The 5 Phases People Go Through To Turn Away From The Full Implications Of Total Work

Since 2017, I’ve been exploring the nature and significance of Total Work. I define Total Work as the process, starting at the end of the medieval period, by which human beings have been transformed into Workers as more and more aspects of life have been transformed into work.

My approach has been to offer a thoroughgoing critique of the value of work in modernity. By “critique,” I mean both an honest assessment of the value of work and a deflation of its fetishization. I stand by the proposal that work, when properly understood, is not very important–it is somewhat important but not terribly important–in the overall conception of a good life. As a primer (helpful but not adequate), I include a short TEDx talk below. If you’d like to go deeper, check out the IHMC talk. In the final section of the latter talk, I discuss what role work could place in my utopia.

Now for the revealing part. Over the years, I’ve begun to track people’s emotional reactions upon hearing about these ideas for the first time. Here’s what usually happens:

Phase 1: Rejection

Typically, somebody gets upset and soon resorts to calling me a hippie, a lazy toker, or a trust fund kid. For the record, it turns out that none of these is true. What’s fascinating is that, a la the Jungian shadow, someone is saying, “Not-me. Work is sacrosanct, this person is challenging what I hold to be sacrosanct, and thus he and his ideas must be resoundingly rejected. This is the ground upon which I stand, and so he is not-me.”

I remember when I first viewed the YouTube comments below the Big Think interview I gave. The early ones fell squarely in the rejection category. Wow, that was learning experience!

Phase 2: Misinterpretation

Suppose someone doesn’t get angry; it may likely be that he or she has misinterpreted what I was actually arguing so that the message can be kept neat, tidy, and–distorted. One man I know often introduces me to new people as the “work-life balance guy.” Yet from Day 1, I’ve argued that work-life balance, a post-WWII conceptual invention, is actually a species of Total Work inasmuch as it conforms to two central theses–the Centrality Thesis and the Subordination Thesis–of Total Work. (*–See Endnote.)

We could also call misinterpretation “domestication,” “unwilling,” or “taming” since it’s try to turn down the temperature by tossing water on the fire.

Phase 3: Non-application

Like misinterpretation, non-application refers to the fact that my interlocutor finds it interesting yet presumes that it doesn’t apply to him or her. In this case, the person is not getting upset (Phase 1) and is not misinterpreting the main lines of the argument (Phase 2). And yet, my interlocutor takes these claims to be merely a matter of objective analysis (to wit, about how the modern world operates) and therefore not also, and at the same time, an invitation to introspect (to wit, to turn a question back on the questioner). Therefore, we could also say that this person “academicizes” the argument, not seeing it as an opportunity for genuine introspection.

Make no mistake; I include myself in this examination. That is, one reason I began thinking and writing about Total Work was that I wanted to see where it resided within me. I have continued that self-examination over the past nearly three years.

Phase 4: Loophole-finding

Some precocious readers leap right into loophole quering. Significantly, this is the first thing their minds go to. In some sense, then, loophole-finding is a more sophisticated version of rejection (Phase 1) and of non-application (Phase 3). “What about therapy–isn’t that ‘inner work’? What about acts of service? What about social entrepreneurship?”

The attempt to slice and dice and find the crucial distinction that will break in the reader’s favor is amazingly telling. My question is often: “Why is that the first thing that comes to mind? Examine that within yourself.” I’m not persuaded that we’re involved purely in rational discussion; I believe something is really at stake for my interlocutor. I think this person is not yet ready to turn the light back on his or her life to see by what standards and according to what aims he or she has lived.

Phase 5: The Spiritualization of Work

In keeping with loophole-finding, people will start “spiritualizing” some special kind of work by dubbing it a “vocation” or a “calling.” Perhaps there are such animals in the modern, secularized world, yet I think three replies are in order. The first is that most forms of work actually don’t meet the requirements of a calling (see Total Work Newsletter #44: You Very Likely Don’t Have A Calling). The second: by my lights, we really should begin by taking the Way of Purgation to its very end. Unless we actually trace out where Total Work still resides within us, we’ll very likely repeat the patterns of Total Work in new forms as the rest of our lives unfold. And the third: we spiritualize work because we fear something. What is it that we fear?

*  *  *

TEDx Talk



  • The Centrality Thesis: Work is the center around which the rest of human life turns.
  • The Subordination Thesis: Everything else is not only put in the service of but is also made to be subordinate to work.

