The Arrogance Girding Busyness

Friday, November 6, 2015 - 4:54am
Photo by With Wound
The New Better Off

The Arrogance Girding Busyness

I’ve been on a decade-long quest, made even more urgent in the last two years since having a child, to understand why I overcommit. I’ve been trying to de-charge the gravitational pull of my fervent and frequent "Yes" and understand the psychic origins of my attraction to just about everything (sans robots and designer bags). In the process, I’ve gotten brutally honest with myself.

Is it about recognition?

I am part of the generation that was raised on self-esteem education, told that we were all as unique and beautiful as little snowflakes. Dr. Jean Twenge and others have argued that the nasty side effect of all of this shallow praise is a sort of pervasive and unprecedented narcissism and a bottomless hunger for praise.

I’ve really sat with that. Am I motivated by the prospect of another pat on the back? It doesn’t ring true. I love recognition as much as the next living, breathing human being, but I also feel that I’ve gotten more than my fair share of it. I was raised with parents who really and truly saw me and made that clear in various, generous ways. While some may be quite understandably in pursuit of the witness that they never got, that’s not me.

Is it about money?

Well, in part. I’m a cultural migrant. While my parents both went to the local, state school and had the kinds of professions one can easily find on a career survey, I traveled far at 18 years old and never stopped. I’ve never had a full-time job or employer-provided health insurance. Despite the fact that I’ve made a living as a writer and entrepreneur for over a decade now, I never quite believe that I’m secure. Saying no to paid work feels foolhardy no matter how long I’m at this or no matter how much money I have in my checking account. I can hear it in my head now: Nobody actually makes a living as an artist. I am, though, but somehow that voice carries a weight with my unconscious that all the years of contradictory proof can’t quite counter.

Is it about passion?

Yes, truly and genuinely yes. I’m omnivorously interested in so many things: intergenerational relationships, radical philanthropy, libraries, race, history, theater, death, hip hop, basketball, anthropology, cities, early childhood development, documentary film, reconciliation, epigenetics, Buddhism, design, international development, localism, the sharing economy, masculinity, photography, collage, dance parties, ethics, attention, ritual, politics, digital organizing… you can see why this gets exhausting, confusing, overwhelming. We live in a time when those of us with a wide range of interests have never had so much access to information or opportunities pertaining to them. Of course, we sometimes feel like we’re drowning in our own enthusiasm.

These are all pretty intuitive questions to be asking; all, in some form, explain my busyness. But lately I’ve been entertaining a new question, a really hard one: Is it about arrogance?

So much of the public conversation about the harried, modern life is happening among and about privileged people. Many of the most emailed articles at elite publications, the kind read by Ivy League graduates, are about busyness. Yes!, we scream from the digital rooftops, This is my life! I’m too frickin’ busy! What is to be done about it?!

Maybe one piece of the puzzle — to be fair, just a piece — is actually about the arrogance that comes with privilege. Privilege, in many cases, teaches you to overvalue yourself and undervalue others. What if we don’t say no because we have forgotten that someone else is capable of, perhaps even more capable, of doing the project in question?

If I’m being really honest with myself, I think there’s a part of me that overestimates my own power to control and produce. By saying yes, I keep the unexamined assumption alive that I am the only one who can do this thing and do it right. I pack my daughter’s bag even though my husband could do it, in his own way, perfectly well. Or I say yes to a project I don’t actually have the bandwidth for because I haven’t paused to wonder who might contribute with more time and more quality attention. I get tunnel vision. I feel overwhelmed. I take myself too damn seriously.

For now, I’m trying to loosen my grip on “being the one” and turning towards grace. What does a less-harried life filled with more spontaneous pleasures and happy witness look like? How can I make the well-articulated no feel as delicious as the whole-hearted yes? Where is the place in me that knows just what I need to do most with my finite and precious energy right now, not defensively or arrogantly but resolutely and rejoicing?

It’s never been more important to know how to transform your excess of asks — whether because of privilege or talent or some combination — into opportunities for other people to shine. It’s a palpable joy to watch my friends say yes where I have said no, to watch them thrive and surprise. And this is the thing about privilege and the arrogance that stems from it: it keeps us weighted down with self-importance. It traps us in a fog of specialness and busyness.

Instead, live lighter. Practice being humble and acknowledging not just your limitations but the joy you find in the chance to breathe and be unscripted. Where you don’t tread, don’t produce, don’t speak, beautiful others will appear and teach you something.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



Arrogance? Perhaps. In Buddhism busyness is a form of laziness. It provides a socially acceptable way to avoid all our problems. No time for deep thinking or dealing with problems in our relationships if we are "busy."

