Fed up with everything? Read this

Author Alan Cohen says he charted a "road map out of hell" for everyone who has "come to accept soul starvation as a way of life." Is he talking about you?

8 min read
Alan Cohen didn't merely write a book for cube dwellers with career angst. He charted a "road map out of hell" for everyone who has "come to accept soul starvation as a way of life."

The author of "Why Your Life Sucks" didn't specifically write his book for people in the technology industry, but he has made a point of promoting the book in Silicon Valley. Cohen, who found that a disproportionate number of tech executives attend his "Life Choices" seminars and retreats in Hawaii, believes a disproportionate number of executives, middle managers and code jockeys in the pressure-packed technology industry lead outward lives that conflict with their inner desires.

High unemployment and lackluster industry growth have only heightened techies' sense that their lives, as Cohen puts it, "suck." But the Maui resident, who recently embarked on a three-week book tour, nonetheless urges those highly educated--albeit disaffected--engineers suddenly stuck in blue-collar ruts to view the economic slowdown as a period of "constructive downtime."

The self-help guru and Omega Institute for Holistic Studies faculty member talked to CNET News.com about how the recession has shaped workers' psyches and how tech workers can actually benefit from jumping off--or in some cases getting kicked off--the corporate ladder.

Q: In a nutshell, why do you think so many techies' lives suck?
A: There are two elements that make life suck: environment and attitude. The environment for many people has a lot to do with the economy, which sucks right now, and there's not a lot any of us can do about it.

We can do something about attitude. If we interviewed all the people laid off in the dot-com sector, you'd hear attitudes from "I'm a victim" and "I'm never going to do anything creative" to anger and retaliation. Those people's lives probably suck right now. But a smaller percentage of people will actually say, "Wow, I'm rethinking my priorities and maybe I'd like to spend more time with my family. Here's a chance to do something I've really wanted to do for a long time." Those people are probably a lot better off.

If I ran a tech company, I'd give everyone breaks so they could go lie down.
Assuming we as individuals can do little about the economy, how do we change attitudes?
It's a leap. But real success is a marriage of the head and the heart, or the mind and the spirit. As a psychologist, I've seen that when people are way out of balance, life comes along and invites them to balance out--invite being a gentle word. They are really forced into building parts of their life that were out of balance.

I had a guy in one of my retreats in Maui who was a very uptight computer engineer, probably around 50 or 55. He had cancer. I said, "What's the one thing you want to do before you die?" He said, "I want to sit on top of that mountain, meditate, and think about God." He came down the mountain looking like Moses, like he had actually listened and talked to God. I talked to his wife six months later and he had passed away. But he actually said he was so glad that he got a chance to take that other vitamin that he needed. The point is that something forced him to find balance. Maybe in this case the economy is forcing a lot of people to find balance.

Technology workers get paid relatively well, and they work in a challenging and continually evolving industry--and they don't generally handle toxic waste or have to deal with the public. Why do you think so many of them lead worse lives than other American workers?
When someone is that involved in the world of computers and code, there is a form of creativity and genius in it. A lot of the tech heads I know truly love it and are passionate about it--and that's a good thing. But at the same time, it tends to be an all-consuming passion. You must do something every day to feed your soul, other than what you do for work. A lot of them work 18-hour days for years. I suggest to these folks to do something every day--even if it's only 10 or 15 minutes--that nourishes a different part of them other than what they do for a living. Go for a walk; eat dinner with a friend--anything.

What happens if they don't take time from work?
There's a popular book now called "The Tipping Point" (published in 2000 by Little Brown & Company), and there is truly a tipping point in life. The people who come to me, especially from the tech industry, are the people who have gotten to the point where the heaviness or stress or pressure of what they're doing outweighs the joy of it. When work becomes more of a downer or sucker of life force, it's no fun anymore, and you need to start looking for options--no matter how much you used to enjoy it. You have to be very honest about your feelings, that getting up and going to work doesn't cut it anymore. You have to then find a way to transform yourself or else you'll break down.

