Sol, Burning Bright

A few months ago, the sci-fi book club I’m part of read The Sol Majestic. The book is OK; rough at the outset, but eventually gets better, so I’m glad I finished it. I’d give it maybe 3.5/5 stars. The book’s eponymous setting is the best restaurant in the galaxy. People travel for years to have a meal there. Of course, working in that kitchen is the ultimate chef dream. Those fortunate enough to toil in The Sol Majestic live and breathe their art; they sleep in or near the kitchen, and the work atmosphere is one of extreme pressure associated with the highest level of achievement. The boss is not tyrannical; he’s a larger-than life genius who compels those around him with the force of his vision and personality. The Sol Majestic is a place of competitive, creative euphoria.

One of the people in my discussion group complained that these chefs lived in inhumane conditions and had no work-life balance. I didn’t say anything (see all the recent posts about me being annoying), but what I wanted to say is that work-life balance is overrated. Not everyone wants it or needs it. Some people only feel alive when they are firing on all cylinders, when they’re immersed 100% in their pursuits, when they’ve given in to their obsession. Working at the very top of their field is the fuel they need.

People who don’t have this fire don’t understand those who do, those who cannot bear the tedium and predictability of balance.

We see so much popular culture where a guy works non-stop and the wife tries to make him spend more time with family. You know what? Maybe the dude would indeed rather be home, but evil corporate overlords won’t let him. But maybe that dude really likes to work. Maybe he doesn’t actually want to spend time with family. Maybe he shouldn’t have gotten married or had kids in the first place, but he did, and he will spend time with the family now because they need him and it’s the right thing to do (or, you know, because it’s in the movie script). That doesn’t change the fact that, if he were free to pick what he’d rather be doing without being told he is a horrible person then left by his wife, he’d pick work because that’s what he honestly enjoys more than anything else, more than talking about his day or attending Little League baseball and piano recitals.

If you’ve got a fire burning inside you, and everyone tells you that you need to slow down, get a balance, not work yourself to death, that what you feel you need in your gut is wrong, I am here to tell you that you are not crazy or broken, that there are others like you, that you should pursue whatever ignites your soul, and that the fabled work-life balance, for someone like you, means banality and boredom. Do not let those who don’t understand your fire convince you that what you are is wrong. Go, burn bright!

8 comments

  1. I really appreciate this point of view. There are many ways to find fulfillment in life and the one size fits all self help industry isn’t always the best Avenue.

  2. “Some people only feel alive when they are firing on all cylinders, when they’re immersed 100% in their pursuits, when they’ve given in to their obsession. Working at the very top of their field is the fuel they need.” Yes.

  3. I feel this – thank you for how you put it into words

  4. X,

    If you are a woman, you’re not supposed to feel that way or want to achieve meaning through your work. Personal ambition is off putting to others. Meaning can only be achieved through putting others’ needs and wants before your own. Furthermore wanting something for yourself is often interpreted as a personal rejection or criticism by everyone who wanted something else. You know this is true.

  5. I strongly identify with the hypothetical dude who would rather work than talk about his day or watch little league, but it’s much easier for me to enjoy work and feel awesome while doing it now that I am somewhat older and more successfull and therefore more confident in my ability to not screw everything up. When I was I grad school I enjoyed the work I did, but the constant fear of failure made it more difficult to be unapologetic about how much I worked and how much I liked it, and work was also less energizing than it is now because fear of failure and everything that goes with it is, on balance, not energizing even if it does have great motivational power.

    I thoroughly agree that work life balance is overrated. And there have been periods when having work to focus on has definitely helped me to get through some of the more difficult aspects of raising small children.

  6. Have you read Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series? One entire segment of their society consists of Vocateurs – people whose vocation is the most central part of their lives. They are dedicated to getting humanity to Mars.

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