Aug/Sep 1998 The Salon

Heroic Work In An Unheroic Age

by Paul Sampson

The Labors of Herakles, the Labors of Theseus, the flash and clang of Vulcanís forge: there was plenty of work done in the age of the Olympians. More recently, John Henry drove steel, Paul Bunyan felled forests, Casey Jones kept his hand on the throttle, and Rosy the Riveter built P-51s. Heroic workers all.

I would never argue that there are no modern heroes, but we have fallen out of the habit of associating heroism with work. Nor would I suggest that modern workers do not labor heroically hard; most people come home from their jobs worn out. The trouble with work these days is that it has no mythic dimension. It isnít heroic. Even the vocabulary is wrong: "process," "deliverables," "outages"óthis is not the talk of heroes. And our jobs are not the Heroís Quest.

This is a serious matter, for the Heroís Journey is the task of every soul. If our work, at which we expend so much of our energy, is unheroic, we must find our mythic selves in the few crowded hours we can spare from our jobs.

If the heroís journey is the tale of the soulís journey1, we may have a hard time finding its pattern in our working lives. Several problems come together to keep our work from being heroic. One problem is vocation. Heroes have vocations, are called to perform their labors. Another problem is effect. The heroís work makes a difference. The maiden or the city is saved, the treasure is discovered, the waters are parted. Still another problem is duration. The heroís work is finished when itís finished. The dragon stays slain, the curse is lifted, the kingdom is restored. I invite you to compare each of these items with a modern workerís career:

In place of vocation, we have recruitment. In place of triumph, we have retirement. In place of permanent accomplishment, we have the dreary assurance that some other drone will continue our task long after weíre dead.

One problematic area is risk. The traditional hero is never called to comfort, but to peril. Until fairly recently, the corporate warrior was called, or at least recruited, by the promise of a safe passage through life, cushioned from shock by lavish insurance programs, secure employment, and a pension that would carry him to his painless deathbed. Today, the corporations make fewer such promises, and nobody prudent believes the ones they do make.

The economic system seems to make no difference; the collectives of the Left and Right alike prevent the rise of heroic workers. The old Soviet Worker-as-Hero stereotype failed as myth precisely because it was mechanistic; the System was the hero, the individual merely embodied the process. (This dreary belief survives intact today in North Korea, by the way. Itís called the Taean Work System, described as "an intrinsic form of socialist economic management based on the revolutionary mass line of the Workersí Party," and its central tenet is that committees, not individuals, must manage everything.)

This is not too different from the modern management nostrums that make heroism so unlikely in the Western corporation. For all the publicity given to flamboyantly overpaid Chief Executive Officers, nearly all of the actual work is done by "teams" of underlings, all identified as "managers" without the slightest recognition of irony. These new leaders, unlike Jason or Alexander, avoid actual action. They make careers not of doing something, but of documenting the processes for doing things. The idea is that thereafter everything can always be done same as last time ("replicated"). Fairly often this prevents anything from being done for the first time ("initiated," or even "initialized").

Naturally, anyone who shows daring or enterprise upsets the known order. Such people have always made the managerial class unhappy, or "outside their comfort zone," in the current phrase. Previously it was hard to rein these outlaws in. Now they can literally be brought to bookóan enormous fat book of Quality procedures that convey a simple message, a law we have seen before: Everything Not Forbidden Is Compulsory.2

This is no place for heroes; you might say itís outside their comfort zone. Most of them have the sense to flee before theyíre fired ("outplaced").

Actually, those villainous CEOs and corporate raiders may have something of the hero about them. Mythic villains may be called to their tasks, too, and they also have their counterparts in our lives. Trickster knows his way around both Wall Street and Main Street, and so does Hermes the Thief. This is not to excuse their behavior, though. Making a killing is different from making a living.

When someone does manage to earn his living at work that fits his soulís calling, people are so surprised that they begrudge him his joy. I went to a pilotís funeral not long ago. Among the sorrows we mourners endured was the sermon. Our friend died trying to land an airplane with its single engine dead, in a forest, in pitch darkness. The preacher told us that David died doing what he loved. I don't think so. David died trying to undo what he hated.

The preacher also told us that David, a professional pilot, had been "lucky" because "he didn't have a job...he loved to fly; he got paid for following his hobby." This bizarre opinion assumes that if we love what we are doing, it isn't our proper work, but only a hobby. The implication is that those whose work means anything to them beyond toil and money are getting away with something, putting something over on the rest of us.

Well, let us hope that this preacher finds his own work of dispensing this crap properly grinding and unpleasant, and let us move on, rejoicing with David that he found a way to earn his living by doing the work he was meant to do.

Most of us donít, and that is sad indeed. Most of us have someone elseís job.

Most of what most of us do all day is done at someone elseís behest, for someone elseís needs. We say, "I do my job," but what we really do is what someone else wants done.

We are pulling a cart in someone elseís gold mine. Some mines are better than others, and perhaps yours features air-conditioned tunnels and padded harnesses, but youíd better pull that cart, Pal. There are younger donkeys right outside.

The people we work for are not (always or exclusively) fools. They keep coming up with ways to make work seem more important (more "meaningful," we say these days). One of the latest ploys is "empowerment."

Remember the Sixties? "Power to the People!" Well, as always, History plays first as tragedy and then as farce. Now it's the Nineties, and we have "empowerment" in the workplace. It's not quite what the Yippies had in mind.

Where I work, and all through the world of modern work, we are empowered. Never doubt it. We donít, at least out loud. Our bosses have told us so. The empowerment of workers is the latest Revealed Truth of modern management.

This is the least convincing management slogan since "Arbeit Macht Frei." It means that we underlings are judged, rewarded, and punished on our ability to invent tasks for ourselves. We are given extra points for leading teams of our empowered fellows in our relentless pursuit of Quality. (The Q-word is another Nineties management mantra.) All workers are empowered, but team leaders are more empowered than others. And those who cannot lead may take turns facilitating team meetings. Collectively and individually, we take ownership of our deliverables.

No sense beating this to death. The jargon is heartbreaking, and "empowerment" is generally a cynical hoax. It is a device for shifting blame downward. We play along because we need the jobs, and because this style is certainly less noxious than the old-fashioned sweatshop. In fact, it allows us to indulge in harmless fantasies of actual power. It does some good by diluting the authority of the lower, or straw boss, level of management.

Very few of us are foolish enough to think that top management would actually let go of real power, and we enjoy our little skits of self-determination. Those of us with any sense leave at the end of the day or week and pick up our real lives where we left them.

In those lives, we have real power, genuine authority, over the only person whom we really must control: ourself. Power corrupts, the saying goes. Power over others corrupts, yes. But so does powerlessness corrupt, and just as fatally. Power over yourself is healing.

Taking command over your own life isnít mutiny, you know. In fact, itís heroic. It empowers you to search out and enact your mythic self.

Now, thatís a full-time job. Get busy.


1. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 21

2. T. H. White, The Once and Future King, New York, G. H. Putnamís Sons, 1958, p. 121


Previous Piece Next Piece