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In Defense of Obsession

A Harvard Business Review blog this week presents fascinating data on long work hours, and speculates on why men work so hard. They cite experts who note that long hours are tied to masculinity and male identity, and have become a marker of class status. In other words, there is something mildly dysfunctional, arbitrary, or symptomatic behind the drive to work punishing hours, and they conclude that we can’t resolve the issue without confronting these psychological wellsprings. The blog also questions why a fair number of CEOs are rolling back telecommuting options, and regressing in terms of flexibility.


A kinder, gentler, more humane workplace is a good thing, and important to women’s advancement in business.

But we should recognize that we have among us a very small number of professionals or creative, inventive types, both men and women, who are doing things that will require their “last full measure of devotion,” and that there is no policy, rule, therapy, behavior modification, vacation, maternity leave, or benefit that will help them, if help is even the correct term. Because I don’t think that these Obsession Outliers need help. They’re the creative thinkers who push the boundaries of scientific research, technology, literature, arts, medicine, charity and activism, the intellectual disciplines, spiritual devotion, or music. They’re doing something that engages them fully, vitally, irreducibly, and in their souls. In the best of circumstances their perhaps life-ravaging obsession produces cultural value, truth, and beauty.

As a feminist, I think it’s important not to pathologize that particular kind of single-minded focus and obsession, rare though it is, or make it the casualty of equality. Nor should it got lost in generalizations, critical though they are, about work policies.

To be clear: I’m not thinking here of the vast majority of professionals for whom recommendations about workplace reform, telecommuting, and humane hours are 100% correct. Do we really need managers working 80 hours a week, with no telecommuting option? For most workers, the answer is an emphatic no, and as the HBR piece notes, employers would do well to recognize that parents like to see their children “awake” once in a while.  

I’m trying to protect the sliver of obsession outliers, for whom it’s neither a surprise nor socially symptomatic that they work all the time. They aren’t logging insane hours because of masculine identity issues, or to display their class status. They do it because they’re flat-out driven, by the content of what they do. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll be the beneficiaries of their irrational obsessions.

Might their families be in disarray? Absolutely. Many of them might choose not to have children; others have spouses who do the heavy-lifting of parenthood. For others, their children will have a childhood defined by an absent parent, and a nanny. That is not the best fate imaginable. Nor is it the worst. As a colleague commented in graduate school, when she got exasperated over bleats about childhoods and small family grievances, “Look. Everybody’s got problems.”  

I saw a documentary on Charles Schulz that was framed mostly around the complaints of his grown children that he was always holed up in his studio and they didn’t see him much. Okay, true. But the world got Snoopy, and Charlie Brown. They don’t come cheap.

Just as in war, culture requires sacrifices, too, in order to fruitfully push the boundaries of literature, arts, science, and invention.

Sometimes, for the sake of culture, it’s required that someone, somewhere, somehow, forego balance and give themselves over to the lab or the studio, or other “battlefields” of knowledge and culture.

That’s one thing that always seems disingenuous to me in the discussion of work-life balance:  Many of us know personally a driven, obsessed producer, or are intimately familiar with fields where obsession is fruitful if not required, yet we talk as if working your ass off is always just a bureaucratic imposition spawned by policy inequalities.

A few years ago my neighbor, an esteemed doctor and researcher (whose husband was the more involved parent) dug herself singlehandedly out of a huge, 2-foot snow storm so that she could drive to the hospital and check on a culture for her work on a blood disorder. “If I don’t,” she explained, “I’d lose three weeks of work.”

Ex-Harvard president Lawrence Summers lost his Harvard sinecure in part for commenting that women at the extreme, tail end of scientific brilliance don’t work on banker’s hours, and that this reality might be hard to correct even through well-intentioned policy.

Basically, he described the life of the obsessed outlier. To be fair to him, he made his remark in the constructive spirit of trying to see if there was a way for Harvard to do better to cultivate female genius. Instead, it was as if Summers’ basic acknowledgment of the existence of highly-demanding, highly-obsessive, and profoundly-absorbing intellectual work amounted to an assault on women’s equality, as if the only way to support female faculty was to have each academic remolded into the cookie-cutter conformity of “balance” so that they work only for a civilized six to eight hours a day.

Obsession doesn’t follow otherwise prudent recommendations about work policies, and it seemed to me that this was Summers’ mild, and true, point. This might not be the reality we prefer—that someone, somewhere, gets the short end of the stick at the tail extremes of obsession, creativity, and genius—but it’s the reality that we have.

Young women seem to absorb uncritically the notion that no life is worthwhile unless they please the bland yet feckless god of Balance.

But obsession deserves its due in feminism, too. Radical freethinker Emma Goldman famously noted that she didn’t want to be part of any revolution that didn’t have dancing. I don’t want to be part of one that doesn’t have room for the mad love of the obsessed. 

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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