"Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That's right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left."
This is the way in which Cadillac's newest commercial references one of the greatest achievements of humankind. In the commercial, it's just another notch on America's belt, great because of its ability to condescend to other nations.
In particular, the ad takes a shot at countries that provide month-long vacations in the summer, making a case that Americans are more successful and have more stuff because we scoff at time off.
"Other countries, they work. They stroll home. They stop by the cafe. They take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy-driven, hard-working believers, that's why."
Now I know this is just a commercial and it would be easy to ignore, but it has evoked strong emotions in a number of people who either identify with or recoil from this framework where one doesn't ever stop and appreciate success; where achievement, no matter how great, is degraded to provide motivation for additional achievement.
This hamster wheel of work, where one's life is lived in service of status points rather than satisfaction at their accomplishments, was partially explored by "Should You Automate Your Life So that You Can Work Harder?" an article by Sarah Green in the Harvard business review last week. Her article describes the lengths that certain work-focused entrepreneurs will reach to free up more time to do more work. For one person, it was hiring someone else to conduct all his correspondence, professional and personal, so he would never waste time reading a note from a friend again. For another, it was giving up eating food. He quickly drank liquefied versions of his meals for the sole purpose of keeping his body running at peak efficiency so he could do more work. For these individuals work is life and all other aspects of living are either a means to that end or a distraction to be removed or minimized.
You might say, so what? This is just a few hyper driven people, what does it matter if they choose this life? It matters because the way you live your life can change your perceptions of other people and how you treat them. Empathy requires having an understanding of what others are experiencing. If you never have time-conflicts because you have both the willingness and the resources to get others to handle your responsibilities it will be much harder to appreciate that others don't have or want the same options. When power and resources accrue to the hyper driven their opinions gain more weight and can drag people along behind them.
For example, one of the hardest parts of the fight for gender equality in the workplace has been the question "Doesn't your wife do that?" If you have never had to do the laundry, ferry a kid to school, care for a dying elder, or maintain the event calendar for your community group it will be hard for you to imagine what these activities require. Many men, initially shielded from the realities of what it takes to manage a home and relationships with extended family and community, couldn't really empathize with working women's dual-roles. Much of the resistance to gender equality has not been a desire to keep women down, but an honest lack of understanding for why it wasn't easy for them to get up. It's no coincidence that women's advancement has come in tandem with more men, at higher levels engaging in dual-roles at work and at home and encountering the associated work-life conflict.
It's also no coincidence that studies find that both men and women executives think that work-life is a woman's responsibility. Though we might want to break down support for work-life issues into a neat gender binary (women get it and men don't), the truth is gender really has very little to do with it. Men and women with the resources to avoid the time conflicts defining the lives of others with different jobs and resources will find it more difficult to empathize. This is how the pursuit of good work-life fit is defined as laziness rather than working hard at different goals.
This is why Cadillac's newest commercial has struck such a dissonant chord in America and abroad. The speaker's justification of his work ethic is lacking in any respect or understanding for anyone who may choose differently or for whom an equivalent amount of hard work simply pays a lower wage. Some might say that the anger is merely jealousy of his professed material success and that of people like him (the real targets of this commercial). In truth, it isn't his personal success that rankles, but the absolute confidence in his approach to life and the profound lack of empathy for anyone else's reality.
If he talked about how much he loved his accomplishments, their rewards and the journey to get there, he'd be an inspiration.
The focus on success and overwork specifically, is the opposite of what we should be talking about, and what many innovative employers on the ground. A growing number of Families and Work Institute's Effective and Flexible Workplace Award winners are focusing on the issue of overwork and burnout among their workforce as a big problem for employee well being and productivity.
The head honcho at First Alliance Credit Union in Rochester, MN, combats overwork at the management level by directing managers to say "no" when their workloads get too full to take on extra tasks. Hearing it directly from the CEO has made everyone less stressed.
In contrast, the Caddy commercial's top dog showcases the worst aspect of blind drive and consumerism: where satisfaction is achieved by looking down and condescending to those who lack what you have instead of looking around and taking joy in the things for which you worked. This definition of success, which separates you emotionally from the fruits of your labor, is wonderfully exemplified by his walk through a fabulous house, bragging non-stop about his total dedication to work and all the material perks it brings, while failing to meaningfully engage with any of his expensive possessions, beautiful décor or the family he rushes past.
No one minds if you want to work 24/7, but they do care if the only way to validate that experience is to announce to everyone else that they are losers in a game they are not playing and use your authority and resources to stop them from playing the games they enjoy.