Burnout and vocation

How a brilliant new essay helped me make sense of my post-burnout career.

I have two things to share with you today. First is an article I wrote for The New Republic, “Imagining a Better Life After the Coronavirus,” which is based on the surprising answers I got to my question if anyone found that their life was better under quarantine. If you missed it when it came out last week, here it is. I was surprised to have gotten the response I did to that question, and I was equally surprised to see that people actually liked the essay! (I was afraid it would come across as whistling past a graveyard.) The most pleasant surprise came when a friend I hadn’t been in touch with in a few years called — called! — out of blue to say it gave her some hope. I invite you to read it and then call someone who matters to you.

The other thing is an essay in Aeon by Chad Wellmon, who teaches German and history at U.Va., about the sociologist Max Weber’s vision of the intellectual vocation. The essay made so much fall into place for me, not only as someone who thinks about Weber pretty much every day but, more important, as someone who is trying to pursue a vocation to “the life of the mind” outside the university.

Wellmon focuses on Weber’s 1917 lecture, “The Scholar’s Work,” more commonly known as “Science as a Vocation.” (Wellmon co-edited a new edition of this and Weber’s other “vocation lecture,” “Politics as a Vocation.”) In “The Scholar’s Work,” Weber surveys the sorry state of working conditions in German academia and tries to determine what a vocation to intellectual life, for both scholars and students, could possibly look like in those conditions.

As Wellmon writes, Weber

understood that disciplinary scholarship as practised in modern universities was one of many possible ways of leading an intellectual life. It was an all-too-common ‘vanity’, he told the audience, to imagine that the businessman or the artist didn’t also engage in their own forms of intellectual work….

The most urgent questions concerned the forms for conducting a life and the character, habits and virtues that might sustain them. Intellectual work was spiritual work. Anyone seeking to craft a meaningful life engages in it. It is a task for all those who live in a disenchanted world in which meaning is not something that inheres in the world itself or that a job can simply provide, but rather is something to be asserted and made (and contested) by and among humans themselves.

I have thought often of “Science as a Vocation” ever since I first read it more than a decade ago. I always found a strange kind of comfort in knowing that university hiring practices have been unfair and soul-destroying for more than a century:

When young students come to me to seek advice about qualifying as a lecturer, [I ask them:] Do you believe that you can bear to see one mediocrity after another being promoted over your head year after year, without your becoming embittered and warped? Needless to say, you always receive the same answer: of course, I live only for my ‘vocation’—but I, at least, have found only a handful of people who have survived this process without injury to their personality.

Despite miserable conditions, these scholars kept working for the sake of their vocation. When I first read “injury to their personality,” while I was still more or less happily teaching full-time, I just thought it meant the scholar might become eccentric or embittered, a crusty old professor. Now, of course, I read it in light of burnout. I pursued my vocation within the university until I realized just how much doing so had injured my personality.

The thing is, even though I don’t have a full-time, tenured academic job anymore, I do still have the vocation. Weber went through a similar crisis. Around 1900, he underwent a cycle of intense work followed by “nervous exhaustion,” followed by an extended period of rest (like, up to two years), a return to work, and another breakdown. He finally had to resign his position, but he did not stop doing research and writing. In fact, he wrote his best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, soon after he quit full-time teaching.

When I was teaching full-time, I took inspiration from Weber’s claim in “Science as a Vocation” that a teacher’s task is to help his or her students to “render an account of the ultimate meaning of [their] own actions.” Every person needs to render such an account; that’s the human vocation. But none of us can do it without others’ help. We need parents and teachers and neighbors and scholars and writers to help us. As a teacher, and now as a writer, my task is to help other people give such an account. That’s why I do what I do. And I offer all thanks to Wellmon, and to Weber, for helping me finally put words to that.

(I also recently read this profile of Fred Moten, the radical poet and philosopher, which also engages with how the vocation to what Moten calls “study” is distinct from the life of the university.")

