People who are suffering from burnout tend to describe the sensation in metaphors of emptiness—they’re a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge. Thirteen years, three books, and dozens of papers into his profession, Barry Farber, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and trained psychotherapist, realized he was feeling this way. Unfortunately, he was well acquainted with the symptoms. He was a burnout researcher himself.
Being burned out on burnout—now that was rich. Madame Curie died of radiation poisoning; Joseph Mitchell famously developed a 32-year-long case of writer’s block after writing a two-part New Yorker series about a blocked writer; now Farber was suffering the same self-referential fate. He jokes about it today (who wouldn’t?) but hardly felt sanguine as it was happening (who would?). Colleagues tried to persuade him to stick it out. “But for the most part, I’ve resisted coming back,” says Farber. “I’ve never been able to find that same sense of satisfaction.”
Farber had burned out once before. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, he taught public school in East Harlem. He’d wanted to help people, do the world some good. Yet for four years he’d struggled to stop his students from fighting with one another, and in spite of his best efforts he couldn’t even teach all of them to read. His classroom became a perverse experiment in physics, with energy never conserved (input always exceeded output), and he, a teacher in perpetual motion, always craving rest. Eventually, he began to pull away from his students—depersonalization, as the literature now calls it—justifying his seeming insensitivity by telling himself he wasn’t making a difference anyway. It was only when Farber went to graduate school at Yale that he learned that this syndrome had a name: Burnout. “The concept offered a perfect understanding of what teachers were feeling,” he recalls. “It wasn’t in fact that they were racist and mercenary and noncaring but that their level of caring couldn’t be sustained in the absence of results.”
Farber was so captivated by the notion of burnout he made it the subject of his dissertation. And he stayed with it for another thirteen years. Until the day he couldn’t anymore. He still remembers the breaking point. He’d just completed a book about burnout among teachers, a subject he’d once considered exceptionally urgent. “Yet even as I was writing,” he says, “I had this sense that I really wanted to finish it so that I could go on to something else. I felt somewhat bored, and somewhat depleted. I’d said all I wanted to say.” He ponders this point. “I guess,” he says, “I lost the sense that it was important.”
I can’t quite say that I’ve ever had the full-on Farber experience. But I’ve certainly had mini-versions of it. Whenever I’ve finished a big project, for instance, or whenever I’ve found myself listening to the 10 p.m. whir of the vacuum cleaners in our office start up for the tenth night in a row, there’s no one I identify with more than the Bill Murray character in Rushmore, particularly as he’s blankly tossing golf balls from a wire basket into his swimming pool. It’s not that I don’t love my work. But hold a stethoscope to my brain, eavesdrop on my innermost thoughts, and at those moments, all you’ll hear is the sound of a whistling conch shell.
Burnout is not its own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s not something that can be treated pharmacologically; it is not considered the same thing as depression or a midlife crisis, though sometimes they coincide. The term was first coined by a psychotherapist named Herbert Freudenberger, who himself probably took it from Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case. (“I haven’t enough feeling left for human beings,” the book’s numb protagonist, Querry, wrote in his journal, “to do anything for them out of pity.”) While working at a free clinic for drug addicts in Haight-Ashbury, Freudenberger noticed that the volunteers, when discouraged, would often push harder and harder at their jobs, only to feel as if they were achieving less and less. The result, in 1974, was the book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. Others soon followed. A subspecialty of psychology was born.
Back in the seventies, when people marched into the world with convictions about changing it, burnout was considered a noble affliction. It meant that you’d depleted yourself while helping others. Almost all the research that’d been done on the subject, and there’d been quite a lot, was on the people in the “caring professions”—nurses, public-school teachers, legal-aid workers, social workers, clergy. Because many of these people were idealists, and because they worked with the hardest-luck cases, they were highly susceptible to disillusionment. Those who burned out were not only physically and mentally exhausted; they were cynical, detached, convinced their efforts were worthless. They held themselves in contempt. Worse, they held their clients in contempt. They began to loathe the same people they originally sought to help. In her seminal book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Christina Maslach, perhaps the best-known burnout researcher working in the United States today, collected plenty of vivid, unvarnished testimony. As one Florida social worker told her, “I recently received a call at night, and while I was getting dressed, I was screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems.”
Today, in New York City, everyone knows that the ones “screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems” are as likely to be hedge-fund managers as any species of do-gooders. Burnout is the illness of just about any averagely driven, obsessive New York professional. Bankers, high-tech workers, advertisers, management consultants, lawyers working in their mustard-lit honeycombed Hades—all of them are as likely to complain about burnout as schoolteachers and social workers. In 21st-century New York, the 60-hour week is considered normal. In some professions, it’s a status symbol. But burnout, for the most part, is considered a sign of weakness, a career killer.
