Finding a conversation about work in a post-apocalyptic novel

I’m reading National Book Award nominated ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m about half way through this story of a post-apocalyptic world and in a ‘flash back’, we encounter a conversation about corporate life.

One of the characters, Clark, conducts 360 degree assessments with corporate leaders who are too valuable to an organization to lose. His job is to ‘fix’ them by providing feedback from co-workers. If you’ve spent any time in a corporate environment, you’ve either been the target or a participant in one of these exercises.

Clark (think George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’, but everyone gets to keep their job) is meeting with Dahlia and the ‘target’ is Dan.

Dahlia starts with: “These people you coach, do they ever actually change? I mean in any kind of lasting notable way?”

Clark responds: “They change their behaviors…some of them..

A bit later Dahlia asserts: “Here’s the thing…I bet you can coach Dan, and he’ll probably exhibit a turnaround of sorts, he’ll improve in concrete areas, but he’ll still be a joyless bastard.”

She continues: “No, wait, don’t write that down. Let me rephrase that. Okay, let’s say he’ll change a little, probably if you coach him, but he’ll still be a successful-but-unhappy person who works until nine p.m. every night because he’s got a terrible marriage and doesn’t want to go home, and don’t ask how I know that, everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious. And you know, I’m reaching here, but I’m talking about someone  who just seems like he wishes he’d done something different with his life, I mean really, actually almost anything – is this too much?”

The conversation goes on until Dahlia further illustrates her point: “I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s one of them.”

Clark: “You don’t think he likes his job then?”

“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

When he leaves the interview and walks out on the street, Clark realizes he has been one of those sleepwalkers himself. “…moving half-asleep through the motions of life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration?”

(This conversation takes place on pages 162-164 and we know that our characters are only three weeks away from the pandemic that will set off society’s collapse. The only thing we are missing is Clark passing the guy with the sandwich board and microphone in Times Square announcing “The end is near!”)

Here’s the thing. We read business books, professional journals. We attend conferences as we progress through our careers. But it’s on the weekend, on the beach, when we are reading a novel that we come upon a dialog that incorporates the key questions about our life at work.

This is why we read. At some point in the narrative, we enter the world the novelist creates and then she throws us a link to the world we live in and for a minute we are shocked by it’s relevance.

You may never read ‘Station Eleven’, although I recommend it – a great story. There may be another ‘great book’ on the shelf that resonates. In the end, to be our best at work, we need to be awake, not sleepwalking through our career.

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