If you enjoyed what you read here, please pass it along to others by clicking the red “Share” button below and, from there, forwarding the message or posting a link to social media. Please encourage others to subscribe; that’s one of the simplest and best ways you can support my work. I am aiming to post these newsletters monthly while I finish a draft of my book on burnout. Expect the next one in early May. And thank you for reading.

Jon

My essay on regret is now free to read!

You know you need 15 minutes' escape from everything; why not read about my regrets and contemplate the value of your own?

The good people at The Hedgehog Review have opened up their current issue to all readers, which means my essay on the value of regret, “Je Regrette Tout,” is now available to read and share. I hope you enjoy it.

I gather that the issue will be open for two weeks, so click while you can. There is a lot of good work in this issue, as always. I’ve already enjoyed Tara Isabella Burton on modern mythical monsters and Phil Christman on Richard Nixon.

By the way, Phil has a book coming out soon, Midwest Futures, that is going to be really good. I recommend his earlier Hedgehog essay, “On Being Midwestern.” If you like it (you will), you can order the book. (David Brooks gave the essay one of his end-of-year Sidney Awards in 2017.)

The current coronavirus shutdown of so much of our public lives has me thinking about how we might one day reorder our society around something other than paid employment. I’m thinking once again about Jonathan Lear’s excellent book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, which is about forging new moral values after a culture’s framework of meaning collapses. (It would make a great Kindle or audiobook read/listen right about now.) Lear writes about how our cultures are built on little more than the wish that they are valid: “It is as though, without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself might collapse.”

I think we’re seeing how flimsy that insistence is. This moment feels terrible in a hundred different ways, and it is filled with legitimate fear, with suffering, and with death. For the most part, we don’t have a semblance of a common life right now (though I have been impressed by efforts to maintain social solidarity even amid isolation). But without so many ordinary obligations (and with the recognition that many people’s obligations have only grown in the last few weeks), the quarantine feels like a blank slate. Every routine is just gone. If ever there was a time to reorient society toward what we truly love, this is it.

I asked people on Twitter a taboo question: is anything about your life better now than it was, you know, before? I didn’t expect much of a response. I expected parents to say it was much worse. But I got a surprisingly large response, and many parents said they were glad to have extra time with their kids. (I know, I had to go back to Twitter, but it was worth it; the answers I got were illuminating.)

If you want to share any positive experiences with the quarantine, I’d love to hear them. I am planning to include some of these stories in my book, or possibly in a short article. If you want to be anonymous in any publication, that’s OK. (Several of you graciously responded to an earlier query I sent out about burnout more generally, and I have not replied. Don’t despair! I will be in touch soon.)

Here, once again, is the regret essay. For more on the possible collapse of the culture we have built around work, here is my previous Hedgehog essay, “When Work and Meaning Part Ways.” Thanks for reading.

Jon

Regrets, I've had a few

Regret, the subject of my new essay, is one of the most valuable tools we have in our moral lives. It's how we reconcile with the strangers our past selves always are to us.

Welcome, new subscribers! (Also continuing subscribers!) This is where I write about the progress of my book on burnout, anything else I’m publishing, and anything else that comes to mind (often problems around knowledge and why Twitter is terrible). Right now, I’m sending these emails out once a month.

New essay

My essay, “Je Regrette Tout,” was recently published in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review. It begins with an account of a mild regret I had one night about 20 years ago:

I was driving my Chrysler LeBaron convertible with the duct-taped top to a Target store near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. I was in the area for a regional academic conference, and I needed, well, who knows what. I came to an intersection and saw the familiar red, illuminated letters through my driver’s-side window. There was little traffic. I got in the left lane and turned into the store’s parking lot.

Immediately, I was stuck. In mud. The intersection was a T, not a cross, as I had thought, and I had been looking at the back of the Target. There was no parking lot, just a grassy expanse between the road and the shopping center.