“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. He’s young, about the age of a hungry broker, and he looks like the men he treats—strong features, dark teased hair, Turnbull & Asser striped shirt, nice watch. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”
Cass is the opposite of a rumpled therapist or academic who might have studied burnout in the seventies. He’s today’s version, a $350-an-hour executive coach, someone who accommodates busy schedules by meeting over lunch or at baseball games and speaks in the idiom of Wall Street. His clients, too, are the inside-out version of the burned-out altruists people were examining in the seventies: Unblushingly ambitious, rich, focused as Marines. Yet ask Cass why his clients are burning out, and his answer isn’t any different for a banker than it would be for a public-school teacher; there’s a gulf between what they expected from their jobs and what they got. “I can’t tell you,” he says, “how many people come into my office and ask, ‘How come I have this money and I can’t find happiness?’ ”
So what does he tell them? “That happiness equals reality divided by expectations.”
I look around Cass’s office and realize it’s the perfect hybrid of a shrink’s suite and a bond trader’s bachelor pad: a seascape of black leather, that mysterious favorite fabric of rich young men, on the one hand; a menagerie of curios, totems, and exotica on the other. (Though maybe there’s a slight bias toward the bachelor pad—further inspection reveals a Wall Street movie poster in the corner, a bronze bull on the coffee table, and a squishy stress-ball he encourages his stymied clients to throw.)
Our instinct, of course, is not to feel much pity for the poor bond trader. An epidemic of malaise among bankers and lawyers is far more likely to inspire jokes—Wouldn’t it be nicer if it were terminal?—than concern and rafts of psychological studies. (And the few studies out there are funny, if inadvertently. In a special “burnout” issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology six years ago, the essay on lawyers was most notable for the “Select References and Recommended Reading” that followed—four of eight were about masochism.) But that doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real. In fact, consider lawyers for a moment: According to the New York Bar Association, turnover rates among mid-level associates in this city’s law firms is 36 percent. The whole system is predicated on burnout. Why even bother treating associates well?
It is possible something is the matter here. Just as there were deep flaws in the work ecosystems of the caring professions, noticed by researchers in the seventies, it’s possible there’s something wrong with our professional environments—and perhaps, more broadly speaking, our culture of work. Isn’t this worthy of examination? Work, after all, is a form of religion in a secular world. Burning out in it amounts to a crisis of faith.
“In the beginning, the caring professions were where the issue was,” says Maslach. “But frankly, it’s also where we could do the research. Not all professions say, ‘Sure, come on in and poke around and see what we’re doing and who we are.’ ”
But today, says Maslach, corporate settings are cautiously, slowly, cracking their doors, letting people like her in, because they recognize that something’s gone awry. “Like in Silicon Valley,” she says. “It used to be the case that people would say, ‘You’re burned out? You don’t like the job? So quit. I don’t run a country club,’ ” says Maslach. “But what was happening was the best and the brightest wanted to opt out. They started saying, ‘I can’t do this; this is not a life.’ They’d go to the Midwest and start a pet-food store.” Maslach adds that when she did interviews at nasa, she noticed similar problems there. “So suddenly, these places were saying, ‘Whoa, what do we need to do to get these people?’ Getting the most out of people didn’t actually mean getting the best. That’s when there was a new wave of interest in burnout.”
She pauses for a second, searching for the right metaphor. “It’s kind of like ergonomics,” she finally says. “It used to be, ‘You sit for work? Here’s a chair.’ But now we design furniture to fit and support the body. And we’re doing the same here. The environments themselves have to say, ‘We want people to thrive and grow.’ There was a shift, finally, in how people understood the question.”
