A Caution Against Letting Your Career and Work Define Your Happiness


As with all things, work must find a balance with the rest of your life,
not define it. 

Today I want to discuss the role that work plays in our lives. I have been thinking about this often over the last several months. Over the course of many of my recent posts you have probably heard me bring up work, typically in a less that favorable light. I have discussed how we have allowed our work to define us, and our career success or failures have come to deeply affect how we perceive ourselves. I have talked about how sometimes, in order to be successful at work we have made sacrifices that we may have been better off not making. An example would be, and I believe this is one I may have used before, that we sacrifice time at home with our family because we want to work on a project that we believe will make or break or career. Or another example might be that we have to make a tough decision and layoff a few hundred employees, a decision that will save the company money and make us look good, in the light of work anyway, but that puts several hundred families in a tremendously difficult situation. 

I don’t mean to say that all forms of work or bad, or that work is inherently bad, or that you are wrong for taking pride in what you do. I do believe that decisions that are made based on our perception of how it will help our finances or boost our career often require us to sacrifice or abandon our morals for a certain time or perhaps even permanently. This is a huge issue. Additionally, by now we are well aware of the dangers of putting our love, or our perception of selves, our identity, in any sort of externality which includes of course our career. As soon as we identify ourselves in this way, we run the risk of facing serious harm as this is an externality that can be easily changed or taken away. 

As I was browsing the internet last night, I came across a recent Atlantic article that a friend of mine had posted. The article was titled “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” written by Derek Thompson and was published February 24, 2019 (you can read the full article here). It is a bit old but its relevance really resonated with me especially given my views on work lately. Workism, Thompson describes is “It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” I think that Thompson is 100% accurate in recognizing this as a serious crisis and while his article focuses on Americans, given the scope of his research, but I think we can easily say that this is a worldwide crisis and is likely even more pronounced in certain cultures like China or Japan to make a few assumptions off the top of my head. 

It bothers me greatly that work, producing material and financial value has become the single greatest focus of our entire society. Thompson sited a Pew poll where 95% of surveyed teens said that having a “job or career they enjoy” was very important to them which was higher than both helping those in need (81%) and getting married (47%). While there is nothing wrong with enjoying your work, I think this poll goes to show just how important work has become to us. 

Though this is not inherently bad, it can lead to unhappiness down the road. One of the issues associated with workism in today’s world is the nature of most jobs. For the second half of the 20th century, most jobs were centered around production and building, jobs that produced tangible things for which one could feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. Starting with the tech boom of the 90s, more jobs turned to a white-collar nature and results are made in sales, excel sheets, formulas, programs, conversations and such, not in tangible results. This has created a more desperate craving of attention and has created a void where many are less satisfied though no less concerned about their work and careers. 

I think it is great if someone is able to discover their passion and turn that passion into something that yields them financial success, enabling them to provide shelter, food, and enjoy a certain quality of life. There is nothing wrong with that. But how many people can say they are lucky enough to do something they love for work. I myself left a job I truly loved, being a strength coach who helped people reach their health and fitness goals, largely because I needed a higher paying job to pay the bills I had accumulated over the years. I now work a job which I am grateful to have, but about which the nicest things I can about it are that it pays enough to cover my living expenses, and gives me ample free time to do things I love like write my blog. It pains me to think how many people spend the majority of their waking time doing an unrewarding job and being miserable simply because it is the only way they know how to provide for themselves and their family. 

Are you living to work, or working to live?
Remember your why.

The goal of work used to be to work for free time. Now work has become an end rather than a mean, where the reward of work is often more work. Ours is a society where foregoing sleep, vacation, family time, and our health for the sake of more hours in the office has become a badge of honor or a status simple in of itself. From the time we are children, we are taught that our purpose in life is to go to college and to get a good job, with the requisites for a job being good typically being dependent on the amount of money one gets from doing it. We are taught to forego our happiness until we reach a certain point in our career, believing that there is some milestone which once reached, then we can be happy and content, although the farther one gets the more that milestone tends to move further and further away, creating a false summit type scenario that any seasoned mountain climber would be familiar with. 

The reason I bring this up is because I believe that the more we fall into this trap of workism, the more unhappy we become. We are either one of the few people lucky enough to have a job we truly love, but one that ultimately consumes us, removing any previous sense of passion we may have had and leading us further and further from what is truly important: friends, family, time to reflect and be grateful; or, we work a job we don’t love, toiling for hours and hours simply to afford the right to exist with any manner of security on this planet. 

It pains me to see the world in such a state. I don’t know if I can truly offer any advice here. If I could, what I would suggest is remind ourselves that while we may not live in a society where we can get by without working at all, that there has to be a limit. There must be a point where we can be content and realize, this is enough. I won’t work those ten extra hours because what I am already doing is enough to provide my family with food and shelter, and I would rather now spend those 10 hours in the company of loved ones. On the matter of those who work unfulfilling jobs, I recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to have a job they love, but I believe that we as a society do need to come up with a solution, such that anyone who works for 40-50 hours a week ought to be able to provide a living through such, and not forced to tack on an additional 20-30 hours just to make ends meet. Even those who don’t work, and many are unable to despite their willingness, out to be cared for on some level. I know this opens up the door to laziness and those who would take advantage of the system. Be that as it may, as automation grows and the human population rises, we are fast approaching a scenario where there simply will not be enough jobs to go around, and so long as we are a society where only those who work are able to afford to live, we have a serious problem on our hands. 

Do not let work define you, and do not let it consume you

In conclusion, what I would like to leave you all with is a caution against letting your work consume you. You are not your job. Your success in work does not define your worth as a human. To those who are trapped in work they don’t enjoy, I dream of a world where we can all be able to provide a living without being required to devote the majority of our existence into something that makes us miserable. To those who are lucky enough to truly love what they do, congratulations. But remember why you are working. If it is a cause that helps others great. If not, that is fine to, as long as it does no harm. But don’t lose sight of what is truly important in life, our own well being and our connections with close friends and family. Do not let work become all consuming and do not let it define you. Keeping this in mind will help you maintain a sense of happiness throughout your life. 

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