The problem is that, according to conventional wisdom, you’re not supposed to regret anything. Our culture is pretty firmly anti-regret. If you never admit wrongdoing, there’s a decent chance you won’t suffer any consequences, as if you never committed the wrong in the first place. There are more- and less-theorized versions of the “no regrets” philosophy, from the ancient Stoics to basically every idiot who has ever been on a reality TV show.

Today’s Stoics are economists and psychologists who espouse rational decision-making. We should take an unsentimental view toward sunk costs, they counsel, and make our decisions based on the future we wish to live, not the past we’ve already lived….

But ethics is about more than rationality. It’s also about relationships with strangers, including the strangers we each are to ourselves. Regret allows us to enter into an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past. The self-as-eternally-new-manager model is right about one thing: Even the person you were a moment ago can seem alien to who you are now, given a sufficiently consequential decision separating the one from the other. What kind of nitwit drives straight into a muddy field, thinking it’s a parking lot? I would never do that. But that guy? What was wrong with him?

Moral growth doesn’t just mean looking to the future but reconciling past and present selfhood. It demands regret. The person who regrets nothing becomes a conduit for experience without being enlarged or deepened by it. It passes right through her uninterrupted, never bending back on itself, never pooling, never overflowing her banks.

As I have said many times in this newsletter series, I have learned much about good writing (and good living) from the essayist Meghan Daum. “Je Regrette Tout” is heavily influenced by Daum’s way of thinking, especially in “Not What It Used to Be,” her essay on nostalgia from the 2014 collection, The Unspeakable. Daum is a quietly Nietzschean thinker. In “Not What It Used to Be,” she imagines a thought experiment that recalls Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return of the same; her middle-aged self appears out of nowhere to tell her 20-year old self to change her life. (It doesn’t work.) I run the experiment on myself in the essay on regret. Influenced by Daum, I see regret as the way to make peace with the person you once were, and to take responsibility for the terrible decisions that made you who you now are.

As the piece progresses, I talk about much more consequential regrets than the wrong turn in the LeBaron. You’ll have to read it to find out what I truly wish I could take back.

The essay is currently only available to subscribers; I can assure you, Hedgehog Review is very well worth a subscription. I just read this great essay from the same issue, on the differing charismatic styles of Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey, opponents in an election matchup that, for a moment, seemed plausible.

"Je Regrette Tout" will come out from behind the paywall eventually, but I don’t know when.

Twitter update

I have only logged into Twitter once since I last wrote you, when I said I think of Twitter as a nuisance bar that degrades everyone who sets foot in it. Like a pack of drunks, people on Twitter fixate on one dumb thing at a time that they find outrageously funny, then move on to something slightly dumber. It’s kind of like what Tim Kreider (another of my favorite essayists) says about his days of heavy drinking:

Nick and I once wrecked our friend Gabe’s entire dining room laughing at something one of us had said, whirling around and toppling over and clutching desperately at tablecloths and knickknack shelves, like a couple of robots gone berserk, but the next morning neither of us could remember what had been so funny.

The trouble on Twitter is, the butt of the joke probably remembers what it was.

A friend of mine who’s in recovery told me once that he kept drinking partly out of fear of missing out on whatever was happening at the bars. After he quit, he realized he wasn’t missing anything. Because the fact is, not that many truly interesting things happen in bars, and if you’re really knocking them back, like Kreider in that anecdote, you probably won’t remember what did happen anyway. That’s about how I feel about Twitter now. I do check in on a handful of my favorite accounts, but it’s so obvious that I’m better off not going to that bar anymore.

OK, true: I love it when I have a new essay out, and people tweet about it. It’s nice to be toasted in that way. So maybe I’ll poke my head in again soon, briefly, to promote my work and accept whatever praise people have for it.

News and events

I was scheduled to speak on “Thomas Aquinas and the Demons of Work” at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana on March 26, but that event has been postponed, most likely until March 2021. I’m grateful to my friend Anita Houck for inviting me to spend a few days with her students and colleagues.