Like the science of all emotion, attempts to quantify, analyze, and define burnout have a slightly stilted, unnatural quality. It’s a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy agglomeration of external symptoms and private frustrations—how could such stuff be plotted on a graph? (I keep thinking of Bill Murray and those golf balls—or Bill Murray and his Suntory whiskeys in Lost in Translation, for that matter. Does a culture even need a definition of burnout when it has Bill Murray?) But researchers have nevertheless made valiant efforts to try. In 1981, Maslach, now vice-provost at the University of California, Berkeley, famously co-developed a detailed survey, known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, to measure the syndrome. Her theory is that any one of the following six problems can fry us to a crisp: working too much; working in an unjust environment; working with little social support; working with little agency or control; working in the service of values we loathe; working for insufficient reward (whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback). “I once talked to a pediatric dentist,” she says, “and he said, ‘A good day is when there are no screamers.’ And I’m sure half the people he was talking about were the parents.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Maslach’s research is that burnout isn’t necessarily a result of overwork. It can be, certainly. Michael Leiter, a lovely Canadian fellow and frequent collaborator of Maslach’s, has elegantly called burnout a “crisis in self-efficacy,” which to me suggests that head-banging feeling of struggling mightily for too little or (worse) nothing in return. Ayala Pines, a researcher in Israel who’s looked at burnout in all sorts of inspired contexts (including marriage), rather heartbreakingly sums up the problem as “the failure of the existential quest”—that moment when we wake up one morning and realize that what we’re doing has appallingly little value. She studied the insurance business, for example, a profession often associated with the ultimate cubicle tedium. Yet she noticed something very interesting. “The ones who had some traumatic experience related to insurance when they were children—their house burned down or whatever—they can work for a long time without burning out,” she says. “Because they came to the profession with a calling. They feel their work is significant.”
And Farber often calls burnout “the gap between expectation and reward,” which may have the most relevance to New Yorkers. This has always been a city of inflated expectations. People with more modest aims for themselves seem less prone to disillusionment.
Longitudinal, comprehensive data on burnout is hard to come by, in part because the United States is not especially renowned for its sensitivity to workers. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an admirable organization with lots of dedicated economists, does not track worker satisfaction, for example.) One of the few countries that does keep comprehensive data on burnout is, not surprisingly, the Netherlands, where the government is sensitive to the workplace needs of its citizenry. Even there, longitudinal surveys show that roughly 10 percent of the workforce is burned out at any given time, with high-school teachers and primary-care health personnel ranking highest. (I asked Wilmar Schaufeli, perhaps the most prominent researcher of burnout in the Netherlands today, whether he had any data on bankers. “In Holland,” he says, “these groups are not big enough to study. But I do know there have been some reports in the press about stockbrokers who use cocaine and other illicit drugs just to keep up. But this is another story.”) Still, enough research has been done in the United States and elsewhere to reveal interesting patterns of burnout. Though loath to say that any one profession burns us out more than others—to her, it’s more a question of how well we fit in our jobs—Maslach found in her early work that the critical burnout period for most social-service agencies was between one and five years on the job. (Interestingly, Stuart Marques, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, notes that 45 percent of New York City public-school teachers have left their jobs by year five.) Of all her studies both in Israel and abroad, Pines found that the most-burned-out people were nurses working in children’s burn units—“It was too painful”—and the least were serial entrepreneurs, those metabolic wonders creating companies as if they were baking cakes.
In 2001, the Department of Surgery at the University of Michigan used the Maslach inventory to conduct a comprehensive study of burnout among its graduates from various residencies. It showed a striking rate of high emotional exhaustion among practicing surgeons (32 percent) and a rather low rate of depersonalization (13 percent), all of which seemed to utterly belie the notion that surgeons were unfeeling technocrats. The conclusion also said that there was no correlation between exhaustion and caseload. “It has much more to do with frustrations in the changes in medicine,” says Lazar J. Greenfield, one of the study’s co-investigators and the chairman emeritus of Michigan’s Department of Surgery. “The liability risk is higher, the patients are more demanding, reimbursements have progressively declined.”
To me, the most beguiling data to emerge from burnout research are the profiles of the people who experience it most acutely. In her early work, for instance, Maslach found that younger people burn out more often than older people, a finding that turns up again and again both here and abroad. (In fact, that study from the University of Michigan explicitly said that younger surgeons burn out more quickly than older ones.) This conclusion may seem counterintuitive, because we associate burning out somehow with midlife disillusionment. But not if we think of burnout as the gap between expectations and rewards. Older workers, as it turns out, have more perspective and more experience; it’s the young idealists who go flying into a profession, plumped full of high hopes, and run full-speed into a wall. Maslach also found that married people burn out less often than single people, as long as their marriages are good, because they don’t depend as much on their jobs for fulfillment. And childless people, though unburdened by the daily strains of parenting, tend to burn out far more than people with kids. (This, too, has been found across cultures; in the Netherlands, a recent survey by the Bureau of Statistics showed that twice as many working women without children showed symptoms of burnout as did working women with underage children.) It’s much easier to disproportionately invest emotional and physical capital in the office if you have nowhere else to put it. And the office seldom loves you back.