What if you have a mortgage or children to support and can't afford to move to Maui to find yourself? How do those of us without trust funds not tip over?
Someone once said, "If all you receive from your job is a paycheck, you're being grossly underpaid." I believe that. That having been said, I realize that most people can't just abandon their job. But if you're motivated enough, you find creative ways to make your life interesting.

I read a survey recently that asked people, "What was the most boring job you can think of?" The No. 1 answer was toll collector. Well, a couple of months ago we were in the Chicago airport, and the toll collector was a handsome, older Italian man. He gave us our change and sang us opera. We thought he was just doing it to us, but he was giving every person a personalized verse with their change. He took a boring job and changed it into something wonderful.

Someone once said, "If all you receive from your job is a paycheck, you're being grossly underpaid." I believe that.
That's a great example, but wouldn't most cube-dwelling code writers get fired if they broke out into Giuseppe Verdi's "La Donna ? Mobile?" What particular burdens do office workers face?
It's true; cubicles are fairly disconnected to nature. We were born to breathe oxygen, and when you sit in a little cubicle and don't breathe fresh air, it can numb your brain. You don't have green, living things around you. You are totally disconnected from nature, which is the great healer.

I also think dealing in "head stuff" all day long is not the healthiest thing. The greatest thinkers, like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and (Albert) Einstein, were known for their catnaps. Every couple of hours they'd crash for 20 minutes and they'd be renewed. If I ran a tech company, I'd give everyone breaks so they could go lie down.

I can't imagine Bill Gates saying to his minions, "Lights out! Take a snooze for 20 minutes!" These companies are known for their caffeinated work forces and six-month product-development cycles. Is the idea of renewal unsuited to the tech industry?
I agree that pace of technology changes so quickly that many people believe they can't afford time out. But what they don't realize is that vacation and downtime makes you even sharper. I have a friend who convinced his boss, who was the top executive, to take a day off a week. The guy did and said that his creativity and freshness from just that one day off made him so much more productive. It's the missing link that most people don't get: that soul renewal is actually good for you professionally.

How would you recommend approaching a boss with the idea of encouraging midday naps or other forms of renewal?
Give him my book! Say, "Hey, dude, read this!" (Laughing.) No seriously, you'd be surprised how your boss might react. I have an employee who works really hard. Once in a while he comes to me and says, "It was a very stressful week, and I had this personal conflict, and blah, blah, blah." I say, "Go, man, get out of here. You look horrible." The thing to communicate to your boss is that you're past the point of diminishing returns. I would hope that your boss would hear that. And if he doesn't, you might be able to find a better place in another part of the universe. If I had to be a walking zombie every day, I'd really question whether I was in the right place in this universe.

You truly believe that most bosses would be sympathetic?
Most CEOs have a relationship with a higher power, and they realize the need for soul renewal. They would understand. But what I see is that the layer right under them--the middle managers--often doesn't have that relationship with a higher power. They believe the harder and more you work, the better you work. They don't understand that the smarter you work, the better you work.

Now the $64,000 question: How do you live in a way to avoid burnout or the need for "soul renewal" in the first place? How do you continually maintain balance?
You start to become more sensitized to your inner barometer. Everyone has something that happens to them when they start to go over the edge--maybe a tickling in the throat, a chronic cough, burning eyes, headaches. Your physical body always tells you. It's important to honor those physical signs before they get worse. It's a built-in feedback mechanism that tells you when you're on track and off. Unfortunately, more people just try to mask the symptom by taking pills or numbing themselves out in front of the TV, but they haven't dealt with the root. Deal with the root problem.

From a psychological perspective, how will tech industry emerge? Are we doomed to severe boom-and-bust cycles forever?
No, not at all. The principle of homeopathy is, "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." A lot of people are going to ask deeper, richer, more important questions about how to live because of the downturn. When the economy gets back on track, the wisdom they've gained from stepping back will be incorporated into the next phase and they'll be more powerful.

Real success is a product of two factors: vision and action. Sometimes, when you get so caught up with action and doing, you get out of balance. Something always hits you and makes you go back into the vision or planning mode. In general, I think this downturn will empower this industry--if people use the downtime to become more creative and visionary.