Last month I led a workshop for faculty at Austin College in Sherman, Texas (an hour’s drive north of Dallas) on burnout and the academic vocation. Thanks to Randi Tanglen for inviting me. I was a little envious of the spirit of collegiality the faculty have there. After my talk was over, several of them stuck around to talk about a project they shared. That’s one of the best parts about teaching at a small college: it’s clear every day that you are in a collaborative effort to help students learn. You may teach literature, but you probably know what the chemists are teaching. You have common goals. I miss that.

Links

If you like what you read here, please click the red “Share” button at the bottom of this message, and forward the message or link to it on social media (even Twitter). Thank you for reading.

Jon

Delete your account

Needless to say, Annie Dillard is not on Twitter.

Close readers of this newsletter will notice that I’ve been pretty down on Twitter lately. Twitter makes it impossible to think. It rewards “hysterical criticism.” There has been a debate inside my head for months about how to keep the worst of that platform at arm’s length, while maintaining enough of a presence to build an audience for the book I’m writing. I don’t think I can pull that off. I need more than arm’s length. Twitter is bad for me, bad for millions of its users, and bad for our public discourse. It’s a nuisance property, but there’s no way to get the city to shut it down. I may just have to stay away.

I think of Twitter as a terrible, rowdy bar where you’re likely to get punched in the face for no reason by a sloppy drunk, but you keep going back because that’s where your friends hang out. Twitter is filled with angry idiots, but it also has a few genuinely thoughtful and funny people I enjoy being around. As I wrote in November, it even can be a site for spiritual insight, challenge, and growth. I recently gave a talk at a local Lutheran church because I met its pastor through Twitter. I have met numerous others in person who I met through Twitter. They’re great.

The problem is that on Twitter itself, you can’t really avoid the idiots, and they kind of ruin everything around them. What’s worse, being around all those idiots is turning otherwise sensible people into idiots. Everyone is worse because the worst actors have so much influence.

This morning, I felt like this was it. I needed to get out. It was a straw. The last straw? Maybe. Let me explain.

A political scientist, Julia Azari, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about ranked-choice voting in Presidential primaries. I could summarize her argument here, but that’s not the point. The point is, she made her case based on her expertise and put it out there. If not for one crucial aspect of the article, relatively few people would have noticed it, and hardly anyone would have gone mad with rage over it.

The problem was the headline. Authors do not get to decide their own headlines. (They usually don’t even get to decide the titles of their books.) Editors do. Headline-writing is its own art, one that editors have a lot of practice with but ordinary writers don’t. When I file a piece, I often don’t bother suggesting a headline at all.

Here was the headline to Azari’s op-ed: “It’s time to give the elites a bigger say in choosing the president.”

The headline is inflammatory. It represents an awful, anti-democratic opinion. If that were what Azari was arguing, then yes, that’s a terrible opinion to have. But it’s not her opinion. She wasn’t talking about the general election, and she wasn’t arguing for cutting voters out of the primary system but rather lifting up the nuances of their preferences. But through carelessness or malice, the headline writer wrote something that did not represent what Azari was saying and that was bound to attract a flood of outrage. The headline has since been changed, but the damage was done.

Bad-faith people on Twitter like Ken Klippenstein (a reporter for The Nation), Yashar Ali (somtime contributor to HuffPost and New York magazine), and John Cusack (say it aint’ so, Lloyd Dobler!) posted screenshots of the headline, including the Post’s motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” as evidence that the Post just wants oligarchy. Those disingenuous tweets got retweeted thousands of times and drew thousands of outraged comments. It was obvious that no one had read the article.

Some guy with 17 Twitter followers got 1,200 likes for posting a screenshot of the confirmation page for his subscription cancellation. I guess he may as well have cancelled, since he wasn’t reading it anyway.

In addition to the online hate Azari is getting, it’s likely that people are calling her dean and demanding she be fired. People are probably sending her death threats. That’s what happens when people get really mad about an op-ed, especially one written by a woman. Despite it all, she is putting up a strong front online.

