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The Importance of Ending Washington's Fetishization of Burnout

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This month delivered a tale of two investigations. The first was the party-line vote in the House to launch yet another investigation into 2012's deadly attacks in Benghazi. The second was the conclusion of a very different kind of investigation with the release of the National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The tale of these two investigations holds great significance for the 2014 and 2016 elections and beyond. And the juxtaposition of the two raises questions about whether the state of our politics is up to meeting the challenges we face.

With the publication of Thrive, I've been talking a lot recently about the importance of redefining success, and about the personal benefits of leading lives that allow us to renew ourselves and reconnect with our inner wisdom. But what about the benefits to society as a whole? Given all the latest scientific findings about how being able to unplug, disconnect and recharge has a profoundly positive effect on our creativity, cognitive function and decision making, how does our misguided definition of success affect our national decision making? How can we have a more thriving political system?

If the events of this past month are any indication, our need to redefine success is as urgent on the collective level as it is in our personal lives. Limiting our metrics of success to money and power (and in Washington, especially power) and completely defining ourselves by our jobs creates a political class obsessed with short-term gain -- one that's not up to the types of long-term challenges we're now facing. And given the scale of those challenges, it's not too much to say that we're in a state of crisis -- a crisis of leadership.

To the extent that the latest Benghazi investigation (coming on the heels of 13 already completed or in progress, 25,000 official documents and 50 briefings) is a sneak preview of our two upcoming election cycles, it's a clear sign we need to widen the conversation, because this patently partisan and short-term focus comes with a high opportunity cost. Among the things we should be teeing up for discussion in the coming elections is climate change, which, as the alarming report from last week conclusively shows, is no longer something on its way. "Climate change," the introduction reads, "once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present." The product of four years of work by 300 scientists, the 800-page report details the myriad ways in which climate change is already affecting our landscape, our cities, our infrastructure -- our very way of life. This includes more frequent and severe heat waves, flooding and heavy storms, which, in the Northeast alone, have increased 71-percent since 1958.

Alarm bells grew louder still as a report from a group of retired military and national security leaders declared climate change a threat to our national security, as the effects could be "catalysts for instability and conflict." The report notes the effects of short-term partisan maneuvering: "Politically charged debate has silenced sound public discourse." But, as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta write in the foreword, "[w]e no longer have the option to wait and see."

Yet waiting and seeing is precisely what our representatives in Washington are still doing. The choices we make collectively depend on how we choose our leaders and what sort of values we use to judge them. In order to make the choices we need to make, what we're lacking isn't information. The information our leaders need to make wise choices is already available -- in the cases of both Benghazi and climate change. And it's not that our leaders aren't intelligent. Our national politicians -- contrary to the low esteem they're held in -- are plenty smart, as are the seemingly unlimited number of experts whose knowledge of any particular field can be sought out at any moment. No, what's missing is wisdom.

This isn't particularly surprising, since wisdom is not a trait favored by the natural selection process of the current evolution of our political system. The willingness to burn out, to overwork, to choose short-term gain and expediency over long-term goals, the clinging to power for its own sake -- that's what's incentivized and rewarded, so that's what we get.

We can see this willingness all across our society, but the stakes are much higher in Washington. Problems like climate change, growing inequality, long-term job stagnation and the decline of the middle class all require long-term thinking and long-term solutions. They might even occasionally require politicians to put the good of the country ahead of what's good for their careers. This would be a lot easier to do if, as a culture, we didn't define ourselves by our jobs.

But if we are completely defined by our jobs -- or the power we have because of our jobs -- then, not surprisingly, we'll do almost anything to keep them. Witness, for example, the April 2013 vote in which the Senate rejected background checks for guns bought at gun shows -- even though background checks are supported by 91 percent of the American public. Even four Democratic senators voted against background checks, a vote entirely driven by their desire to preserve their jobs. And by the way, in the 18 months since Benghazi, around 40,000 Americans have been killed by guns. Again, the information is right in front of us, but the wisdom to act on it and do the right thing is not.

