“The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I.” (Sartre)

I have offered before that work is an existential matter – that we can only know and define it according to our own experiences. It did not have too many takers – after all, its uncomfortable, its not someone else’s job or responsibility. In the corporate world, everything is by definition always someone else’s job or responsibility. There is no-one to blame, no-one to hold to account, no-one’s plan that was misconceived or badly executed. Its not a process that’s broken, or a panacea that needs dismantling, or a solution yet to be defined or named (because we love naming things, don’t we?). Nothing about which to rail “something must be done!”

In reflecting on some of my less pleasant times at work over the last decade, the feeling of nausea was akin to that felt by Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s novella. At the lowest points, dreading switching on my devices in the morning, expecting the very worst in correspondence from certain individuals, sensing a tightening circle from those measuring their career advance on my undoing, wondering if everything I had dedicated so many hours to over the years had made any difference at all, and doubting that I could change anything worthwhile, I felt the “sweetish sickness”. Of course we are supposed to “man up” and not feel like that. So we internalise, and it festers in our gut.

The intensification of Roquentin’s nausea finally leads him to the acceptance of his freedom and the opportunity it presents, and an understanding of the commitments he must make to give his life meaning and allow for creativity. Essentially, it was all down to him – not others, nor the inanimate world around him. The nausea was a pre-requisite to recognising this, not unlike Dostoevsky’s assertion that suffering is the root of consciousness.

I had read Nausea long before I felt as I did at work, probably therefore long before I needed it -like most of the philosophy and literature I soaked up in my twenties but only seems relevant today. It seems on reflection that I needed to understand locks before I knew what to do with the keys.

Many of us experience Roquentin’s nausea, and similarly cannot explain why. Perhaps like for he, dawns a moment of realisation of the burden and opportunity of our freedom and the responsibility it confers. Perhaps we wait for it to pass, and seek answers elsewhere – only for it to return over and over.

I remain convinced that work is an existential matter. Only we can ascribe meaning to it, and see its potential. It is not the responsibility of other individuals, or the ethereal amalgams that constitute the organisations within which they gather. Nor does the clue lie in our social domain, or Big Ideas. While the nausea occasionally hints, at least I recognise and know it for what it is.

The implications are far reaching – a gargantuan misdirection of thought, energy, resources and angst towards ideas and institutions unable to resolve the nausea. A consideration that the clues to understanding work lie within our consciousness of ourselves are terrifying.

It means we actually have to do something about it.

2 thoughts on “Nausea

  1. If you look at how the best leaders manage their teams, they take success at work and all of the caveats tied to that objective, as a matter of personal responsibility . If their subordinates fail, they fail. It is their responsibility to manage, to lead, to perform. I have been talking about this for years, to no avail. Mostly because people are quick to absolve themselves of responsibility when they make the bad hire, when they fire the wrong person, when they choose the wrong project to focus on, etc. etc. As you said, “work is an existential matter. Only we can ascribe meaning to it, and see its potential”, and ultimately, that must be a very personal choice that we make. The onset of the nausea is the realization that sometimes we are quite impotent in how to deal with the challenges we are faced with. Clearly, Antoine was a manic depressive in the novel, but that does not make him less able to process the inconsistencies of his life and how his impact on the world (or lack thereof) is a consequence of his own personal choices. He goes into a tailspin – disengages. Disconnects.

    Sounds a lot like what we do when things aren’t quite right at work.

    Great post! Thanks for reminding me how much I like reading Sartre. 🙂

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