The Hum of the Universe: Shonda Rhimes on Creative Burnout, the Hamster Wheel of Success, and Reclaiming Who We Are from the Workaholic Grip of What We Do
“If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?”
By Maria Popova
“One must be something in order to do something,” Goethe counseled a young friend in 1824. But two centuries later, amid a workaholic culture in which we busy ourselves wresting who we are from what we do, we have completely inverted the relationship. We no longer know how to be without doing, having rendered notions of work-life balance vacant of meaning. For those fortunate enough to have a so-called “dream job” — more often than not, driven personalities animated by uncompromising motivation — the paradox can be even more disorienting: While being your own boss grants tremendous freedoms, it also means that in walking this path of your own making, you are taking marching orders from the most demanding, most critical, most merciless boss possible. If John Dewey was right a century ago in his memorable assertion that “to find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness,” why do we find ourselves so frequently unhappy, trapped in the hamster wheel of accomplishment and approval, even if it is one of our own making — especially if it is one of our own making? From behind the screen of hard work, good work, we come to feel hard and good ourselves. But when the screen is lifted, what remains? Forget grandeur — we are suddenly disabused of our delusions of adequacy.
That’s what writer, television titan, and overachievement patron saint Shonda Rhimes addresses in her spectacular TED talk based on her memoir, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person (public library). It’s a rousing meditation on the paradox of self-made success, how we synthesize our sense of self from our work, what happens when a dream job loses its dreaminess, and how we can save ourselves from the maze of productivity by getting lost in presence.
It’s talk all the more moving in the context of a central pillar of Rhimes’s identity — her self-admitted marrow-deep introversion. (I relate.) And yet here is a woman of confidence so crystalline — a rare thing indeed among artists, our culture’s most professionalized self-doubters — that when the humility comes, you know in your bones it isn’t false humility. You recognize it instantly as the other strand in the double helix of which a Real Person’s spiritual DNA is woven.
What do you do when the thing you do — the work you love — starts to taste like dust? … If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?
Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s magnificent and timely 1948 manifesto for why leisure is the basis of culture, Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the wholehearted life, and Anne Lamott on ending the tyranny of living by other people’s standards.
Published February 17, 2016