I’ve never been a fan of the phrase “work/life balance,” because it implies that work and life are separate things, in competition with each other. Shouldn’t one’s work be part of one’s real life?
What I didn’t realize was that for many people, the answer to this question is a resounding no.
I’ve been thinking about a book I read earlier this fall called Why We Work by Barry Schwartz (who changed my life with his work on the paradox of choice), and it’s based on his TED talk about the meaning of work. (This book is part of TED’s new book series that invites authors to expand popular TED talks into hundred-ish page books, including Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere and Margaret Heffernan’s Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes.)
“Work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90 percent of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.”
Most of us want more than lowest common denominator, just-pay-the-bills work. Sure, there are those who tend to believe that most people are only in it for the money, and that anyone who considers more in their personal equation is either lucky or stupid. But Schwartz makes the point that for centuries, people have sought meaning in their work. We need to believe what we do has purpose, whether we’re diapering babies’ bums or sending satellites into space.
That’s where the book gets interesting. Schwartz profiles people who are deeply satisfied with their work, even in professions that don’t seem to lend themselves to it, like hospital custodians.
He also shares stories from people who feel utterly meaningless in their work, even in professions they entered because they felt called to it, like teaching, or law, or medicine. I was horrified to learn how easily good work situations can turn into bad ones, as happens when skilled teachers—in an effort to idiot-proof the curriculum—are stripped of their autonomy and forced to follow inflexible scripts.
But the reverse is also true: I was encouraged to hear how workers find meaning in jobs that we don’t often think of as being callings, or careers, like that hospital custodian. On paper, his tasks include mopping floors, cleaning toilets, and collecting soiled linens. But in practice, the custodian sees himself as crucial to fulfilling the hospital’s aims of promoting health, curing illness, and relieving suffering. Everything he does contributes to the hospital’s mission—and that includes not just his cleaning duties, but the numerous daily interactions he has with patients and their families. He considers telling jokes, sharing encouraging words, and not vacuuming while a patient’s family sleeps important parts of his job.
Why We Work is aimed squarely at managers and policy makers, who have the power to decide when workers will retain autonomy, and when they’ll be replaced with stupid scripts. But there are big takeaways for the rest of us—the workers actually doing all this work—as well.
For starters, stop referring to it as a balance. Your work is part of your life; your life is part of your work.
If your work stinks, begin by acknowledging it. Then you can get to fixing it. Borrow a few of Schwartz’s mind tricks to pinpoint where the real meaning lies in your work, and figure out how to nudge it in the direction of “better,” or transform it entirely.
If your work feels irredeemable, acknowledge that. If it’s not feasible or smart to take the big step of leaving, plot your baby steps, the first of which is to listen to this episode of Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons where she interviews Rob Bell about coping with a horrible job.
(I’m hesitant to make this a blanket recommendation, but I’ll say this: if my thirty-something self could go back in time and drop some knowledge on twenty-something me, I would urge her to consider a bit of Marie Kondo for my work life. She says that useful things—toothbrushes, toilet plungers, life insurance documents—spark joy in their service to us, even if we don’t realize it, because they’re helping us every day. I would tell myself to consider my job, and how useful it is to afford to pay rent and buy groceries and health insurance. If that’s too woo-woo for you, go listen to Rob Bell again.)
There is great potential in reimagining how we work, and why. Pay attention to how these factors play out in your daily life, and figure out how to eek a little—or a lot—more meaning and satisfaction out of it. We do need some autonomy and discretion to be happy at work—even if it’s only in our minds—but the rest? It’s up to us.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about work, life, balance, meaning, satisfaction, vocation, and life-changing magic in comments.