The life-changing magic of reimagining our relationship with our work.

Why We Work

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.)

Schwarz writes:

“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. 

P.S. This fictional fall read tackles these questions from another direction (although the choices rang false to me). My current read approaches these big issues from a contemplative perspective.

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  1. Katia says:

    There are days when I stop to look at my work and ask myself, “What is the meaning of it all? Why do I continue to wake up every day and do this?” Some days, the answer is simply because it pays the bills and allows us to afford certain luxuries that we would not have otherwise been able to afford. It also gives me peace of mind by allowing me to invest money for the proverbial rainy day. On other days, the very good days, I remember how lucky I am to have an understanding boss and a comfortable place in which to work. Those simple factors are big factors. I would love to be able to spend more time at home with my family, so I find that balance by spending the entire weekend with my husband and our children, setting aside all other social plans, saying ‘no’ to whatever isn’t necessary in order to create more room for those who matter most. Some weeks are busy and rushed and others are more quiet, but to stay balanced, we must keep moving, making tiny adjustments to stay afloat and enjoy the journey, one day at a time.

  2. This is great, Anne! I was just listening to a TED talk on work, not sure if it’s the same one, but it’s got me thinking a lot about my attitude towards work in general.
    I love your point about work/life balance, how it’s really a false dichotomy since much of our life involves work (think motherhood!) I work 3 different jobs right now (piano teacher, music director, and blogger) so it can be easier for me to see how my work integrates with my life as I don’t go to an office for a set amount of hours and then come home. That being said, it can be hard to see the meaning sometimes (I’m sure every blogger worries about this at some point or another). I do love my jobs though, so I’m really thankful for that!
    Thanks for the book recommendations, I’m definitely going to have to put some of them on my to-read list!

  3. I guess for me the balance part comes from a need to be present. When you work at home, the lines blur somewhat, and when you work in your head :), it’s easy to be working all the time. I love what I do, but I need to also put it aside when it’s time.

    • Anne says:

      The lines do get blurry, don’t they? I struggle with not wanting to have lines between my “work” and the rest of my life, and NEEDING to have those lines. I hope you understand what I’m talking about. 🙂

  4. Jessica says:

    A Ted-talk book series – be still my heart! Like you, the phrase “work/life balance” irritates me. I think it’s the use of the word “work.” I resent the implication that life isn’t work (and that work is drudgery not to be enjoyed). It might be more palatable if the phrase were “job/life balance” or “career/life balance.”

  5. renee @ FIMBY says:

    great post Anne. I love talking about stuff like this because I am very keen about learner/worker motivation.

    I also think about meaningful work as it pertains to raising children who will become workers, doers, producers.

    What are the messages I am sending my kids? How am I raising them to view work- paid & unpaid? I want my kids to find meaning in their work but that can’t simply be related to actual task, it must be in how we perceive our work, the role it plays in society, in the organizations we work for, in our families.

    And having gone through a family shake-down in the last 12 months in which my husband and I returned to our traditional – bread-winner/homemaker working roles – we have pondered the work, life, meaning, purpose nebula *a lot*.

    Work/life balance has never been part of my vocabulary since most of my work is unpaid mothering/homecare/homeschooling work. My life is my work and vice versa. And when I was working more in non-home/family related things (in the past four years) it was all borne out of my own visioning and crafting work that felt intrinsically meaningful to me.

    The big thing I’m wrestling with is how to create paid work in my life (we are in a season of bread-winner/homemaker, but it’s just that, a season), what that looks like, etc… Having guided my own vocation ship now for nearly 20 years (calling the shots as homemaker, mother, etc.) I really have a hard time envisioning working for someone doing work which is not, in and of itself, meaningful.

    I have never questioned the “meaning” in mothering/homeschooling or home-related work. For me it is rich in meaning and purpose (and control, to be perfectly honest). The fact that I want my paid work to be “meaningful, creative, fulfilling and self-directed” feels like first-world privilege.

    Your post also reminds me that I’ve been wanting to read Schwarz’s book ever since reading about it at Brainpickings.

    • Anne says:

      This means a lot, coming from you, because I know how intentional you are in your approach to your life and your work. I also love the way you used the word “nebula” to refer to your day-to-day.

  6. Meg says:

    I love this post and agree with you that work is very much a part of “real life”.
    My favorite book on this subject is Garden City by John Mark Comer, I am sure you’d enjoy this fascinating take on work & life.

  7. Danae says:

    I am in the middle of a career change because my previous job, which I found to be very meaningful work, was often in conflict with my priorities in other spheres of life. It was a good and fulfilling job, but I realized that work was the main source of imbalance in my life. As I researched other career fields and my personality/interests, I discovered a host of other jobs could fulfill my sense of vocation without the unhealthy aspects of my previous career. I feel fortunate to have access to the tools needed to change careers, and I fervently hope my kids learn the value of hard work, perseverance, and creativity when they enter the work force.

  8. Rachel says:

    I really needed this today; thank you! I’ve found it difficult lately to see the meaning in what I do, because regulations and internal politics have been limiting the creative side of my job. This what just what I needed to remind me to think about the bigger picture again.

  9. Coleen says:

    I’m one of those people who has mentioned work/life balance to a friend, only to unintentionally annoy her. Oops. What I realized when I reflected on that interaction was that she and I interpreted that phrase differently. What I *really* meant when I said it was, “Do you have margin in your life?” because as I’ve gotten older, I long for (and choose to create) more blank space in my life, space that isn’t filled with tasks or errands or official work. At least for me, it’s those spaces that I find rejuvenating and (when I’m honest) I find God speaking most clearly. It’s also unplanned time for the spontaneous “Yes, I can watch your kid.” or “Sure, let’s grab coffee.” or to just ponder and wonder more.

  10. Ciera says:

    Really interesting points. “Work/life balance” is such a common phrase so I like how it’s being challenged.

    One thing that helps me stay positive about my job situation is my co-workers. They are wonderful people and we talk outside of work, which helps blur that dichotomy.

  11. Diana says:

    It’s all about an “attitude of gratitude” and for me, being the best at whatever I do.
    I, fortunately, have a job that challenges me, gives me a great deal of autonomy,
    pays well and fills my idealistic needs “to create justice”. But when I was a waitress,
    I enjoyed that too. I always looked for ways to improve. I give 110% and it
    usually comes back as 120% (great if you’re living on tips). If you do more then you are paid to do, eventually, you will be paid more then you do. Of course believing in the “magic” of every situation doesn’t hurt either. You are magic!

  12. Lindsey says:

    Sometimes it’s just finding a job your can be content in. I took a glorified warehouse job to get out of the drama at my loan dept bank job. Even taking a little pay cut to do it. Surprisingly I’m very content where I’m at because I have 8 hours a day to be by myself and listen to audio books. Heaven!:)

    • Florence Katono says:

      At the end of the day we choose to be happy with the choices we make. Congratulations, a job that allows you to be you is the one. Forget the titles.

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