Is work enough?

I wrote this piece three years ago and never published it. But I returned to it recently and it still resonates with me (though a lot has changed since then), so I’m publishing it now.

Recently I wrote my first piece for the Atlantic, and on the day it came out I woke up early because I was so excited. But people quickly started writing mean things about the piece, and because my skin isn’t as thick as it should be I called my mom in the hope that she would make me feel better.

“I’m a little stressed too, actually,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, your grandfather just went to the hospital,” she said. “They think he might’ve had a stroke.”

Which reminds you that there are worse things than nasty internet comments. There are also worse things than strokes. The next week was a surreal blend of professional successes and family tragedies. A literary agent emailed an offer to represent me. My mom emailed that the true problem was not a stroke but a brain tumor. A national radio station asked for an interview. My mom said that the tumor was probably not a lymphoma but a glioblastoma, which has a median survival of 3 - 6 months.

My focus on my work has led a collaborator to label me a “serious workaholic”, and a friend to tell me that “you can choose to not care about people”. And yet. It has been made so devastatingly clear to me that my work is not enough.

Here is what professional successes feel like when a close family member is dying. It’s as if you’re sitting at an elegant restaurant with a spear through your chest and waiters keep bringing you beautiful courses. One asks you how your food is.

“It’s lovely,” you say, “but I’ve got this large hole in my ribcage…”

Work is not enough, but nor is it nothing. A few months after my grandfather died, it became clear that my relationship of four years was coming to an end. (This has not been the greatest year.) I was at a conference in Dublin, and I was supposed to give a talk, and I was a mess; I was sneaking into the bathroom between poster sessions to cry. But the talk went well, and I ended up winning my first best talk award. I accepted the certificate from the organizer, smiled at all the clapping scientists, and went straight outside to do some more crying. I was crying because I still felt terrible, but I was also crying because even in the midst of all the terrible, winning still felt good. As broken as I felt, my head was working fine, and that incongruity was surprising and reassuring: a fierce, raw triumph, this sudden awareness that, unlike the Titanic, I was mostly safely compartmentalized.

My life feels emptier of late. But I am happy alone in my head – I am rarely lonely or bored – because of my work. I do not think I would find my work comforting if I were pulling 90-hour weeks at Goldman Sachs, though. I am as addicted to pageviews and likes as anyone else, but I think I would find them less meaningful if they were for, say, a cigarette ad campaign I had designed. When I am at my computer, no matter what terrible things are happening, I can still put one word in front of another and think: the world may be bad, but maybe this will make it slightly better.

Or maybe I just find my work comforting because it is safe: it’s a world as still and beautiful as a frozen wasteland, filled with abstractions I understand, problems that demand my full attention and leave no room for sadness. Science fiction writers seem to like this sort of psychotherapy. In Ender’s Game, a 6-year-old genius finds comfort far from home by computing powers of two. I used to try this, but I mostly got irritated because, unlike the 6-year-old, I can’t get up to 67 million in my head. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, after a rather serious mishap with a computer [1] leaves a character stranded alone, he finds comfort by listening to the “abstract architecture” of Bach. There is, if not deep satisfaction, at least distraction in abstraction.

Notes: [1] Probably programmed by a Cal student.

Written on February 2, 2018