What an incredible perspective, thank you!

Absolutely Diane, I'd identify with what you're saying there...Busyness becomes an illusion that is all too temporary. Everything we are searching for through this business can be simply found within- when will we ever 'see' this?

Oh my goodness, this is so timely for me, as I contemplate my retirement at the end of the year from a solo consulting practice. Thank you, thank you Courtney! Such wise reflection!

Yes, yes, yes. This is so well and honestly presented. I am going to make a copy of the last three paragraphs to remind me over and over.
Thank you

Yes Courtney , it was Arrogance for me. I have never thought that through or admitted it . As I read and read yout excellent reasoning on our society bent on Busyness. I plead guilty..... It took me a longtime after retiring
.to become comfortable with Being rather than Doing. I'm happy I've lived long enough feel worthy of doing nothing.

Thank you for being so transparent Donna. Now the question is, how do we get strong/mindful enough to own up to that sooner?!

Beautiful new question Courtney...... Am exploring non business myself right now.........,
It was "forced" on me when I broke my wrist and now as it "heals" I'm continuing to watch when I do say Yes, or No and why. What a beautiful conversation that you have created. Thank you.

Courtney, I think that you've taken the proverbial "first step," in attempting to identify the "why" part of your current situation. As someone who for years, overextended himself on many fronts-- it wasn't until I consulted a trusted friend and spiritualist that I learned how to shorten up my circle, so to speak. What followed was an indescribable flow of creativity that I had yet to experience. I literally had to close some doors to allow others to thrive.

In so many ways, some of the best artwork that we create in life, is the paint that we leave off the canvas.

There's a quote by poet Carl Sandburg, that time is the only coin of your life. Be careful how you spend it, or others spend will it for you. Time is more valuable than money. Who sees this? It may be worth pondering how much of the seeming busyness is driven by a fear of missing out and imitating others driven on in that same gadarene rush. Time is the scarcest resource for all of us, privileged and underprivileged, "arrogant" and humble. How much to we want fleet-footed life to be driven by others' agendas and a nagging fear of missing out individually and collectively? Maybe a simple set of s simple rules could be useful. A personal favorite is avoiding the "do something syndrome" in every instance.

I think that for some it is a way to prevent really engaging with others. Not so much because of privilege or others are less-than thinking, but because of fear. The fear of experiencing the assumed pain from others, as in patrolling your boundaries with nuclear weapons (busyness).

I remember when I first moved away from home and had a shared mail box. How I longed to get junk mail and stuff in the mail! It represented adult life. Now, at 45, I am over run by email, and the feeling of being busy is overwhelming. I think that when we are youngish- we say yes because it means you are doing something- someone thinks you are the one for the job. You are important. I am at a time of my life of needing to choose less. Thanks for this.

I do feel "busy-ness" is some sorta warped claim of relevance or worthiness often issued by those with economic privilege and perhaps comes with the ramp up in technology, social media that promise efficiencies but in reality create more work. I have come to similar insights from motherhood and having a child, who is now 5, later in life. I marvel at the communications and student, parent doing that come with school life in 2015, which I don't remember from my youth. I felt bad recently when I missed an out of uniform day for my son. My son's teacher said, "On some days, I feel my head is going to explode." I understood where this response came from, but we all are the adults who have created the system of crazy. Specific to women, I believe Elizabeth Gilbert has it right, that women today are charting new courses with options before us that never quite existed for the past. For now, I like part-time work, being present to my life and my son's life, and sometimes, testing the waters and instead of proclaiming "busy" or making decisions that have me too busy...indicating, I like doing nothing... or working hard to create moments where I just like "seeing the paint dry on the wall."

This reminds me of something the psychologist, and social commentator, Dr. John Rosemond wrote about. He tells the story of being invited to speak at a community, and the event was held in the junior high school. Before going out on stage he visited the men's room to make sure his tie was straight and the vestiges of his hair combed. He stood in front of the wall-sized mirror and in huge letters above it was the following phrase, "You are now looking at the most special person in the whole world."

How can this kind of exhortation not have an effect, especially when it becomes institutionalized and as widespread as the educational system? There are different ways of thinking of one's self, and this one is more narcissism than self-worth. I read so much about self-esteem in newspapers, magazines, and books, but nothing about self-worth, value, or loving oneself. Worth, love, and value can survive failure, but apparently self-esteem cannot.