Azari should rightfully be screaming at the editor who let that headline go up. It’s also infuriating that Klippenstein and Ali, who work in media and should know better, stoked this outrage. They did it anyway. They got their likes, their RTs, and they moved on. Maybe even gained a few followers. Azari, meanwhile, will be dealing with angry emails and calls for days at least. Fuck those guys.

(Again, this is why “punch up, don’t punch down,” so much espoused on Twitter, is such a stupid moral maxim. Which way is up in this case, and which down? Who has more power? The political science prof quite possibly writing for the princely sum of $0.00 [what I made for a Post op-ed in 2016]? The reporter taking four seconds to post a screenshot to a half-million followers? The hundreds of people telling Azari she’s trash because of something she didn’t actually write? What looks like up is often actually down.)

I recently read Dayna Tortorici’s essay on quitting Twitter and then spending more time on Instagram (which led to a whole different set of problems). It reminded me of the earlier n+1 editorial, “Against the Rage Machine,” on why social media is awful:

We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll.

Many of my favorite writers are either not on Twitter at all, or have a very slight presence. Needless to say, Annie Dillard is not on Twitter. Others are pulling away. Rebecca Schuman left. Sandra Newman left. (Counterpoint: Lauren Oyler is back.)

My problem is that while other people were mad at Azari for a second or ten minutes, I’ve been mad at them all day. They win, I lose. So I decided I should avoid the near occasion of sin. I changed my password to something I could never remember. I didn’t deactivate my account, but I do need to get away so I can stop being mad at the people who are always mad.

I can’t guarantee I’ll leave forever. After all, the smartest and funniest people are still there: Howard Mittelmark, JesusOfNaz316, Elisa Gabbert, Willy Staley. I have no other way to pull a chair up close to their barstool and listen to them hold court.


I wasn’t planning to write a newsletter today. Look for another one in early March, when I will have a new essay on regret in the next issue of the Hedgehog Review. If you liked what I wrote here, click the “Share” button below and share it. Reply if you want to get in touch. I’m bad at replying, but I’ll try to be better.

Thanks for reading,

Jon

Website: https://jonmalesic.com/

Subscribe: https://jonmalesic.substack.com/

Reading while writing

Why writing a book means I struggle to read one.

I don’t think of myself as a big reader. I learned to read pretty early, but I never became one of those kids who reads one paperback after another in his room, possibly under the covers with a flashlight. I have never read a single word of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or the Narnia books. I did read a little Tolkien, but not until college, and mostly out of guilt for not having read him sooner.

The book I was most drawn to was the World Almanac and Book of Facts. If I remember correctly, it came out every December, and I would check Waldenbooks every chance I got to see if they had the new volume of facts I would need to remain informed throughout the new year. I read summary reports on all the countries (and studied the full-color pages of their flags in the middle of the book). I read population tables obsessively. I read figures on crime and infectious disease prevalence. The sports statistics in the back of the book fascinated me above all else. In my early teen years, I probably could recite the starting five of every NBA team and give a good estimate of each player’s average point, rebound, and assist production across multiple seasons. I could also name the tallest buildings in major American cities.

All of this knowledge was perfectly useless. But then, so are novels. That’s a big part of their merit.

What I read today is either mercilessly purposeful or utterly accidental. I have read many psychology papers in recent months as I seek to understand burnout for my book manuscript. I recently spent several hours in a database of news articles from the 1990s looking for single fact. Because I cave to the slightest resistance in my research and writing, I turn often to Twitter. Once I’m there, I read whatever people I trust tell me to read. Or I read whatever people are outraged about during those few minutes.

I find I have little appetite for intentional, recreational reading right now. It isn’t a matter of time; I have enough time to read for pleasure. But it’s much easier to watch a hockey game. Well, since my favorite team is the Buffalo Sabres, it isn’t all that easy to watch a game. But it is often easier on my ego to watch a game than it is to read one of my favorite writers. I’m not trying to be a pro hockey player. (Not anymore, at least. When I was a kid who didn’t read a lot, I dreamed of an NHL career.) I am trying to be a professional writer of nonfiction. I think it was a Leslie Jamison essay I tried to read recently, and I just couldn’t get past the first couple paragraphs. It was just too good. If I had forced myself to read the whole thing, I would have fallen into despair over my own work. I have a deadline; I can’t afford despair.

