Sisyphus smiled: How to embrace the absurdity of the business

Grizzled Sisyphus, it is fair to say, did not make merry. Homer recounts in “The Odyssey” that his occupation would make your most exasperating workplace drudgery seem like an early-summer stroll down the Croisette:

And I saw Sisyphus at his endless task raising his prodigious stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over on to the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and the pitiless stone would come thundering down again on to the plain. Then he would begin trying to push it up hill again, and the sweat ran off him and the steam rose after him.

That’s about all we know about this mythological figure, whose tedious eternal punishment has for centuries unnerved readers. And in these short, dark,early-winter days, advertisers and publishers can easily see some of Sisyphus’ plight in their own trials. Digiday, for example, regularly reports on advertisers who put a lot of work into a campaign and, at the end of the day, have little assurance of its effectiveness. They stand on the hill with Sisyphus and watch, mouths agape, the stone tumble down to the plain. When the campaign is finished, they trudge on down and take up the next stone.

Others are frustrated in their attempts to find a way to adequately measure the effectiveness of new forms of technology. An anthem for digital media — or a subtitle to Digiday’s reporting — could be: How much should companies invest in advertising methods that cannot be adequately measured? Answers are invariably less than satisfying.

If you feel like Sisyphus more than you’d like to admit, take heart, for the French novelist and essayist Albert Camus wrote in the 1940s that we all have a bit of Sisyphus in us. Sisyphus represents human beings in the modern world. The argument starts with the premise that life is absurd because we are thrown into a situation, namely, life, where we desire to impose understanding and clarity on an irrational world. Too often, people go to extremes in confronting this problem: They either give in to the world’s irrationality (e.g., nihilists) or they become all the more resolute in imposing their ideas the world (e.g., most people). Camus maintains that both options are bound to fail.

Just another day at the office
Just another day at the office

The solution, such as it is, to the absurd condition of life is to simply become conscious of its absurdity. Once we acknowledge that the world is fundamentally at odds with our calculating minds, we can begin to live honestly. Camus believes that success is a matter of persisting without believing we will ever resolve the ambiguities that make up our lives. We exhibit courage in continually acknowledging our failures and plugging along in spite of them.

And so Sisyphus is a hero, not only for advertisers but for everybody living in the modern world. He is conscious of his absurd condition and can, therefore, not be entirely subject to it. Camus writes, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.” The victory is perhaps meager, but Camus believes it’s the most anyone could wish for in a world that is so opposed to our desire for order and control.

If you feel anxiety about your campaign’s metrics or the fuzziness of ROI this holiday season, find solace in the example of Sisyphus. Reject the false promise of clear understanding or evasive platitudes. Instead, embrace the absurdity of life, and keep persisting with a clear mind in tasks that have no certain outcome. And if your clients or co-workers are growing uneasy with the hazy metrics in a campaign, a holiday gift of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” available in translation and in paperback, may be just the thing.

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