“I did a study in the south of Israel of ‘sandwich generation’ couples—people who have young children and elderly parents,” says Ayala Pines, the Israeli researcher. “This is very stressful, but what I found is that these people were not that burned out at all, because their families also provided emotional support.”
Pines’s work has also shown that people in fiercely individualist societies are more prone to burn out. “I once did a study comparing Mexican college professors to American college professors,” she says. “The Mexican burnout rate was lower. To them, the kind of lifestyle you describe in New York is insane. At noon, you come home, eat, and see your family. It isn’t even a question.” In Israel, she adds, she consistently found lower levels of burnout than in her studies in the United States, even though the lives of its citizens are tangibly threatened in a way that most Americans’ are not. “And one explanation I have,” she says, “is that it’s because of the existential threats to our daily lives. You feel your own life is more significant.”
Of course, Maslach also found that there are certain types—depressives, people with problems with anger or anxiety—who are more prone to burn out. And if you’re inclined to look at the world through the prism of psychoanalysis, you’ll realize there are an almost infinite number of reasons why people choose the wrong kinds of jobs for themselves. Pines says it best. “I think one of the reasons people burn out is because they take jobs that they hope, consciously or unconsciously, will help them overcome unresolved childhood issues,” she says. “But instead of healing the childhood wound, work reopens it.”
Woo hoo. Re: An appendix to the principles of Jewish Buddhism. Saying hi. Re: Hey pal. Burnout. WHEN are we eating? Open Enrollment Info. Quick q. Arrrrrrrrrrgh.
You are looking at nine e-mail subject lines I received in a one-hour period last week. It was then that I realized I answer an e-mail once every 6.66 minutes. The very thought of committing this fact to paper has kept me crippled for several seconds. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing my boss should know.
One has to wonder whether the developments of a high-speed world haven’t made burnout worse. First, the obvious: With the advent of e-mail, cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys (or “CrackBerrys”—the argot here seems extremely apt), and other bits of high-speed doodadry, it has become virtually impossible, in senses both literal and metaphorical, to unplug from our jobs. As Schaufeli, the Dutch researcher, notes, one of the strongest predictors of burnout isn’t just work overload but “work-home interference”—a sociologist’s way of saying we’re receiving phone calls from Tokyo during dinner and replying to clients on our BlackBerrys while making our children brush their teeth.
But the problems wrought by technological advancement go far beyond trespasses into our homes. They’ve done something to how we perceive time—and, by extension, work and leisure—itself. There’s a way New Yorkers often describe this, actually. They say they’re busy. It’s hard to find New Yorkers who don’t believe themselves to be really, really busy, whether they have six kids or none, and whether they’re trading bonds or driving cabs. “Busyness”—a homophone of business, which cannot be an accident—has become the defining sensation of city life. If busy meant “fulfilled,” or “engaged,” that’d be one thing, but it seems, in most cases, to mean “overloaded” or “frazzled.” In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick points out that doctors and sociologists even have a name for this harried sensation: “hurry sickness.”
The great paradox of efficiency is that the more we speed up, the more acute our frustrations when we’re forced to slow down. Is it not possible that these ambient frustrations function as chronic stressors, and—in some subtle but crucial way—contribute to feeling worn out? Americans, Gleick writes, spend an estimated 3 billion minutes a year waiting on hold with the software industry; they race to airports only to wait for hours; they start to jitter inside elevators if the doors take more than four seconds to close. (Elevator engineers even have a term for how long it takes—door dwell—before people start jamming their fingers on the door close button, which is usually a placebo, a function already disabled by litigation-conscious building managers.)
“Gridlocked and tarmacked are metonyms of our era,” Gleick writes. “To be gridlocked or tarmacked is to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around us, as time passes and blood pressures rise.”
Though it’s not quite the same thing, I often feel gridlocked when answering my e-mail. My friends would probably be startled to learn this, because my e-mails ricochet back within seconds, as if attached to a rubber band. But it’s hard to escape the sensation, as I answer each and every one, that I’m being stopped at a tollbooth.
If one of the surest recipes for burnout, as Michael Leiter has said, is the sensation of inefficiency—particularly if we’re still expending energy and seeing little in return—then there may be something about the modern office that conspires to burn us out. In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College London did a study in which one group was asked to take an IQ test while doing nothing, and a second group to take an IQ test while distracted by e-mails and ringing telephones. The uninterrupted group did better by an average of ten points, which wasn’t much of a surprise. What was a surprise is that the e-mailers also did worse, by an average of six points, than a group in a similar study that had been tested while stoned.
