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What’s Wrong With Work?

Earning a living shouldn’t be at odds with life.
I have a niece who is not yet five. The last time I babysat, she was jolted awake by a bad dream. As I lay with her soothing her back to sleep, she confessed (with a tangible level of stress): “I don’t know what to be when I grow up!” The worry of what to do for work was literally keeping this child up at night. How did this happen? What is it in our environment that is already putting career pressure on children? I can’t help but see this is a symptom of a larger issue — a cultural obsession with defining ourselves by what we do, not who we are.
I’ve always dreaded the question “what do you do?” To me, it feels unimaginative and betrays a work-centric worldview. The cycle of living to work can feel inescapable (already) so it worries me when work becomes our first way of relating to each other. The more that mainstream culture becomes a cult of consumption, the more tied we are to production, earnings, and deriving meaning from external things like titles and objects.
I recently went through a period of forced unemployment due to injury. I was unprepared for the existential upset this caused, and (surprisingly) it had nothing to do with income. Despite having experimented with off-grid living, and written a thesis deconstructing our cultural orientation to production, I felt weird about not working— like I wasn’t pulling my weight. On the other hand, I felt so much happier: I was escaping a job I hated and suddenly had time to spend with friends, focus on my wellbeing, and reconnect with my writing. I was volunteering, keeping busy with passion projects and contributing to my community in other ways. So why all the guilt?

Despite knowing that a person’s value is so much more than how they make money, capitalist conditioning runs deep and the concern for productivity is embedded in us.

What it took to counter this guilt was a conscious process of reminding myself that, in truth, there’s no such thing as a human being who is “unproductive”, there are only people whose contribution, under capitalism is not valued.
When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve. — Adam Grant
We all need meaning to maintain our mental health, and there are many ways to derive this meaning: family, spirituality, creative pursuits, or social groups but work seems to be the default identity pillar. This isn’t problematic in itself but I think we should be asking: what’s all the work for?

It’s important to think about the time trade you’re making, and whether it’s aligned with the vision you have for yourself, and society. Healthy self-reflection requires space, slowness, and solitude. If we’re to be satisfied with the way we spend our days, we need to carve out moments to check in with ourselves, to ask whether what we’re doing is serving our goals and values. And if not, what are we willing to do about it?
I’m not ignoring the realities of survival employment, and the privilege it is to be picky about work — believe me, I’m all too familiar with precarious employment and overdrawn accounts. BUT if you find yourself reading this article, I dare say you’re in a position to make a change, or are at least thinking about it. Putting off happiness until some future moment where you have the right title, or amount in your bank account is probably not the path to satisfaction.
There’s a huge body of research on the fact that happiness gained via external sources is not sustainable; once the novelty wears off we go through a process (hedonistic adaptation) whereby achieving the thing we wanted produces a peak of pleasure, which becomes normalized over time. You might think that that promotion is the key to happiness, but once the win sinks in it’s in our nature to return to a baseline. This adaptation keeps us on the hamster wheel of pursuing happiness in that next purchase or promotion and ignores the fact that content is something which must be cultivated internally.
I get it, rent is ridiculous these days, and we don’t all feel a lot of freedom of choice when it comes to employment but consider this:

We don’t buy things with money, we buy them with hours from our lives: “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Henry David Thoreau

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

In urban centers, and everywhere, consumerism has been woven into our cultural DNA. To me, this looks like “hustle” mentality, and the pride gained from gloating about how swamped we are. Being passionate about your work is one thing, but accepting the notion that success means constant stress and sacrifice in other parts of life is misguided. This is a recipe for burnout and a setup for self-loathing.
If you’re looking for the perfect job, you may want to change your perspective. It’s less about a set of ideal conditions and more about finding something that feels good. If you actively resent the work you’re doing, moving away from that will be a step in the right direction. You don’t have to know the end goal, but daily seething is not serving you.

I’m not suggesting you look for your passion — in fact, I think that’s misleading.

There’s SO much out there urging us to follow our passion, but this gives us the impression that there’s a singular predestined path for all of us. It’s confusing and leads to the feeling that until this elusive, singular passion presents itself to us, fulfilling work won’t be possible.
On a deeper level, it denies that we are multifaceted beings — complex and constantly evolving creatures with a huge range of skills, interests, and potential paths.
Rather than driving yourself crazy trying to choose a singular pursuit for the rest of time, reflect on the activities that bring you joy, or have in the past and start there. The process of finding work that is more aligned with what you want to do isn’t necessarily a cerebral activity. Follow the flow. What activity makes you lose track of time? When do you feel engaged, challenged, rewarded, and in your element? What are your longstanding interests? When do you feel fulfilled? These are the feelings to follow…
Before making any changes, you may want to reflect on your relationship to work. Have you bought into the hustle mentality — is it making you happy? Does your work define you, or are you able to separate identity from income? Would lifestyle changes (i.e. spending less) allow you more freedom in relation to work? Next, consider what is in your power to change. If it’s the case that you can’t make a work transition right now, it may be possible to change your perspective — find the pieces of the work that are stimulating or aligned and focus on those.
Remind yourself, your value is in who you are, not what you do. If being a baker makes you happy, go do that! If being a banker seems swanky but makes you miserable, make a change. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish; it serves those around you to do the work you want to.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman


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