There should be alarms going off about now.

If the widely-held idea of self-esteem cannot survive the inevitable reality of failure, then it's probably a lie. Self-esteem as practiced is often a form of propaganda that is fed to oneself to maintain an illusion. And in my view, we need to stop it. So, maybe not in your case Courtney, but there is a powerful current in the mainstream that is grooming narcissism, and it could very well be driving this observed need to be busy in order to maintain self-esteem.

Wow, what an interesting story. I love that phrase--"grooming narcissim"--and I agree that we are structurally and culturally doing so. Makes me wonder how I can parent against that tide...

Thankyou so much for this beautiful reflection......and most especially for the poetry of your closing lines.

I think we can be "busy" with too many self-important desires and "needs" as well. I remember many years ago I had a conversation with an old man I met in a coffee shop. I think I was trying to impress him, and I told him about all the exotic places I wanted to go, the workshops and seminars, and mentioned how all my friends were flying around the world, going here, going there. He broke my monologue by quietly saying "It's a form of greed".

I didn't understand at the time, but now I greatly appreciate what he said, as I create a much simpler life for myself, and increasingly find many wonders right in my own backyard.

Lauren -- I've found myself in similar situations. And receiving that humbling reminder to keep my ego in check has provided me with just the right amount of balance that I need. You said it perfectly with the last line regarding "finding wonders right in your own backyard." Thanks for the reminder!

It's arrogance. And that arrogance rears its head regardless of the mundanity of the subject at hand. I volunteer with a small no-kill cat rescue group. It had been a long week and someone offered to relieve me of one of the extra shifts. I needed to rest (I'm 68) but I refused. My friend looked up from picking up cat debris and said, "What? You think you're the only one who knows how to scoop a litterbox??" I had to admit- I DID think that!!!!!! I'm trying to think differently! Friends are good antidotes to arrogance.

Hahaha! Love this example.

It is interesting and enlightening to read through your honest reflection on this, Ms. Martin. I'd like to share my own first gut response to this question, which is, I still am working on giving myself permission to even say "no," working on accepting that I don't owe my life to others. This may be a personal problem, but I do think it is a common one among women my age and older (I'm 50), brought up in a cultural millieu where women roles primarily have been to serve, and I find it very interesting and eye opening (am jealous even!) that it seems not to have been part of your thought process.

I don't think it's either/or, Elizabeth. I wish I could say that my weak grasp of no has nothing to do with a socialized sense of feminine service, but that's still in there for sure.

Thank you.

My personal understanding of the insane "busyness" that so many seem to feel is a sign of self worth or importance, is really just the ego's last minute attempts to stall the inevitable: its dissolution. If each soul fully and truly remembers the Absolute Truth that all beings come from and merge back into the same Source, then there can be no "other" and the only response to the good fortune of another being is genuine joy. The key question is whether or not our words, thoughts, and actions, are coming from our Highest INNER Truth. If they are, then the issue of "busyness" does not even arise. What occurs is natural, right, in line with Dharma. Consciousness of consciousness IS that key. If we are too busy to be Consciously conscious, then we are too busy...

The journey begins
and ends with the same divine

Vast, empty Soul space
lovingly sculpted into
full embodiment.


FABULOUS article, Courtney.

This phrase took my breath away: "the ego's last minute attempts to stall the inevitable: its dissolution."

Thank you!

What Courtney is espousing here seems like a contemporary expression of the Old Testament law of gleaning described in Leviticus 19:9-10, and illustrated most memorably in the book of Ruth. The gleanings of a harvest were left for the poor to collect so that they could feed themselves with their own labor. It was both a way to practice economic justice and to acknowledge that all resources of the natural world belong to God.

While the idea of leaving “gleanings” of work for people who are less privileged and, therefore, more challenged to find opportunities sounds demeaning to the21st century ear, and with good reason, the spirit of the law of gleaning is one we would do well to embrace. In a time of growing economic inequality and concerns about work-life balance, the only sensible response is to share: share the work, share the wealth, create a good quality of life that can be shared by everyone.

I love this way of thinking about it. Thank you so much.

Thought provoking. Thank you


Love the notion that being busy has to do with the arrogance of assuming that we are THE ONLY ONE qualified to get the job done. YES! this notion resonates with me so very much. Thanks, as always, for your wisdom.

