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The Virtues of Emotional Detachment

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I have argued for years that learning when not to care, what not to care about, and how to not care is just as important to career success and personal well-being as being passionate. I especially think that it is an essential skill for people who are trapped in asshole-infested workplaces and can't get out -- at least for now. If people treat you like dirt, they don't deserve your passion and best efforts. And, as I say in The No Asshole Rule, going through the motions without letting the creeps that surround you touch your soul is, unfortunately, the best - or least bad -- option at times.

Not everyone agrees with my call for indifference, and in fact, Tom Peters and others on his blog object pretty strongly (My biased view is that Tom doesn't realize how many people really are trapped in bad workplaces and bad jobs. Not everyone is a mobile knowledge worker who can quit his or her job and get a new one with lightening speed, and caring less rather than caring more is sometimes the best path available to people are trapped in a bad place in our imperfect world).

I hadn't been thinking about indifference much until I ran into this inspired post at Kitetail about "Effective Strategies for Surviving Culture Tax," which is explained as follows:

"A friend of mine brought up the question of dealing with organizational cultures where the process of getting things done is draining and demotivating. He refers to this as culture tax. I have seen many cases where misalignment of priorities, inadequate resources, complex organizational structures, lack of clear accountabilities, misguided values of the leaders and overwhelmed groups help create this culture tax.

If your work environment reminds you of one of the regions of Hades, read on and remember what doesn't kill you will make you stronger. Otherwise, consider yourself one of the lucky ones, but file this blog away for later reference as your time might come."

There is great advice in this post about different methods for surviving hellish workplaces, but I thought the advice about emotional detachment was especially interesting, in part, because it suggests that more compassion is involved than simply "learning not to care:"

"In addition, I recommend practicing the Zen discipline of emotional detachment. Unfortunately, this is often misinterpreted as not caring and being disengaged. However, emotional detachment merely directs you not to be attached to an outcome or to an expectation. This practice will help you objectively evaluate the situation and recognize new opportunities as they arrive. After all, when one door closes another will open, but only if you are listening."

Frankly, I am still not sure I understand the difference between emotional attachment and not caring, perhaps because when I detach from something or someone, I usually stop caring. I do appreciate the call for more rationality. But my concern is that most of us human beings aren't very skilled at thinking about something and simultaneously shutting-off our feelings about it.

I particularly invite comments on emotional detachment, as it is something that I believe is greatly under-rated, but at the same time, I may not understand what it means deeply enough. In addition, I am curious to hear from people who have used detachment as a coping strategy in bad situations -- how you have done it and if it is effective.