Counting the Cost

Dear reader, recently I was engaging in one of my guilty pleasures – namely watching episodes of The Graham Norton Show, a talk show from the UK, or as they would call it, a “chat show.”

I enjoy Norton’s program because unlike North American talk shows, he brings out all his guests at once on the couch. His manner is fun and playful, and lacks much of the structure you see in other talk shows.

The episode in question (I’m not sure when it originally aired) featured actress Christina Ricci, singer Ed Sheeran and actor Matthew McConaghey. During their chat, Sheeran made a comment whose profundity left me quite floored.

He had been discussing his recent “sabbatical,” where he took a year away from social media (he even got rid of his phone) and all other commitments to focus on himself. As he put it, “I realized one day that I had been to all these different places all over the world, but all I could do was describe to you was the airport, the venue and the dressing room. I saw none of it.”

That alone was a powerful statement on the exigencies of being a performing artist. The life seems glamourous and full of adventure, but the glitz often hides the hard work and loneliness such a career path demands.

It was what he said next that made me pause – literally, I had to pause the playback and really ponder his words:

“I had just come off a five year tour and realized that I had everything to show for it professionally… but nothing to show for it personally.”

That is, as the cool kids would say, a “mic drop.”

While it’s likely that very few of us have come off a five year whirlwind tour of the world, performing our art to countless adoring fans, I’d be willing to wager than many reading these words have experienced the feeling of being professionally fulfilled, but personally empty.

Western society is so hyper-focused on professional success, almost at the cost of all else, it’s not surprising that recently, the World Health Organization has called it a legitimate diagnosis. The WHO classifies burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

So where has it come from, this “chronic workplace stress?” Mainly it comes from the idea we have internalized that we have to be working constantly. Productivity has been raised to something akin to a religion, and the media has been quick to get behind this ongoing trend, reinforcing it in a million different ways.

The underlying narrative is that the most successful (and therefore valuable) of us are always busy and “on the go,” while simultaneously reinforcing the converse idea that those not “always on the go” are somehow lazy or unworthy of success.

It’s easy to see how all of this plays into marketing. In order to be that productive you’re going to need tools right? Phones, GPS units and hyper-connected whiz-bangery of all types.

So we work harder and longer, pleasing the productivity gods to no end. The number-crunchers and bean-counters gaze lovingly at their spreadsheets and continue dreaming up endless ways to squeeze more work out of us.

Ed Sheeran’s seemingly offhand statement is, I think, a clarion call to us all. Not to stop working entirely, but perhaps simply to reevaluate WHY we’re working so hard. And maybe to pursue work that fulfills us both professionally AND personally.

Sadly, there’s no simple way of going about that. There’s no metric, no app for it, nor does it fit on a spreadsheet. It’s a process that must be sought out organically, through experience and listening to our innermost desires.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with working hard and accomplishing great things. But what value does success have if it costs us everything that makes us feel alive?