My job is to write, to research, to do the things a journalist should do. However, if I define myself as a writer I fall into a trap. Am I a writer in the evening when I’m watching TV with my wife? Am I a writer when I’m eating Sunday brunch at my favorite restaurant?
Am I a writer when I’m on vacation? What if I decided to do a different job? Does what I do in my job always have to define who I am and therefore dictate my relationships, my outlook, even my moods?
Not really. I’ve read a lot of articles about work. Actually, the articles were about life integration instead of work, and this concept worries me. My identity should be bigger than what I do to collect a paycheck.
“I think, therefore I am,” somehow, has evolved into “I work, therefore I am.”
Work-life balance is difficult even in normal times. But now the home has become the office for millions of Americans and working hours spread into personal hours in ways that many are struggling with. Experts have said that it’s more important than ever to not tie your entire identity, especially your life satisfaction, to the thing you do to pay the bills.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
This is how it starts. You are in school and the teacher says, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The silence is soon brightened with children’s wishes of becoming doctors, soccer players, astronauts, dancers, bus drivers, bakers. I’m too old to remember what, specifically, I said in answer to this question. But I am sure of this, I did not say I want to grow up to be a strong and kind person. A creative person. A good friend. An employee with a high work ethic. Sure, I didn’t even know some of these concepts back when I was ten. Yet even from such a young age, when the kids could say literally anything (for example, I want to be a bird) they opt for an answer that indicates a profession.
It can be a perfect feeling when you actually love your job and feel fulfilled by the way you earn your paycheck. But even if you love what you do it can be risky to have so much of yourself tied up in your job. In fact, it’s a good thing for your mental health if your job doesn’t define you. Yet today, it’s hard not to let your career entirely define you since our culture has a way of making everyone feel like what they do for a living has something to do with their self-worth as a person. It’s not easy to break out of that mindset, especially when you’re in social circles or settings that end up being all about your job.
Historically, the way social classes have always broken down makes it so that people are often classified by what they do (you know, the whole “white collar” and “blue collar” job thing). But just because the economy changed and social classes have become somewhat malleable doesn’t mean that we aren’t putting each other into little boxes based on career experience. We are. All the time.
If you absolutely revere your job and are proud of what you do, you might not notice these conditions. But when you sort of hate what you do or view it just as a means to an end towards paying rent or buying groceries, you will definitely know what I am talking about.
It’s not just that people are constantly asking what you “do” at parties or family holiday gatherings. Even social media sites want you to list your place of work or some creative way to describe your paid labor. You even have to do it on dating apps!
What we do for a living, however, doesn’t always match our personalities. And sometimes the stereotypes of certain professions aren’t always true. For example, insurance reps aren’t all boring or callous and graphic designers aren’t all laid back. Just like any other stereotype, there are always a lot of exceptions. Nursery school teachers can be dreadful.
The truth is, it’s just as risky to tie your personality to your job as it is to assume things about people based on what they do for a living. It’s not just dangerous to judge other people based on their jobs, but it’s also awful to judge yourself based on your job. It’s OK to love your work, and even to dedicate a ton of time to your career, but remember, you are only bringing to your job whatever you already are, for better or worse.
Work-life balance, anyone?
When you love your job and are at the top of your game, it can be hard to realize you have hobbies and other interests. If you don’t like your job, or are somewhat unsatisfied with it, your self-esteem can plummet. It can make you feel useless in other aspects of your life, which is almost certainly not true. But that’s not easy to remember when you’re working a job you don’t feel proud of or don’t really care about.
If you measure your value as a human being by your job, what happens when you get laid off or decide in ten years that your job is not everything you want out of life? What happens when you retire? The trick is to find a work-life balance, which can be hard.
A lot of industries are super insular so it might feel like all your friends are people you work with. If you freelance or do creative work it can be exhausting, since there really is no such thing as a day off when there’s always a new project to start or develop.
It can be tough not to think of your job as your identity. But it’s worth the effort. There’s a lot more to life than how you make your paycheck. And, by the way, the next time you’re at a party ask someone about their last vacation or what they like to do on Sunday afternoon instead of their job title. You’ll have a much more interesting conversation.
How did we build a world where our work became our identity?
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with the rise of new -isms. Some people worship beauty or health, some worship political identities, some worship social media….but everybody worships something. And workism might be the most potent of these new “religions.” What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to pay the bills but also the center piece of one’s identity and purpose and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage work.
No country in the world averages more hours of work than the U.S. In 1980, the highest earning people actually worked fewer hours than middle class or lower class people. By 2005, the richest ten per cent had the longest work week. In the same time, college-educated men reduced their leisure time more than any other group. It is fair to say that, as a country, we have transformed ourselves into the world’s premier workaholics.
This shift flies in the face of economic logic and economic history. The rich have always worked less than the poor because they could afford to. The landed gentry of preindustrial Europe dined, danced, and gossiped while serfs toiled without end. In the early 20th century, rich Americans spent months on vacation, attended concerts, and dabbled in sports. Today, rich Americans can afford down time, but they have used their work to buy more work.