But the problem is that our system is not set up to reward those who live lives that prioritize tapping into their own wisdom. Two years ago, in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic about whether women can have it all or should settle for beta careers in our alpha-career world, Anand Giridharadas widened the question to "whether the society is well-served by having so many alpha leaders in general, whether male or female."

In a culture of burnout and "time-macho," in which success is judged only by one's willingness to not see one's family, forgo outside interests or hobbies and reject the value of unplugging and contemplation, we risk ending up with a particular kind of leadership class -- one that, as Giridharadas writes, is "differently constituted, with different values, morals and priorities." So what happens when these are "the government servants who craft the country's social policies.... What biases does that give them?"

"In a period of historic public distrust of this nation's institutions and leaders," Giridharadas writes, "could the horrendous lifestyles that are a requirement for admission be a contributing factor?" In fact, according to a recent survey by Harvard's Institute of Politics, the voting-age generation most put at risk by the decisions made by leaders willing to lead horrendous lifestyles is also the most disillusioned. The report found that those between the ages of 18 and 29 have lost the most trust in public institutions -- including the president and Congress -- to do the right thing. Millennials' trust in Congress dropped from 25 percent to 14 percent over the last four years. For the president it fell from 44 percent to 32 percent. For the federal government it went from 29 percent to 20 percent.

Millennials, with good reason, want to change the grown-up world they're becoming part of. And many of them are finding amazing and creative ways to bring about that change outside Washington. But while we should find all the opportunities for change outside D.C. that we can, there are some problems -- like climate change and growing inequalities -- that require solutions on a scale that can only happen by way of government policy.

But to make that possible, we need to waive maintaining a horrendous lifestyle as a requirement for public service. And that involves both the media and the public. We've created a system that valorizes and fetishizes overwork. With the complicity of the media, whichever party isn't currently occupying the White House regularly and vociferously complains about how much time a president takes for vacation. The number of days they're away from Washington is tallied and brandished like an indictment. But, given that the job is essentially composed almost entirely of decision making, and given what we know about the effects of burnout on decision making, criticizing a president for taking time off is like criticizing a marathoner for running. The downtime is what creates the conditions for them to be able to do the job. Far from being a disqualifier, taking time off, unplugging and renewing himself or herself should be job requirements for the president.

And exactly what is it we know about burnout and decision making? A lot, actually. To cite just one study in the journal Occupation and Environment Medicine, sleep deprivation can produce changes in judgment and cognitive function comparable to being drunk.

So would we accept a president who was essentially drunk throughout his or her entire presidency? Would we accept a president who required his closest staff and advisors to, in essence, be tipsy all the time? So why should we accept politicians who won't put forth the effort to live lives that render them capable of doing the jobs we've elected them to do? Of course, the fish rots -- or thrives -- from the head down. And our presidents have been functioning as burnout-victims-in-chief.

In fact, last week brought yet another reminder, as Monica Lewinsky surfaced once again, this time in the pages of Vanity Fair. What interests me about the affair isn't the, uh, actual affair (if we got rid of every president who'd had an affair, U.S. history would be pretty empty) but the judgment it showed. President Clinton once said, "Every important mistake I've made in my life, I've made because I was too tired." And having an affair with a 22-year-old intern almost certain to talk about it qualifies as an important mistake. We also know of Clinton's love of staying up all night and calling his advisors at all hours.

There's no doubt that if Hillary runs, the whole episode will be rehashed endlessly. But, to me, its only relevance is as a point of comparison between Bill Clinton's White House and a possible Hillary Clinton White House. After she left the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton told The New York Times' Gail Collins, "I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun. And relax. It sounds so ordinary, but I haven't done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired."

I know Hillary is known for working hard, but she could be a great role model in the political world for something even better: working wisely.