That’s right. Stoned. Those people were literally burned out, and they did better.
“There is something about interruption that makes people especially unproductive,” says Suzanne Bianchi, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of the new book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. “And technology interrupts us all the time—e-mails, cell phones. It feeds into our sense of control”—another key factor in burning out, feeling a lack of control—“and highly educated workers all will talk as if they’re terribly overworked, how they feel as if there’s never enough time. Partly, we’re supposed to say it, but I think people also genuinely feel that way, even though they have the time. That’s what’s intrigued us. The subjective and the objective don’t line up.”
Indeed, that’s her colleagues’ most startling finding of all. Most Americans believe they work more today than they did 35 years ago. Yet according to the American Time Use Survey, an ambitious project that for 41 years has been asking thousands of participants to keep detailed time diaries, Americans now have five more hours of leisure per week (38) than they did in 1965. Certainly, there are academics who reject these numbers—in The Overworked American, published in 1992, the economist Juliet Schor calculated we were working nearly an extra month per year, setting off a rather sharp debate about her methodology—but even those who agree our leisure time is increasing will readily concede that Americans experience their leisure quite differently and therefore may feel as if they’re working more. For one thing, it’s non-contiguous leisure time, time meted out in discrete increments. Human beings have always resisted the fracturing of time. Gleick points out that Plautus cursed the sundial. Now, he says, we gain 90- second reprieves with our microwave ovens. But do we do anything meaningful in those 90 seconds? Or do they vanish in the same particle puff?
John Robinson, the University of Maryland sociologist who calculated those expanding leisure hours for the time-use survey, argues that our obsession with efficiency at work has unfortunately seeped into our attitudes toward leisure, with the multitasking of our downtime as the loony and paradoxical result. We run on the treadmill while listening to music while watching TV. We cook while flipping through a magazine while yakking on the phone. All of which raises a question: If our leisure isn’t restorative, aren’t we more apt to burn out?
“Oh, yes, I would think so,” says Schaufeli. “Because that’s what burnout is, in essence. A mismatch between effort and recovery.”
Alden Cass is sitting in his office, showing me his various tools for reigniting burned-out clients. “I created this thing, bullish-versus-bearish thinking,” he says. He hands me a worksheet with silhouettes of bulls and bears. “I give them for homework so they can monitor their thoughts,” he continues. “Usually, when you’re burnt out, your first thought is vicious, irrational. What we call bearish. So they start monitoring what goes on in their heads. And once they have evidence, they can redirect those thoughts. They have ammo now.”
Burnout, says Farber, is “the gap between expectation and reward,”which may have the mostrelevance to New Yorkers. Thishas always been a city of inﬂatedexpectations.
Because Cass is an executive coach, it’s his job to tell people how to assume responsibility for their own distress. But Maslach has always contended that burnout says more about the employer than it does about the employee. “Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles,” she famously wrote in 1982, “without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they’d been submerged!” The trouble is that corporate America has always been leery of the presence of burnout researchers. When Cass tried writing his dissertation about Wall Street burnout, he was turned away from every human-resources office downtown. Maslach’s not surprised. “Anything that might suggest that something is not working well in a company or an organization of some kind, people then worry, This could be used for a lawsuit,” she says. “So doing research is fraught with peril.”
But today, Maslach and her colleague, Michael Leiter, are attempting longitudinal studies of employees in a variety of companies and institutions, hoping they can find early-warning signals of distress. Some of what they’ve found has been pretty amazing. In a university system, for instance, Maslach discovered that a certain employee award, designed with the best of intentions, was making people nuts. “You could not have designed a better award to engender backbiting and hostility,” she says.
Milton Moskowitz, co-author of Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For,” keeps a mini-compendium of things that companies do to prevent burnout. Intel, for example, allows its employees to take an eight-week sabbatical once every seven years. (Of course, most Europeans take this much vacation every year, but still.) The managers at Boston Consulting Group place their consultants in a metaphorical “Red Zone” if they work 60 hours a week and send someone to come talk to them if the trend continues. And once a quarter, Dow Corning has a no-meetings week.
But it’s an uphill battle. Moskowitz also tells me about a conversation he once had with an employee at a high-profile high-tech firm. He reached this young man during the day, but only barely, because this fellow was heading out to see a movie. Moskowitz marveled at how wonderful that was and how flexible his employer must be. “Oh, yes,” the employee told him. “Here, I can work whatever 80 hours per week I want.”
