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. 

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