grinder so have been searching for a good source of bulk beans. I believe they freeze very well so the 6kg packs of Lavazza beans look like a bargain!


  3. I’ve seen a few posts about this studies findings and yours is definitely one of the best! The enemy within is a strong concept and it rings true, most of the time the person as sabotaging our best laid plans is ourselves.

    On top of that, the Google ad for the Carol Vorderman crash diet book at the side there brought a smile to my face 🙂


  4. @BTS You have a much a purer approach, because it the time you are robbed of.

    For some reason it was the BS that did me in, I know mendacity is a part of human life, but I want management to at least make the attempt to sound credible. When one punk stood up in a team meeting and denied the work was being outsourced I asked if he’d want to retract that else I would stand in front of the gate at 9 and video the contractors coming in off the bus and show it at the next team meeting 😉

    @MoneyTree Mrs Ermine says Garraways is about half the price of Tesco when you do the calculation. Beans keep fine – you may have a subtler palate than we do, because we don’t bother to freeze the beans. We order about £50 worth every three months to get the free delivery. So I guess that saves £200 p.a. relative to Tesco. Splitting an order with another household is a way to shorten the cycle time – they need to also be in late Vimes territory though.

    @Firestarter Thanks -I think overcoming the enemy within is 80% of the battle with FI. We are remarkably rich in the modern world, but also remarkably surrounded by frippery. Knowing what your values are and what you stand for is key, and it’s a little to my shame that it took so long for me to get with that. You did better getting there a lot earlier!

    Congratulations on surviving Carol’s diet 🙂


  5. Nice article ermine, I enjoyed the x refs to older posts although they were noticeably darker.

    I went cold turkey on work a couple of years ago, felt ‘unemployed’* after about 9 months. I don’t think it was genetic programming or my inner bean counter pushing me back into a stint of work.

    On later reflection I think it was the need to be ‘right’ which is a subtle form of egotism. The modern workplace offers many opportunities to prove yourself right, the quantified framework feels more like a prop rather than the main attraction, an objective measure of the rightness of your feeling of rightness if you like.

    Of course admitting to yourself that it’s all bollocks causes so much cognitive dissonance that it’s often easier to just carry on, into the grave if necessary.

    Knowing what enough looks like is a tricky multi faceted problem.

    * feeling unemployed – a truly horrific state of mind, that no one should have to feel. I think Bill Mitchell is on to something with the jobs guarantee.


  6. Hah! I’m glad I am not the only one that feels they have been suddenly taken thick after finishing the five-day-a-week grind! The brain fog seems to be slowly lifting, though, (plus I am actually still working a day or two on most weeks – albeit not actually leaving home to do it). Well, as the man said, ‘won’t get fooled again’…



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