Sisyphus Rocks. So Should You.

I always used to fall into the trap of thinking that if I solved enough problems, then I’d finally be able to enjoy my work.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of my job. Working at a fast paced startup gave me the chance to learn more than ever, but my days primarily consisted of being given a Big Scary Problem, figuring out what the least bad option was, and then stumbling through a solution by the skin of my teeth. As I kept on persevering, I told myself that I just needed to get through the next few weeks and solve these last few issues, and then everything will be fine and easy from then on. 

The problem was that as soon as I put out the fires and solved the current crisis, I found that a bunch more had landed in front me. Since I kept telling myself that relief was just around the corner, it became all the more frustrating and depressing when that turned out not to be true. 

I started to feel stuck in a never ending cycle. When would I finally get a chance to just enjoy the work and not have to deal with so many constant problems?

Enter Sisyphus

This is the problem famously recognised by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. According to the Ancient Greeks, Sisyphus was a king who was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back to the bottom, forcing him to start all over again. It’s the classic example of a repetitive, pointless struggle. 

Camus believed that much of life (perhaps all of it) feels like you’re Sisyphus, caught in a pointless endless cycle. There is no objective meaning or purpose to your struggles, and Camus didn’t think you could rely on God to give everything meaning or purpose. So what’s the point of it all? Why not just quit? 

When I was early in my career, just trying to do my part to keep our company alive for another few months, the myth of Sisyphus was depressingly familiar. Why even bother to do this?  No matter how many problems I fix or customer questions I answered today, there will be a dozen more to replace them tomorrow. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods, but I’m not, so why not just quit and put an end to it?

We must imagine Sisyphus happy

Well, according to Camus, the answer is that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Despite the fact that Sisyphus is condemned by the gods, he still has a choice about what his attitude is to his situation. Sisyphus can choose to create his own meaning, and find his own purpose in the hard work of boulder rolling.

I’m reminded of this quote from Heart of Darkness, spoken by Marlow, the main character of the novel, about his time spent working to fix up an old tin-pot steamboat so that he could travel up river:

I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her … She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I would rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not for others - what no other man can ever know. [Emphasis mine]

This is the heart of the advice I would give to anyone feeling that they are stuck in a Sisyphian loop.

Escaping the loop

First, stop hanging your hopes on the idea that there’s going to be an end to this. Like Sisyphus, there will never be a point where you’ve put the boulder on top of the hill and you can finally relax and take it easy. This work you’re doing is what the job is so you might as well embrace it.

The good news is that, like Sisyphus, you can choose your attitude and perspective on the situation. Sisyphus can choose to create and give meaning to a job that has no intrinsic, objective meaning. He can choose to rebel against the gods and become what Camus calls an ‘Absurd Hero’. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. And if he can be happy, then so can you. You can seek to create your own meaning and purpose, and choose to find happiness in what is a never ending cycle.

How does Sisyphus create meaning for himself? How does he find a way to be happy? I believe the answer is that there is meaning and happiness to be found in the hard work in itself. Hard work reveals who you are, and allows you to develop your character and quality. The challenge for Sisyphus is to become the sort of person that can do the work, and to be excellent at it, and to find a way to be happy throughout.

When you embrace this view, you create the opportunity to go from constant stress and frustration / disappointment that the problems never stop, to learning to love the problems, look forward to the next one, and become the sort of person that enjoys and creates meaning.

Through the other side

My quality of work life went up dramatically the day I began to really understand the myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ response to his situation.

Today, when I see my team starting to feel the stress and get weighed down by the seemingly never ending list of problems, I’m reminded of how I used to feel - stressed about the work, and then even more stressed about how stressed I always was. 

The first step if you’re stuck in a Sisyphian loop is to make a leap of faith. You do have a choice. You can choose to find happiness and meaning in this situation if you look for it. There is something in the hard work to be gained, even though you’ll never finish rolling the boulder up the hill once and for all. 

Subscribe to The Game of Few

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.