A ‘Global Community,’ Utter Bullshit, Is A Contradiction In Terms

Building a Global Community

In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long form blog post on Facebook in which he redefined Facebook’s mission thusly: our goal is to contribute to creating “a global community that works for everyone.”

It sounds nice–very Green meme-y (community, inclusiveness, etc.)–but is it true? My suggestion, notwithstanding the possibility that he is being earnest when he writes this, is that the project is actually bullshit.

I know a lot of us are thinking about how we can make the most positive impact in the world right now. I wrote this…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, February 16, 2017


Following Harry Frankfurt, I define bullshit as

  • saying whatever is necessary to get others to believe that you know what it is that you’re talking about when you don’t actually know what it is that you’re talking about in order to leave others with a favorable impression of you.

In the context of a social media company like Facebook, we can say that Zuckerberg is trying to get others to believe that he knows what a “global community” is (in truth, no one does) and that he knows how to build it (ditto), and his aim is for readers and FB ‘users’ to be left with a favorable impression (here) of Facebook. Hence, the vacuous social entrepreneurial/social innovation language: creating “positive impact in the world.”

Why is what Zuckerberg writes, strictly speaking, bullshit?


Let community be defined as

  • a group of friends or neighbors (or both) who are involved, in an ongoing basis, in shared care and concern for one another and for the common good.

By “friends,” I mean strictly what Aristotle calls “friends of virtue”: that is, those who care for one another not for what each gets but for the sake of one another. Friendship of this kind means that I wish for you to flourish and therefore that I conduct myself in ways that may enable you to flourish.

By “neighbors,” I don’t mean those who just happen to live next to one another for that, clearly, is insufficient. Rather, I’m referring to people who, not being as intimate as friends, nonetheless are able to see to one another in cases of genuine need. Being able to borrow flour from a neighbor signifies more than it says. A neighbor is someone who “sometimes comes to mind” when, say, I offer her some apricots from my apricot tree.

By my lights, this rules out most sports groups and other clubs that would properly be understood as forms of civil society. In many cases, these bonds may not be tight enough to count or long enough to last.

We can ask ourselves some simple questions to determine whether there is indeed a genuine community here:

  • Without solicitation, will people call, write, or stop by when I’m sick not because it’s the obligatory thing to do but because they care about me?
  • Can I call this person or these people up in the middle of the night when I’m really in a pinch?
  • Do these people have my back and do I have theirs?
  • Will they remember things that are important to me and will I, again unbiddenly, do the same?

The Impossibility of a Global Community

If the discussion above is moving along the right lines, then a “global community” is, by definition, unrealizable. It’s a failure in conception. Out of sentimentality, people might donate money to me if I’m very ill or if I’m trying to receive funding for something I’m manufacturing. But there’s a reason why they are strangers; they do not know me and neither do I, in an intimate sense, know them. Our relationship–contingent, interested, variable–is fastened together with ‘good feelings.’

Calling Out the Bullshit

What makes Zuckerberg’s claim bullshit, therefore, is both that a global community, sensu stricto, is impossible and that technological and economic advancements have, by and large, been eroding actual communities at least since the nineteenth century. That is, almost precisely the opposite of what he urges has been occurring during this stage of modernity.

Witness: forcible migration from country to the city (Polanyi, The Great Transformation), the hegemony of careerism in the twentieth century and the attendant diminution of civic spirit (Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart), the steep decline in organized religion, the rise of social atomism and, concomitantly, the profound sense of loneliness and alienation: these are the actual facts, the actual experiences of many modern individuals.

True, weird people like me have found numerous weird friends via technologies that are now online, yet, as I’ve suggested, having friendships, while important, differs from being in an actual community or actual communities. It may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, then many of us would have to admit that we don’t belong to an actual community and that we’re not even sure how one would really taste. This Socratic recognition of the truth would be the starting point for any earnest inquiry into how to create genuine communities in our time.

Examining ‘Inevitable To Life Is Death And Not Inevitable To Death Is Life’

Of the human condition, the writer Jamaica Kincaid once wrote, “Inevitable to life is death and not inevitable to death is life.” It’s beautiful–symmetrical, epigrammatic, prima facie enigmatic–but is it true?

Is it true that life, having arise, must end? And is it also true that it’s not knowable whether there’s any further life after death–be that in the form of an afterlife, transmigration of souls, reincarnation, and so on?

What appears to be true is actually a very modern secularist-agnostic position. And it may, regardless of how often it’s said these days, be incorrect.