I feel I am pretty good at delegating and YET...I want to be IT at the beginning of any new work, I want to manage the contacts, manage the relationships and manage the work flow...all of which, I do, but there is a cost. I often find myself not available to those folks whose relationships I have cultivated, because I am too exhausted or/ and am on to the next exciting bit of work.... So learning how to gracefully be in the work, but to also let others in on the work and to trust that they will take care of those valuable relationships is my current task.

Courtney, thank you for this wise bit of self reflection. I can so relate to this notion that BUSYNESS is a form of arrogance, arrogance coming out of an assumption that only I can do this work and do it well.

I work in collaboration and have prided myself on empowering others to do the work. And YET. The truth is, that I want to manage the relationships I have cultivated in the work I am doing. I want to also be the one who makes the decisions, particularly at the beginning of a new venture. This is all well and good, but I find I cannot keep up with the level of intensive relating, that I often establish at the beginning of a new project. My task at this time, is to allow my very talented staff to do this work too.

love this,

Thank you for articulating this idea so beautifully. We have become addicted to busyness because we are afraid to fathom the alternative. Yet, the alternative is full of so much potential! It's a radical choice that allows us to explore a new reality, and I say a loud YES to that.

take to heart

Arrogance is a result of emptiness and low self esteem. Once you accept yourself and love who you have become you will be calm, not trying to impress anyone and be more accepting of others.

Is it not also somewhat arrogant to assume that busyness is somehow tied to privilege? I appreciate the spirit of the thought; however, busyness is sometimes tied to need as well. The single parent, for instance, working full time or more, and trying to also be present for his or her child, is vastly busy by need, not necessarily by choice. The assumption of busyness being an OPTION is in itself arrogant to a certain extent, in the assumption that one chooses to be overextended, over-hurried, over-taxed. There are those privileged among us to find ourselves in the enviable position of having the option to consider ourselves (whether intentionally or otherwise) superior to others for a certain task... and then there are those among us who simply do much because much is required. "Allowing" others around us a "chance" to shine in our absence is itself an arrogance, as much in the thinking as in the doing.

How interesting...that even in our thinking about busyness we view it from an economic/ social status bias. I thought Courtney's article fit for everyone until you made me consider an overworked, underpaid , often under- educated mom or dad working multiple jobs trying to provide a life for their children. They are certainly not busy through arrogance.

This really speaks to me, as an exercise I am re-writing this with my own honest issues inserted and it is truly enlightening!! I always really enjoy your work and your perspective.

I am twice your age at least, but I too have just begun, in the last two years, to suspect the arrogance in busyness. The specialness and the narcissism. Mine comes from over-achievement and over-education, if there can be such a thing! But in the frame of your context, there can be. I am delighted to hear your voice about this and will look for more (see what I mean?). My partner and I have taken the old saying "less is more" and turned it into "less is enough."

I'm really conflicted about some of what Courtney says here, including implications that busyness is somehow connected to privilege, but it's a provocative topic, and many of the thoughts in the article and the comments are well worth taking time from our busy days to contemplate.

Why we fill our days with seemingly endless activity has been discussed and debated forever, and there is probably not a one-size-fits-all explanation. If much of what most of us do in our essentially extra-curricular activities, those separate from what it takes to actually sustain our lives and the lives of those for whom we are legitimately responsible, were to suddenly cease, would it make much of a difference? Some of what would be lost might be missed for a while, but what's truly important and of value to people and society would probably carry on somehow.

Ms. Courtney,
Great post, like almost all your analysis of busyness . Only take small exception with use of "arrogance." That "Who do you think you are?" assessment is default mode for our blaming, shaming addictive culture we inherited from our caveman ancestors. I've done a lot of research into that and related areas; it looks to me like arrogance is at least partially a coverup for the fear of being inadequate in any of several ways. Too much more to say on that in this space. In line with the comment on ego dissolution but one step in front of it is the mere mortal knowledge that death awaits so really no amount of busyness or privilege can justify our finite existence. The default culture, in Western terms, is that we are inadequate. Unless, of course, you can claw your way to the top of the heap. Then you have to worry about the ones behind you seeking to displace you. Anxiety and fear ensue. The default culture must deny our spirituality and inherent worth without proof in order to maintain a structure built on shame, fear, and busyness. Nobody's fault, just the dysfunctional system we got stuck with. We are growing out of that. We must; it's an evolutionary dead end. You are on the right track. As one of my teachers said, we seek to get it progressively less wrong.