Today, many of the most high-status jobs for the well-educated make a virtue of intensity and commitment. Investment banking boasts 80-hour work weeks; Teach for America’s emotional crucible results in a high burnout rate; and jobs in the political sector spawn articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cri de coeur. Have a Type A personality? These jobs are ready to push you to (or past) your limit, and isn’t that what excellence is all about?
There’s a word for people who turn over their entire waking life to one cause, and willingly sacrifice the possibility of a family for the opportunity to serve: monks (or, more archaically, oblates). Just like the driven twenty-somethings of Rosin’s article, monks and nuns have made a commitment so total that it precludes marriage. But in the case of vowed religious, the form of their service is meant to be elevating, not just useful. I seldom hear people claim that spreadsheets are good for the soul. Even for people doing high intensity work for the public good (the teachers, the social workers, the public interest lawyers, etc.), the form of their work may still be deadening.
Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love. It’s possible to make a short-term decision to put life and relationships on hold, in order to make a high-intensity commitment to a cause (this is the model for the oft-touted national service draft), but it’s unhealthy to let these crisis-mode jobs give shape to your life.