Work and Life

What importance should one assign to work? What is the ideal “work-life” balance?

Perhaps many have been thinking of this especially as life hit a momentary pause with the pandemic situation. I have heard of people being impacted by layoffs, demotivation, disengagement and long hours. At the same time, many also found time to reinvent themselves and explore other options. When our routine and auto-pilot mode breaks down, questions around work are bound to come up, at least for the professional class folks.

I used to think about work in the narrow sense of my job, but as I reflected more on it, I realized it cannot be separated from its broader interpretation. Work can encompass our day job or even other activities in life, whether measured by monetary income or not. It could mean different things to different people. We may have choice over some work but not over other. Generally, some work is critical for human survival, other may be more discretionary. Over time, I have developed a deep interest in the topic of work, from my own life experience as well as from an angle of economics and philosophy.

In this post, I wanted to share some of the interesting content I came across on the topic of work. It may not exactly answer the bigger questions as one has to ultimately figure that out by themselves. But it could provide some perspective on ways to think about work.

  • “Should Work Be Passion, or Duty?” – an article in NYTimes that I shared in my prior post: The essence of the article as I saw it was “Stoics see duty everywhere — or rather, they see life as a collection of duties, including but not limited to your job.”
  • I have seen that few years into daily jobs, many of us start thinking about side hustles, passive income or even get inspired by the FIRE Movement (Financial Independence/Retire Early). I have been there too and came across this book called “Your Money or Your Life” by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Sharing some relevant content from the chapter, “For Love or Money: Valuing Your Life Energy – Work and Income” –
    • Valuing life energy by how well you spend your time – Are you getting full value for selling that most precious commodity – your life? Does work work for you? Sometimes you have to question the obvious in order to get the truth.
    • What is work? Common wisdom says work is what we do to make a living. That definition robs us of our life. Some of us honor our jobs and neglect rest of our lives. Some of us endure our jobs and make up for it on the evenings and weekends. Some of us work from home and never get downtime. Some piece together several jobs in the gig economy but BYOB (be your own boss) consumes every waking hour. Some of us love our work or did once and hope to again but find our personal vision constrained by board, supervisors, funders or investors. When work equals what you do for money, it means the work of our free times is of lesser value. We fail to value our life energy and often feel helpless about making changes. What we will be exploring now is whether our definition of work itself is heart of the problem. How well are you using your life energy both on and off the job?
    • Just as with money, our concept of work consists of a patchwork of contradictory beliefs, thoughts and feelings. Notions we have absorbed from our parents, culture, the media and our life experience. The following quotations highlight the incongruity of definitions of work –
      • E.F Schumacher, an influential twenty-first century economist says the three purposes of human work are as follows: To provide useful and necessary goods and services; To enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards; To do so in service to and in cooperation with others so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn ego centricity.
      • Late economist Robert Theobald tells us work is defined as something that people do not want to do and money is the reward that compensates for the unpleasantness of the work.
      • Studs Turkel begins his book, “Working” this way: This book being about work is by its very nature about violence to the spirit as well as to the body. Its about ulcers as well as accidents about shouting matches, about fistfights about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is above all or beneath all, about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us. It is about a search too for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.
      • Twentieth century poet Khalil Gibran on the other hand tells us that work is love made visible.
    • In preindustrial times, men hunted and women gathered for about 2.5 days. Families would rest, plan events and visit during rest of the days. This suggests that three hours a day could be sufficient for survival. Then came the “labor-saving” Industrial Revolution and the compartmentalization of life into work and non-work. Work has ceased being a means to an end and become an end in itself. Meaning, justification, purpose, and even salvation were now sought in work, without a necessary reference to any traditional philosophic or theological structure. Our jobs are called upon to provide the exhilaration of romance and the depths of love. It’s as though we believed that there is a Job Charming out there – that will fill our needs and inspire us to greatness. We’ve come to believe that through this job, we would somehow have it all: status, meaning, adventure, travel, luxury, respect, power, tough challenges, and fantastic rewards.
    • Work has two different functions: the material, financial function (i.e. getting paid) and the personal function (emotional, intellectual, psychological, and even spiritual)? What is the purpose served by paid employment? In reality, there is only one purpose served by paid employment: getting paid. That is the only real link between work and money. The other purposes of paid employment are other types of rewards, which are certainly desirable but not directly related to getting paid. They are all equally available in unpaid activities. Redefining work as simply any productive or purposeful activity, with paid employment being just one activity among many, frees us from the false assumption that what we do to put food on the table and a roof over our heads should also provide us with our sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.
      • While many of these points resonate with me, I do recognize that some fortunate people are able to find both economic and other personal rewards in the same line of work. But for many of us who can’t, this provides an alternate way of thinking.

 I am curious to hear other thoughts on the concept of work. Please share your comments below!


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