“The worst case of Wall Street burnout I know is of this guy who wound up driving a cab,” Cass tells me.
He shrugs. “There’s a control factor in driving a cab. You go from point A to point B. On Wall Street, you start your day with no idea how it’s going to end.”
driving a taxi doesn’t sound like a particularly soothing solution to burnout. But there’s something to the idea of changing jobs. Maybe extreme burnout victims don’t need a life coach or a sabbatical or a no-meetings week. Maybe what they need is a headhunter.
Usually, I can’t imagine taking up another career. But in the rare moments I do, my fantasies tend to run in an altruistic direction: Teach high-school English in a poor school district. Fight poverty in Africa. Donate a kidney. And I wonder how many of my contemporaries share these fantasies or have actually done it—that is, made a change in their lives that actually relieves them from the crushing burdens of thinking about themselves. How strange would it be if people were trying to cure their burnout today by leaping to the helping professions, the same professions that led people to study burnout in the first place?
This July, the Boston Globe ran a startling story that said 64 percent of all students entering mortuary college today are over 30, rather than 23, which they were a generation ago. (“Frequently, these students want to emulate a wonderful job that a funeral professional did for them,” Lyn Prendergast, executive vice-president of Fine Mortuary College, told the Globe. “Or they had a poor experience and feel they can do a far better job for the bereaved.”) Of the 75 law firms surveyed in New York in The American Lawyer’s recent survey of mid-level associates, the firms ranked No. 1 (Dickstein Shapiro) and No. 3 (Patterson Belknap) had one thing in common: They both received perfect scores on their attitudes toward pro bono work.
I phone Barbara G. Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary. She tells me that the average age of female students entering divinity school is 37.
Thirty-seven. My age exactly. If only I weren’t a Jew and an atheist, I’d be in business.
“Every seminary can introduce you to at least some students who’ve been lawyers, journalists, opera singers,” she says. “They have a lot of tolerance for the little annoyances of the job, because they want to deal with life-and-death issues—the moments when people tend to be most human, as Bill Coffin said.”
Lindley DeGarmo, the pastor and head of staff at Towson Presbyterian Church in Maryland, harbored such desires. It was Wheeler who put me in touch with him. DeGarmo enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in 1996, when he was 42 years old. He sometimes jokes that the decision cost him, conservatively speaking, $6 million, because he missed the peak of the boom. At the time, he was pulling in nearly a million dollars annually on Wall Street and living in a 3,000-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn Heights. “Maybe I’d have done more good if I’d worked for a few more years and then given the seminary the money,” he says. Though perhaps it’s just as well. Just before entering the seminary, DeGarmo was considering a job with an intriguing company called Enron.
DeGarmo says he can’t isolate the moment that he knew his job wasn’t for him. “I’ve never been able to make the direct correlation: Hmm, I’m here on Monday morning, and I don’t like the values—wouldn’t it be nice to minister?” he says. “But when I fantasized about what I wanted to do, it was this.” Particularly after he reached 40 and finally married. He started devouring theological texts. He started attending church in New York, where for the first time he “encountered really good preaching, exegesis, grappling with the larger tradition of the church.” Then came the moment, just after his child was born, when he was sitting in a lonely hotel on a fruitless business trip. He had absolutely no clue what he was doing there.
“There are times when this is much more difficult work than what I dealt with as an investment banker,” he says. “It draws on a whole lot more parts of you. You get personally invested. I did 27 funerals last year. It can be draining. But by and large, the joys outweigh the sorrows.
“In seminary,” he suddenly says, “I did a bit of depth psychology.” DeGarmo had never studied it before. He was assigned Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and found himself beguiled by Carl Jung’s theories about the opposing parts of our personalities. “I remember Jung saying that the general trajectory of your life is to work to your strength in your younger life, going great guns to establish yourself at whatever you’re doing,” he continues. “But at some point in midlife, the other part of your personality—the feminine instead of masculine, or whatever other opposing trait—is looking for expression. And if you don’t allow it to express itself, you’re not, in effect, going to become a whole person. Brittle is the word he uses.”
He’s recalling this so fondly and so lyrically that I find myself caught in his same reverie. It’s hard to imagine this man was once a guy in a Town Car on Wall Street.
“So it occurs to me that maybe people who are burning out are bumping up against that phenomenon that Jung talks about,” concludes DeGarmo. “The masculine bumping up against the feminine, or the right brain against the left. Whoever you are.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, almost fit for a sermon. The question now is how many Wall Streeters he can convert.