Of course, overworking is certainly not limited to the Clintons. In 2007 one of Obama's chief aides, 37-year-old Dan Pfeiffer, was hospitalized twice in one week for "stroke-like symptoms" attributed to overwork. "But no worries," he told David Remnick earlier this year. "I'm good!" In the same piece Remnick notes that the only one of Obama's close senior aides whom he came in with who's still in the job is Valerie Jarrett.

Now, working in the White House is no doubt a pretty great gig with some serious perks, so attracting talented, smart people is not a problem. But why is it so hard to keep them? For many, the reason is the crushing lifestyle that's part of the job. A few years before he joined us, Ryan Grim, now our D.C. bureau chief, was diagnosed with Bell's palsy, brought on by stress and overwork. "The doctor said he sees tons of cases of Bell's palsy in Washington," Ryan told me, "almost always hitting the same type of people: strained, overworked, young professionals."

Fortunately, there are some in Washington who are realizing the important connection between lifestyle and the job they're called to do. Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan has begun holding weekly "Quiet Caucus" meetings of guided meditation and talks by experts, including vets who share their stories about how meditation has helped them. Though only a few members of Congress attend, the sessions for staffers are more popular. Rep. Ryan is also pushing legislation to integrate proven integrative medicine practices into veterans' health care, and to explore how doing so can reduce the costs of treating hugely expensive conditions like diabetes.

One of those he invited to speak is former New Orleans Saints football player Keith Mitchell, who was paralyzed for six months from a head injury but now leads meditation sessions in Los Angeles. Without these practices, "I couldn't be here in front of you with a sound mind, through all the injuries I sustained by playing football all my life," he said.

Ryan sees the potential -- and urgent need -- for mindfulness in politics too, which he wrote about in his book A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit. "Put simply, mindfulness is about finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment, which improves performance and reduces stress," he writes. "The mindfulness revolution is not quite as dramatic as the moon shot or the civil rights movement, but I believe in the long run it can have just as great an impact."

In the UK, mindfulness has spread to parliament. Lord Andrew Stone recounted in a meeting how he found it useful to help calm his mind after being sent to Cairo to meet with Egypt's military leaders. "I didn't know how to cope," he told The Guardian. "But these practices made a massive difference."

I was reminded this week of a letter I got back in February from Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, inviting me to a lunch with the Dalai Lama. "Recent years have made clear that the free enterprise system is under immense strain," he wrote. "But the answer is not simply to double down on budgetary arguments, tout low-tax solutions, and explain economic basics. We must stop considering free enterprise purely in terms of economic gain and wealth creation and start thinking in terms of human fulfillment."

Think how different our politics would be if that's how our politicians saw their jobs -- as being about the increase of human fulfillment. And, further, think how much better they'd be at those jobs if they led lives that would maximize their wisdom, their decision making and their own fulfillment. Perhaps then they'd see that they're more than their jobs, that success is about more than power and that sometimes a vote for the long-term health and security of the country might be worth some career sacrifice.

And the media has a big role to play too. When it comes to the creation and promotion of Washington's distorted values system, we are a big part of the problem. So, as we approach these two elections, at HuffPost we've decided to try to widen the conversation to include questions and perspectives that will inform voters about how the candidates, incumbents and other leaders in Washington approach their jobs. How do they unplug? How do they find meaning in their lives? How do they nurture empathy for those they represent? This kind of disclosure is at least as important as the medical and financial disclosures that have become commonplace requirements on the campaign trail.

But it's also up to us as voters to reward those who live lives that allow them access to the wisdom they need to meet the huge challenges we're facing, and to punish the fetishizing of overwork and burnout. I look forward to the day when tweeting out a photo of a congressman working all night puts a communications team into the same level of damage control as an errant sex tweet. There are forces that are going to try to narrow the debate in the coming elections and try to distract us from the icebergs that lie just ahead of us. And when the icebergs have all melted, they'll be even more dangerous.

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