Detachment is really, really hard (or I got in trouble with HR)


The concept of detachment has been a recurring them throughout this project. The Stoics were, of course, huge advocates of the concept, and every religious tradition I’ve explored since teaches some form of it.

So you would think that after 6 months or so of studying detachment in various traditions that nothing in the world can bug me.

I wish…

Yesterday I got in trouble at work.

I helped deliver a quick workshop to my co-workers about writing self-assessments (you know, those things you write about your performance for your performance review). I thought it was fine. I was unprepared, but it was fine.

A few hours later I get an e-mail from my boss saying “The HR Director and I would like to meet with you tomorrow to give you some feedback on the workshop.”

That’s never good.

I was trying to think of what I said in this workshop that could have annoyed our HR Director and I narrowed it down to one thing.

During the course I mentioned that research shows women tend to underrate themselves, while men tend to overrate themselves, and to avoid that effect, it’s important to stick to results when writing self assessments.

That must have been it! Talking about the differences between men and women, if you’re not a woman, offends the corporate moralists.

And then I got angry.

I thought about how stupid it was that someone could be offended by fairly conclusive research that is actually relevant to my coworkers’ performance review.

I then imagined storming out of the meeting in a fit of righteous anger spouting out salient and insightful points about political correctness hindering our ability to have open discussions.

I continued brooding until my meeting the next morning.

When I arrived at the meeting, my boss and HR Director acted pleasant as usual (everyone at my company is unusually pleasant, kind of like Stepford Wives).

Then they started their “feedback” session.

“Hi Dale, thanks for coming in. We’d like to talk to you about the workshop yesterday.”


“Well I received a call from Joanne [Note: Joanne is another manager at the company who was at the workshop. I changed her name for anonymity] and she said you started off the presentation by asking the participants ‘What do you all find sucky about the self-assessment process?’”


“Well we believe that was in poor form and didn’t show proper respect for the performance management process at ACME which we work really hard on and blah blah blah….”

I won’t go into the whole conversation, but basically, the HR Director didn’t want to associate the word “sucky” with the performance management process she created. Surprisingly, it wasn’t about the research I cited.

In any case, I think she and Joanne are being overly sensitive.

This seems like a fairly trivial incident at work, but in my mind, it wasn’t.

It brought up a whole range of emotions from anger, to despair (about being stuck working with idiots), and existential angst (what’s the point of working?). It forced me to contemplate the type of person I was (am I someone that does things his way or am I someone that eats shit for a paycheck?) It also made me seriously consider quitting. Like, immediately, not in the near-future.

It was the opposite of being detached, it was emotional over-attachment!

I’ve become fairly good and letting little things go. If someone cuts me off on the highway, it doesn’t bother me for that long. If my flight gets delayed, no big deal.

But occasionally something happens to you that, for some reason, cuts really deeply.

In this particular case, my HR scolding upset me not because I thought this particular incident was especially troubling, but because it was so wrapped up in my deeper attitudes towards my work and myself.

It’s no secret that I don’t like my job, so of course, this incident (in my mind) is representative of everything that’s wrong with the company.

I also (probably falsely) view myself as an independent thinker and actor, and I resent having to misrepresent the way I view things to others. I think it’s dishonest.

I also have some deep-rooted anxieties about what it means to succeed in life. If I can’t hack it at a well compensated, fairly easy gig like the one I have now, what does that say about my ability to do anything else of note? Is my brain wired incorrectly?

This incident just shows how truly difficult it is to cultivate detachment. You think you’re doing great, and then all of a sudden, you realize how much of a mess you actually are.

The upside of realizing how non-detached you are is that you learn more about yourself. You learn more about your deep-rooted beliefs about yourself and how they affect your emotions and your actions.

As we become more knowledgeable, perhaps we’ll get a little closer to understanding what the Self really is, the Self with the big S. The Self that lets us connect with others and appreciate our lives as they are.

Perhaps I’ll even learn to appreciate the oversensitive nature of my HR Director…then I’ll know I’ve truly achieved moksha.