This is the way the world ends

The Mayans were quite an advanced civilization. They had agriculture, written language and, as we’ve been learning in story after story this week, a calendar. Mayan civilization itself ended hundreds of years ago, but the calendar ticked along until….December 21, 2012.

Cue the scary music! A sizable proportion of the population, it seems, believes the world will end with the end of the Mayan calendar. NASA went so far as to hold a Google chat where people could ask questions about whether asteroids or other celestial bodies were hurtling toward earth. Astronomers assured people that nothing is scheduled to hit this week. Indeed, the end of the Mayan calendar isn’t quite the story it seems at first glance. When our own calendar “ends” on December 31 every year, we don’t worry about doomsday scenarios. We know the calendar simply starts over again, and likewise, if the Mayans were still around, I’m guessing they would have celebrated the end of one (long) calendar and the beginning of another.

But it raises the usual doomsday questions. Here’s one a friend posed in an email recently: if you thought the world was ending, would you still go to work?

I imagine most of us would not choose to face an imminent doomsday scenario by leaving our loved ones, battling traffic (would there still be rush hour?) and then sitting in a beige office sending emails about a meeting we’d prefer not to attend anyway, scheduled to take place some time in the future. The future! We’d spend our precious few days with people we loved, doing things we loved.

Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. But let’s take a minute to define “imminent.” It means hanging over one’s head. Impending. About to happen. Forthcoming. The reality is that all of our own personal worlds will be ending at some point. If you’re reading this, the odds are good that your (and my) personal doomsday scenarios will happen in the next 60 years. Sixty years is kind of a blip, cosmically. It certainly will take place a long time before the next Mayan calendar flip-over (October 13, 4772).

So in other words, we’re all facing an imminent doomsday scenario. And yet we keep going to work, which for some folks at least means leaving our loved ones and battling traffic to send emails about a meeting no one wanted to attend anyway. We say we wouldn’t do that if we knew the world was ending. But we do know the world is ending. Life is a terminal condition.

To be sure, civilization would grind to a halt if we didn’t distinguish between doomsday in a week, and doomsday in the next half-century. We can hunker in our homes, but eventually we have to eat, which means earning money to do so. Nonetheless, I think there’s a case to be made for at least keeping the doomsday scenario in the back of your head as you evaluate how you’re spending your time. There are many reasons we work, but 40 hours per week is a lot to spend on something you don’t enjoy and find meaningful, given that an asteroid is hurtling toward your own personal existence, and eventually all of our Mayan calendars won’t flip over again.

Does your life’s work fit in with the doomsday scenario?

In other news: check out the update of my website, with links to a specific page devoted just to the What the Most Successful People Do… series. The next ebook, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend, will be out on December 31.

Photo courtesy flickr user amber.kennedy


2 thoughts on “This is the way the world ends

  1. I don’t like those mental exercises because they seem to assume that what we would want to do in a short period of time is the same as what we would want to do over a long period of time. That is, they don’t get marginal utility. If I had a short period of time left obviously I would want to spend my time with my family and not working (not to mention eating decadent and expensive food). But long-term only being with my family would start to grate on me and I’d yearn for something outside of that, or I’d get fat or start disliking the special food and I’d have no money for retirement. Which leaves me where I go to work and do projects that will gratify me in the long-term, even if they sometimes annoy me in the short term, and to eat healthy foods on a moderate budget. Yes yes, I know they’re supposed to get us to think about what really makes us happy and they assume we aren’t already maximizing our utility with our revealed preferences… but I think such exercises also lead to bad feelings and sub-optimization.
    Or as Lucy say around minute 3:40 :

  2. Good news is: It’s 25 December and the world is still turning (unless of course I’m dreaming this up in the afterlife…) As to the doomsday question: My problem is that unless there is sufficient evidence that the world is coming to an end (is there an asteroid?) I won’t believe it and I would carry on like on every other day. I would go to work. What if I was certain that it would come to an end? I don’t know but I probably would take the day off and spend the time with my family, e.g. go for a walk to create good memories (in case there are memories after the end of the world is over).

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