In the past century, Americans’ concept of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings, and from necessity to status to meaning. In an agrarian, early-manufacturing economy, when tens of millions of people routinized tasks, there were no delusions about the higher purpose of, say, planting corn or screwing bolts. It was just a job. The rise of the professional class and corporate bureaucracies in the 20th century created the modern journey of a career as a narrative arc bending toward a set of precious initials: VP, SVP, CFO, CEO.
As technology boomed, efficiency skyrocketed and the number of college graduates gradually increased almost everywhere in the world. People started shaping the following idea in their minds: I want a job that does more than pay the bills. I want a purpose. Meaning. I want to help society.
Abundance of choice, pressure to choose. We can go anywhere and achieve anything. The world is so globalized that we now have it in the palm of our hands. We have thousands of professions to choose from, just as many universities and cities, and we are expected to know it all before we finish high school.
Yet, this huge choice can be paralyzing. Failure to figure out what you want to do by the time you turn 17 is automatically considered a failure of you as a person. Workism: It is more important what you do than who you are as a person.
Without our work, and without loving our work, we feel lost. Society pressures us to perform; this is the era of results, of efficiency, of high GPAs and even higher bank account statements. We now live in a time we direct most (if not all) of our efforts into procuring these. And our identity gets all wrapped up in the mix.
However, have you noticed how work centrality is also changing the job market? In job postings, companies no longer only write that they seek an employee but also what they offer as an employer. “Young, driven startup. Flexible working hours. Flat hierarchy. Fun, creative, socially-engaging atmosphere.
Modern, technologically-advanced, innovative environment that enables you to put your talents into action. Open-mind dynamics where you will learn from the best experts and enjoy what you do.”
The trick is, they aren’t really writing what the company is all about. They’re writing about what we need to be to fit in. By knowing that more people identify with their jobs, they search for the people who identify with what their company represents. This is how, day to day, we slowly start to equate everything that we are to everything that our job is.
Thus, we have created this idea that the meaning of life should be found in work. We tell young people that their work should be their passion. Don’t give up until you find a job you love. You should be changing the world. That is the consistent message in commencement addresses, pop culture, and social media.
Long hours does not equal higher job satisfaction.
But desks were never meant to be worshipped. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking enlightenment at the office. It’s hard to self-actualize on the job if you are a cashier (one of the most common occupations in the US) and even the best white collar jobs have long periods of repetitiveness, boredom, or busywork. This mismatch between expectations and reality is a recipe for disappointment, if not outright angst.
Long hours don’t make anybody more productive or creative; they make people stressed and bitter. Recently interns at Goldman Sachs revolted at working 100 hours per week. Yet the overwork myth survives because it justifies the extreme wealth created for a group of elite techies. There is something infernal about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck.
It never ceases to amaze me that young people have been persuaded that income comes second, that no job is “just a job,” and that the only real reward for work is the glow of purpose. It’s a game that creates a prize so alluring, but yet so rare, that almost nobody wins but everybody feels obligated to play.
Sure, professional success boosts our confidence. However, even when our work obsession leads us to high-functioning depression or success-driven anxiety, we keep on pushing. We consider this behavior normal, and not worrisome, because how can we even think that wanting to work, to succeed, to become someone, can be bad for us? And, of course, we’re willing to sacrifice plenty to achieve these goals.
Some solutions to workism (that might actually work)
Workism offers a perilous trade off. On the one hand, America’s high regard for hard work may be responsible for its special place in history (and its special place in world history) and our reputation as the global capital of startup success stories. A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. However, workism can also lead to nihilism. Our jobs were never meant to consume us and everything we stand for.
One solution to this would be to make work less awful. This seems unlikely in a lot of situations. The better prescription would be to make work less central.
By avoiding the risk to get lost in your job, you are not only taking care of yourself and your psychological well-being, but you are also protecting your self-identity. Separating your work from the way you perceive your self-worth is the best way to build resilience and overcome challenges at work. How does this work practically speaking? Have hobbies. Have interests. Pursue goals outside of work. Spend time with your family. Spend time with your dog! Spend time outside in nature (always calming and centering when you begin to think that the world is revolving around you and your job).
Meditate. Take time to cultivate friendships. Learn something new….not a new job skill!
Meditate. Take time to cultivate friendships. Learn something new….not a new job skill! Take a vacation. Use up all your vacation time! Shut off your phone sometimes. If you’re working from home, allocate hours specifically for work and specifically for not work….and be obedient to your self-allocated times! If you’re working in an office, try not to bring your work home with you. Take care of your health. Pray. Plan fun activities for your off-times: nights out with friends, a weekend at the beach or in the mountains, book clubs, game nights, a concert, a sporting event….always have something fun to look forward to on the calendar. Read a book (or several). Watch a movie (or several). You get the idea. Not all of these ideas are for everyone, but there is something for everyone!
Remember, you are more than your job.