Karoshi

How to Die Working

So many Japanese people are dropping dead from their jobs, the Japanese have a name for it: karoshi. Literally, karoshi breaks down to the characters for "exceed" + "work, labor" + "death". Overtime without pay has become the norm with some posting 80-hour (!) weeks, off the books to circumvent the the rules put in place to officially curb it. Competition has red-lined in the small country and the new workforce, in their late 20's, are dying from heart attacks and strokes. 

Halfway around the world, I'm sitting here dumbstruck. What's going on? We have something as amazing as the Internet existing in this world, and people are still dying just to find a job and people are dying on the job. Technology was supposed to be Our Savior, instead it has made it the new normal to work harder and longer, and normal has become anything but that. We need change and it's not just more jobs, it's more important jobs.

The Model T job is done. Retirement is long gone and benefits become the new gamble. Giving your life to a company is no longer enough because there is no stability in an ever-swirling world. The big question ends up becomes: What can we do?

My mind was racing over all of this, Japanese karoshi and American unemployment, in 7-11 yesterday. As I put together the materials for my coffee, I spied on the Optimum representative pitching his plan to the manager on duty. He was playing the Buddy card, as good salesmen think they should do, and explaining how Optimum could match Verizon on service and beat them on price. They shook hands without a deal, and the Optimum guy walked behind me as I was bringing my coffee to the counter. I was so distracted by how ugly and shallow the conversation was that I walked right out the door, coffee in hand, without paying! I noticed the moment I stepped out into the open and went back in to pay, befuddled and embarrassed.

While Daniel Pink would tell you to sell is human (in his new book, ahem, To Sell is Human), the new era of communication is showing us that sales can't be slimy anymore. The 7-11 manager doesn't care to be persuaded about Optimum, he can find the prices and service right online. Transparency has freed us from shady or slimy deals. And without the sincerity to truly believe in what you're selling, more and more jobs are becoming hollow shells of what the world needs. What we do need is passion, we need Life, not people playing roles about one service or another, dropping dead just to keep up with the Joneses.

We're racing to make ourselves act like technology. You cannot be as cheap and as quick as our Robot Future. (Seth Godin calls it The Race to the Bottom.) You don't want to be. You want to be irreplaceable, undeniable, alive. 

Yes, it's much worse for the Japanese dying in the streets than the gross transaction I witnessed at 7-11, but I think the bigger picture is important here. We need some new thinking about work. It is no longer a spot to fill to feed your family or your video game addiction, it is not a moving, working piece of the machine. Just like our technology, our world has become a cloud, flowing and ever-morphing. Work has to be something of true value, there is no more timeclock punch-card. As Jason Silva puts it, "Maybe we need to look at new narratives for how to live our lives in our search to become cosmic heroes." (Silva talks here.) There is no alternative, it's the new American Horror Story. When they take away the shit jobs with fast food robots and automated call centers, what do you do? Start moving people. Fix their troubles. Lift the world up.

We shouldn't be dying for our work, we should be coming alive with it. Find it for yourself and enjoy what Alan Watts called the "real secret of life -- to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play."