From the Archives: The Gospel of “Me” in the American Workplace

What does “the good life” really mean? It is a question which, in itself, may […]

Ethan Richardson / 11.9.15

What does “the good life” really mean? It is a question which, in itself, may prove the point of the recent NY Times‘ op-ed, “The Gospel According to ‘Me'”. In it Jamieson Webster and Simon Critchley, a psychoanalyst and a philosophy professor, talk shop about today’s “church of self,” how the emptying pews of churches and synagogues aren’t representative of popular religiosity. Quite the opposite in fact–the religious faculties of the human race are doing just fine, thank you very much; it’s simply that their object has shifted.

So where is our focus these days if not on God, you ask? They say the only growing church in town is the Church of the Authentic Self. There are great things at this church–one may have a kind of amoebic spiritual life that can go where one pleases, and all one must really do is be true to oneself. There’s no “old school” guilt, either. No law, no sin–that is, unless you are not real. Be real, be free, and all other things will be added unto (into) thee…

There’s a catch here and those familiar with our writing on the subject probably already know where this is going. Because the “authentic” is found within, and the authentic is always (always!) good, never bad, we try to ward off externals–relationships, messy circumstances, even rest–and become our own isolated, disconnected heroes. Nowhere is this more glaringly clear than in our evolving workplace, which is increasingly governed by the Authentic:

This ideology functions prominently in the contemporary workplace, where the classical distinction between work and nonwork has broken down. Work was traditionally seen as a curse or an obligation for which we received payment. Nonwork was viewed as an experience of freedom for which we pay but that gives us pleasure.

But the past 30 years or so has ushered in an informalization of the workplace where the distinction between work and nonwork is harder and harder to draw. With the rise of corporations like Google, the workplace has increasingly been colonized by nonwork experiences to the extent that we are not even allowed to feel alienation or discontent at the office because we can play Ping-Pong, ride a Segway, and eat organic lunches from a menu designed by celebrity chefs. If we do feel discontent, it must mean that something is wrong with us rather than with the corporation.

With the workplace dominated by the maxim of personal authenticity — Be different! Wear your favorite T-shirt to work and listen to Radiohead on your iPhone while at your desk! Isn’t it nifty? — there is no room for worker malaise. And contrary to popular belief, none of this has assuaged the workplace dynamics of guilt, bad conscience and anxiety, which are more rampant than ever. In fact, the blurring of the boundary between work and nonwork in the name of flexibility has led to an enormous increase in anxiety…


Work is no longer a series of obligations to be fulfilled for the sake of sustenance: it is the expression of one’s authentic self. With the extraordinary rise of internships — not just filled by college students anymore, but more and more by working-age adults — people from sufficiently privileged backgrounds are even prepared to work without pay because it allows them to “grow” as persons. Every aspect of one’s existence is meant to water some fantasy of growth.

But here’s the rub: if one believes that there is an intimate connection between one’s authentic self and glittering success at work, then the experience of failure and forced unemployment is accepted as one’s own fault. I feel shame for losing my job. I am morally culpable for the corporation’s decision that I am excess to requirements.

Thus, the careerist (and religious) code of Authenticity. While Critchley and Webster aren’t all that charitable to the modern forms of employment, they are even more wary of its blatant hypocrisy. In fostering a sense of worker freedom and openness, a suffocating trapdoor falls upon the worker’s happiness. “Malaise,” as they describe it, is no longer allowed to be a part of your career–your life–if you are “freed up” to be authentic. And it’s not that malaise is a good thing–no one wants to say they’ve found themselves there. It’s that there is no room for bad things anywhere. Authenticity means the True Self, and True Self means the Untainted Self.

To take this one step further: the failure of others is explained by their merely partial enlightenment for which they, and they alone, are to be held responsible. At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others. As the ever-wise Buddha says, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

A naïve belief in authenticity eventually gives way to a deep cynicism. A conviction in personal success that must always hold failure at bay becomes a corrupt stubbornness that insists on success at any cost. Cynicism, in this mode, is not the expression of a critical stance toward authenticity but is rather the runoff of this failure of belief. The self-help industry itself runs the gamut in both directions — from “The Power of Now,” which teaches you the power of meditative self-sufficiency, to “The Rules,” which teaches a woman how to land a man by pretending to be self-sufficient. Profit rules the day, inside and out.

There’s a distinction between self-promotion and self-awareness that isn’t drawn out here. Critchley and Webster see that as soon as mantras and codes like Be Yourself (or Live the Good Life, or Regain Your Healthy Body) start being thrown around, all these new standards about who we should be crop up, which then spawn new forms of self-promotion and so on. Our self-promotion, or -justification as the case may be, makes us impermeable mythmakers: we ceaselessly work–at home, even after work–to maintain the person that is not the type of person that fails. Though it is exhausting, we do not abandon this frenetic religiosity anymore than we try to use it to win.

But I’d like to think self-awareness, or self-knowledge, is different. If the Law spawns anxiety, which spawns dishonest self-promotion, all the posing and pandering around the workplace, it is because we have discarded the fact that the Law kills. We cannot be enough. To know that person–the real, fake one, the limited and still lovable one–is essential. As much merit as there is to the idea of self-forgetfulness, this person, as inscrutable as he or she may be behind all the artifices, still requires knowing compassion.

A similar piece on careerism and “the good life” showed up on the Atlantic last week, courtesy of the always perceptive Conor Friedersdorf, and it says as much. Friedersdorf quotes David Roberts on what he calls the “medium chill.”

“Medium chill” has become something of a slogan for my wife and me….We now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do. But … meh.

It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids. So why do it?

There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it. That’s the best thing about the medium chill: unlike the big chill, you already have it.

Also in the Atlantic survey are the lives of Ike, Dorothy Day, Jimmy Buffett. Dorothy Day, a “killer” life-liver, served the poor her whole life, then rested. Jimmy Buffett, well, he is a “chiller” in the acoustic palmettos of the parrothead faithful…are we killers, or chillers, and is one better than the other? What metric qualifies authentic success? Are the people who cling to the surrender of “medium chill” just validating their authenticity with their version of “passive nihilism”? Maybe it’s passive, but I don’t think it’s nihilistic. It seems like good footing to me, to look compassionately into your own recesses–seeing the battered minivan and the endless, ambitious ladder up and away from it–and to say thanks. God grant it.