Andrew Taggart, Practical Philosopher on how “total work” has taken over our lives

Andrew is a Practical Philosopher who believes that “there may be no greater vexation in our time than the question of how to make a living in a manner that accords with leading a good life.”  In this episode, we dive deep into the questions of “what is the good life?” and what he means by “sustaining life.” 

He also shares his perspective on the concept of “Total Work,” a phrase first put forth in 1948 by the German Philosopher Josef Pieper and shares how that phrase became central to his current writing on the topic and conversations he has with business leaders and executives. Here is how he defines the term in an essay for Aeon:

‘Total work’, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after the Second World War in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else. By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

He provocatively asks as the title of the essay, “If work domainted your every moment, would life be worth living.” Damn.

Three modes of “hacking” a living in the modern world

Andrew offers a simple framework for thinking about how we engage in the world.

  1. Use what you’ve got
  2. Exchange what’s in hand
  3. Offer what you can

He reflects on our modern cultures over-reliance on exchanging our time for money while ignoring how we can live off the land and operate within the gift economy.

Next, we talk about some of the different modes of living (whether it be a “settler”, nomad or somewhere in between) and the implications for the community in society as a whole as well as how has dealt with that with his wife.

How To Contemplate One’s Relationship With Work

Finally, Andrew offers three practical steps people can take to re-engage with life and trying to understand what “a life worth living looks like” that does not include the advice to just quit your job.

  • Dis-identify with the identity of the worker: Questioning whether you truly only are a worker, a CEO, a marketing manager, an accountant, etc…
  • Begin an inquiry into the question “If I am not a worker, then who am I?”: What else is worth living for?  What practices do I want to have in part of my life?  What relationships and conversations nourish me?
  • The question whether or not the life you have defined is “sufficient”: Are you thinking deeply enough about the question of who you are?

Andrew’s Writing & Site:

Other Writing Mentioned:

Detailed Bio

Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher. He asks and seeks to answer the most basic questions of human existence with others around the world. In 2009, he finished a Ph.D., left the academic life, and moved to New York City because he thought the most basic question of how to live needed to be brought back into our everyday lives. He now lives with his wife Alexandra in the American Southwest.

Over the years, he’s been helping C-level executives, startup teams, and venture capitalists inquire into matters of a fundamental nature. He’s worked with individuals at Google, Facebook, Twitter, and various startups.

His ideas have been discussed in Quartz, The Guardian, Singularity Hub, Big Think, Wisconsin Public Radio, TEDx, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He also writes regularly for Quartz at Work about the history of and attitudes toward work, and he is now writing a book on “total work,” a word coined by the late German philosopher Josef Pieper.