According to nonduality, which should rightly be regarded as a weird and unorthodox yet for all that not necessarily incorrect view, the answer to both questions is no. What Kincaid assumes here is that we’re speaking about the human being, and the human being is indeed a person. But am I a person? Such is the question that animates The Upanishads as well as Advaita Vedanta.

What is a person? A person is a finite mind-body composite. Plainly, the body comes into existence, persists in its existence in time, and perishes at some moment in time. Plainly, the finite mind suffers the ultimate fate of the body: as the body perishes, so perishes the mind. (Here, set aside recent advances in medical technology that give rise to puzzles about the finite mind and body relationship. I’m referring to standard cases.)

But am I this body? Am I this mind? Am I this finite mind-body composite? What if I am not? Then it follows that I do not suffer the fate of the body-mind. Then it’s at least possible that I was not born and therefore that I cannot die and therefore that I am the unborn and undying Something, which may not be some-thing at all.

Consider that possibility. If it were true, it would also utterly dissolve the fear of death. And then some.

The Main Lesson Of The Upanishads

The main lesson of The Upanishads, a book I just read for the first time, is that the body must be stilled and the mind quieted in order for the ascent to Brahman, or ultimate reality, to be possible.

For someone who hasn’t had any mystical experiences or who hasn’t meditated much, The Upanishads (or The Daodejing or, for that matter, any mystical work) will be intellectually comprehensible and yet will really lack ‘a point.’ It will just be another modern book and therefore will be, once read, assimilated into one’s storehouse of knowledge.

If so, this is a genuine pity, for The Upanishads is an inspired book addressing itself to mystical seekers. As such, it may not be ‘readable’ by, or ‘legible’ to, those who’ve not already set foot onto a path.

It may be asked, “Why is it necessary to ‘renounce’ the body and the mind?” Spiritual teachers, of course, vary on whether renunciation is necessary, but I don’t read The Upanishads as advocating for a renunciation of the body-mind. Rather, I take it that one needs to learn (a) that there’s a reality that is greater than that which available in perceptions of the so-called external or objective world, (b) that there’s a reality that is greater than that which is experienced by the body (i.e., feelings and sensations), and (c) that there’s also a reality that is greater than the mind’s deliverances (i.e., thoughts, images, memories, anticipations, and so on). Consequently, it is not asceticism, pure and simple, that one is learning herein; instead, it’s a genuine inquisitiveness into The More than body-mind. And so, when the sense doors are closed, when the body is so quiet as to be unmoving, when the thoughts and feelings subside, and therefore when one is established in (e.g.) the I Am state, it becomes immediately clear to one that there is a–this–greater abiding reality.

Of course, The Upanishads is urging us not just to come to see directly the I Am state but also to go beyond this state in union with Brahman. Hence, the whole book, when rightly understood by the heart, is nothing more than a pointer or, rather, a series of pointers at the ultimate. From the ultimate to the ultimate.


The opening 5-10 minutes of this satsang with teacher Francis Lucille makes the point above marvelously well. When he speaks of the transfer of energy or desire from the the world (more clearly: from body, mind, and world) to Presence, he is echoing the main lesson of The Upanishads. He calls this “conversion” (or “initiation”) and that term seems perfect here.

Tough Compassion

It’s thought that compassion is always soft and gentle, but that’s a considerable mistake.

Compassion may require perceptiveness, and perceptiveness may reveal that your interlocutor is deluded about something specific. To be soft and gentle, in such a case, may allow this person to maintain this delusion and therefore to be that much further from discovering his or her true nature.

For this reason, compassion must thread the needle and, in some cases therefore, must be tough. One must, as it were, see through the delusion and speak to that in the other yearns to be free. I say that this may mean threading the needle because “tough compassion” surely does not suggest being mean, critical, or aggressive.

Instead, compassion, aided by perceptiveness and buoyed by courage, must be quietly patient. It must seek this way, then that way, then another of speaking straight to the other’s heart. The heart, the other’s wholeness, can thereby be penetrated and “met” by the speaker’s words.

Will the other hear and feel the full weight of these penetrative words? It all depends. The interlocutor may resist, double back to the old stories, feel pain bodies (Eckhart Tolle) activated. But is that the point? No, the point, touching the heart, may plant a seedling there that, in time, could grow and grow until it becomes unbearable to deny or unhear. Spiritual teaching can be like that.

It takes so much for one to maintain one’s delusions. And yet, it only takes a single breach, a concerted “shock” (Gurdjieff) to expose the delusion as delusion. Tough compassion, here the vehicle of truth, may also be called love: love of what the other cannot yet see or feel but may, in the morning light of tomorrow, be disclosed.