Jake Breeden

Tipping Sacred Cows

Do You Go to Meetings to Forget Your Mortality?

Maybe we fill our calendars so full of meetings because we’re so afraid of dying

Posted Sep 24, 2014

People go to more meetings than needed. Managers whom I coach or teach tell me that they show up to support their team. Or they check to make sure things are being done right. Or they show up merely to show their face or cover their ass.

After a bit of reflection, these same managers confess to over-attendance: “I should let go more,” they say. “I should move up and move on, and I should trust more.” They decide to experiment, and they let their team meet without them more often.

When they let go, people are stretched to step up. Most people, given the opportunity to get things done without the boss present, will rise to the occasion. Growth becomes inescapable. Some can’t make the leap, and that’s good to discover as soon as possible. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, but meetings make for very effective shadows.

In 1973 Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, and then he died. In 1974 Becker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the book, posthumously. Nearly 5,000 scholarly books or articles, including more than a dozen just this past month, have cited Denial of Death. The book, Becker’s ninth, was the culmination of his career as a cultural anthropologist and an attempt to answer big questions and explain big mysteries.

Becker’s ideas continue to shape the way many therapists and coaches approach their work. It informs my approach to the leadership development workshops I lead at some of the world’s largest companies. Perhaps Becker also provided an explanation for the over-stuffed calendars of the modern manager.

Glenn Hughes, a scholar of Becker’s work, summarized the thesis of Denial of Death on The Ernest Becker Foundation website:

Human beings are mortal, and we know it. Our sense of vulnerability and mortality gives rise to a basic anxiety, even a terror, about our situation. So we devise all sorts of strategies to escape awareness of our mortality and vulnerability, as well as our anxious awareness of it. This psychological denial of death, Becker claims, is one of the most basic drives in individual behavior, and is reflected throughout human culture. 

Becker argues that religion is one of the primary “immortality projects” that humans have created to distract us from our terror of death.

As workplace meeting attendance climbs, conference rooms become hot commodities. For my work, I’m a frequent visitor to big corporate campuses. Between sessions, I often try to sneak in a call to one of my three kids (and, as Becker would argue, to distract myself from my own mortality). As I’m doing this, inevitably a stranger walks in and asks, “Did you book this room?” After I apologize for squatting in an unreserved space, I trudge on to find a free spot to finish my call. Instead of this corporate hobo life, I should probably stop looking for a conference room and start looking for a church pew – plenty of empty space there.

As meeting attendance has gone up, church attendance has declined. In modern, industrialized nations, religious attendance is on the decline. In Western Europe it has nearly vanished.

Are all those work meetings just the new immortality project to replace going to church?

One of my executive clients asked me in a moment of candor: “If they don’t need me, then what’s my job?” It’s pretty easy to get your head around the notion that people hang on to work that they should let go of just to feel indispensable. 

But maybe the stakes are even higher. Maybe we’re not merely distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dispensable. Maybe we’re distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dying. Without as much religious attendance, perhaps we need to meet and multitask more to forget about our mortality.

To be clear, Becker didn’t advocate religion as a distraction. And I doubt he’d endorse the weekly standing team meeting. Becker primarily advocated for awareness and consciousness and courage -- what we would call mindfulness today. If you haven’t read Denial of Death, I recommend it highly. 

But if your calendar is too stuffed with meetings for you to read a 40-year-old philosophy book, take this challenge instead: find 30 minutes in the next week that is currently booked for a meeting that could survive without you. Keep that calendar time empty. Protect it. When the time comes, don’t distract yourself with news or games or media or your needs or the needs of any others. Consume nothing and produce nothing. For those thirty minutes, just be alone, awake and alive.  

About the Author

Jake Breeden is the author of Tipping Sacred Cows. He is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education, where he’s taught leaders at Google, IBM, Starbucks and others.

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