I hadn’t heard of Byung-Chul Han before reading this article. He’s a philosopher born in Seoul, South Korea and then moved to Germany where he took up philosophy, theology, and literature. One of his books is called The Burnout Society and his ideas on what’s causing it are both interesting and depressing.
I sometimes struggle with anxiety. Not socially, just general, my brain living in the “what if’s” of the future. I also really enjoy self-help or business-related books, podcasts, YouTube videos, whatever. So I felt a little attacked and seen at the same time as I read this article.
You can do anything!
That’s the mantra, and you hear it everywhere. All the messages circulating in our society seem to converge on that same imperative.
But this soon turns into: You must do everything. The symptoms are everywhere-fitness programs, self-help podcasts, inspirational quotes on social media, vitamins and nutritional supplements, constant proclamations about self-actualization, weight-loss fads, life coaches, and countless other schemes for improvement. No boss would ever be as tyrannical as we are to our souls and selves.
I’ve never considered that overdoing the work of self-improvement could be considered harmful. I don’t think that self-improvement is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, and had therapy sessions that have been incredibly beneficial for me. I think the key here (and this applies to anything) is moderation.
In this kind of culture, everything takes on an insatiable non-stop quality. Instead of enjoying a mindless sitcom, you binge-watch an entire season of shows. Instead of enjoying dinner, you focus on sharing photos of your masterful culinary efforts on social media. The most banal tasks now become occasions for live-streaming and building your personal brand.
I have a strange hatred of the term “personal brand”. This is a concept that really came into being with the rise of social media.
I have nothing against the idea of being famous but it seems more and more people are seeking fame just for the sake of it. You’re not a “brand”. You’re actions, opinions, social life, all of this adds to who you are as a person but you’re still just a human being. Constantly being concerned about what you post or take photos of because it might damage your brand is no way to live.
I want to be clear that I’m not against entrepreneurship. I love that more and more people are creating their own jobs and that there are more ways to do it than ever before. That’s not a personal brand, that’s what you do for a living. I think that’s really at the heart of why I hate that term. It’s a blending of who you are and what you do for work. There’s no separation. You can still have a life separate from your business. You are not what you do for a living. When how you see yourself is directly linked to your job and your “achievements”; I think that’s when the burnout starts to creep in.
I can’t stress this enough: You do not need to walk in lockstep with everybody else. You aren’t required to accept blindly the dominant values of your society. Even if you work inside the system, you don’t have to let the system work inside of you. No law requires that. It’s not part of the terms and conditions of being a human being.
I wish Han had paid more attention to that fact. But it’s crucial and worth repeating: Even if you work inside the system, you don’t need to let the system work inside of you. And if you summon up the boldness to go in a different direction, others might even surprise you by following along.