I did recently read Howard Mittelmark’s new novel, Written Out, which is about a fairly loathsome, failed novelist and failed husband named Roger who returns to his childhood home on Long Island to figure out how to get his life back together. Before long, he finds that he has become a hitman. You would think murder-for-hire is the kind of career path you really think about before embarking upon it. But that’s a big part of the novel’s theme; our ethical decisions are more commonly after-the-fact rationalizations than they are before-the-fact deliberations. What matters is the story we can tell ourselves afterward. Written Out is ultimately a comedy, and Roger is ultimately a guy I found myself rooting for. You might like him, too.

Mittelmark is married to Sandra Newman, whose beautiful and mind-bending novel The Heavens I thoroughly enjoyed last year. Why not read them both? Newman and Mittelmark are also two of the very best people on Twitter. They are simply hilarious in their different ways: Newman expansive and absurdist, Mittelmark sharply self-deprecating. I often think of Twitter as a huge, noisy, terrible bar that you feel you have to keep going to, because all your friends are there. One reason I keep going back is so I can crowd around their table and listen in.

I also read (and reread) Lauren Oyler’s review essay on Jia Tolentino’s recent essay collection, Trick Mirror. I think Tolentino is a very good writer, but her essays never quite sit well with me. I was frankly annoyed and jealous when her book came out and was universally praised. It can’t be that good, I thought. Oyler, a truly brilliant critic whose prose is sometimes a bit too oblique, explains my unease with Tolentino in a way that goes far beyond either my unease or Trick Mirror iteself: Tolentino is practicing “hysterical criticism,” a kind of performance of humblebragging superiority that conceals underdeveloped ideas beneath a cloud of “relatability.”

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the books and essays that make up a kind of cultural decoder ring for me. Oyler’s essay is now a crucial addition to that canon. Worth noting: While Tolentino’s career is unthinkable without Twitter, Oyler has quit the platform altogether.

News & events

If you’re in New York tonight, please go hear the brilliant jazz pianist and writer Deanna Witkowski perform and speak at Fordham on “Jazz is Love: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams.”

If you’re in Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday, go hear Ross Douthat speak about “The Crisis of Meritocracy” as part of the Barnes Symposium lecture series. (My father-in-law is a driving force behind this series.)

If you’re in Dallas on Sunday, Feb. 16, come hear me speak about “The Limits of Vocation” at Christ Lutheran Church on Lovers Lane. Thanks to Christ’s new pastor, Ben Dueholm, for inviting me! (I already knew Ben through Twitter, further complicating my love-hate relationship with it.)

Thanks as well to my longtime friend Jason Morgan, who got my essay, “The 40-Year Old Burnout” included as a passage for the new edition of Cracking the AP English Language & Composition Exam. It’s a test-prep handbook; there are 11 practice questions about my essay. When I took the test, I only got 8 correct. I’m not sure if that’s a good performance on the exam, but it’s probably not an impressive performance for the author. I have often thoguht that authors don’t have any privileged position in interpreting their work; once a thing is published, the author is just another reader. This performance would seem to support that hypothesis.

I need your help

I am looking for two kinds of people to interview for a chapter of my book on burnout: people who have experienced burnout, and people who work for places that have humane policies and cultures that help prevent and heal employees’ burnout. If you know someone like this who might be willing to speak with me, please invite them to get in touch. They can email me at jonathanmalesic@gmail.com. If you’d like, you can also send them a link to some of my earlier work on burnout, so they know where I’m coming from. And if you fit either description, please reply to this message. Thank you!

You can share this post in an email or via social media by clicking the red “Share” button below. Next newsletter will go out in early March. Thanks for reading.

Jon

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