Last week, I talked of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, meaning, to continue working on a thing that may be overtaken by something larger. This week, I want to take off from there and talk about this TV show I’ve been watching every Friday. It’s called ‘Severance’, on AppleTV+. See trailer:
It’s a ‘workplace-fantasy’, comedy-drama thriller about a team of office workers who are ‘severed’, meaning, their work-selves are totally distinct from their personal-selves. Their brains are divided. When they come to work, they don’t have any memory of their personal life, and when they get out of work, they don’t have any recollection of what they do at work. To be severed at Lumen Industries, though, you consciously take a decision, knowing fully well that the procedure of severance is irreversible.
I think this TV show meaningfully (yet subtly) captures some nuance in the classic dilemma of a ‘work-life balance’. You check in at 9am, you check out at 5pm, and you don’t carry ‘work’ with you to home… Well, because you can’t. Today, with work increasingly taking up our collective bandwidth and the boundaries of work / life disappearing, I wanted to think deeper about this TV show and what it would potentially mean to be ‘severed’ in real life.
At its core, Severance is much more than splitting work from life. It’s about free will, choice, hope, despair, fulfillment, motivation, and fundamental rights. It’s about why you ought to not separate work from life.
Take fulfillment. Ask me if I want to be severed, and it would probably be ‘no’. I think this is because, going forward, work and life are naturally predisposed to intertwine with one another. So far, I’ve found that you produce high work-output when your life becomes work, and you are most-satisfied in life when you work hard. (Of course, this doesn’t preclude the real stuff of life, but in addition to all of that, work is still pretty important.)
Evolutionarily, as well, I think ‘work’ will become a game of status. Not income, not power, but more so, the amount you work: The more you work, the higher your status. It’s strange that ‘work’ should take that place, but so far, I’ve found that this is true. (Of course, it’s best to not treat work as ‘status currency’ because it may soon become toxic, but that’s for another time.)
So, severance would divorce work from life, which would, in effect, make deep fulfillment unattainable. Which is why, I think, in the TV show, all office workers seem, generally, unfulfilled.
Take choice. The character Dylan’s “innie” (Dylan’s work-self) is pretty competitive and is always wanting workplace prizes like toys and caricatures. Now, from the outside, as a viewer, these “prizes” are indeed meaningless; yet, it’s intriguing to see how context shapes Dylan’s choices. Dylan chooses to be competitive at work, maybe because his “outie” (Dylan’s personal-self) is also competitive, but the message is clear: The pointlessness of competition in differing contexts. From my context, Dylan being competitive is pointless, but in Dylan’s context, his competition will supposedly help him get a “promotion”.
The show seems to be subtle in its offerings, and Dylan somewhat seems to intuitively know about the pointlessness of his competitive spirit… Yet, he chooses to be competitive. Which makes me think: Is it my subjective context or my intuitive traits that shape my choice? (It’s a question I’m still thinking about, but one that Severance evokes pretty well.)
Finally, take personality traits. To be severed is to have your work-memories and life-memories bifurcated. However, there’s still something that transcends the security systems when you enter Lumen Industries: Your personality. At the core, you’re still the same person, albeit with two different personalities. And so, at the core, you still operate in a similar fashion that you do, outside Lumen i.e. in life.
The point is that what you bring to work is who you are in life, and what you are in life is probably an outcome of who you are at work. And this can happen even when you don’t remember anything about your work.
The Work-Life Balance
We talk about separating work and life, and finding balance between the two, but what Severance does a brilliant job at, is to show exactly what it would mean to find the sweet spot of separating work from life.
Which makes me wonder that perhaps the ideal work-life balance is not ideal at all. To be truly fulfilled, to have control over your choices, and to harness your personality traits, finding the zone of a ‘comfortable imbalance’ between work and life is the way forward.
Until next time,