(This is substantially longer than my usual entry, so I have sprinkled it with more than the usual number of pictures, for your viewing enjoyment.)
You don’t have to find your purpose at your Job, or even in Work. It’s one option; still, there’s a lot more to being human than Work, and you might find more meaning elsewhere – i.e., in Not-Work – if you have the space to do so.
This is another way they get you.
Whatever my primary purpose might be, I don’t find it at Work – or at my Job, more to the point. What have I sought out of my job? A living, primarily. Something interesting and ideally, useful, with which to occupy my time. For long stretches, a sense of accomplishment and of recognition. An answer to the question, what am I here for? Nope.
Fortunately, I never had to worry seriously about making a living, although there were some tight years early on. There was a short spell when I didn’t have health insurance, but at least I was in my healthy twenties then. A considerably longer spell when I knew exactly how much I had in my account until the next paycheck, and what I’d need to buy first, and whether I’d need to use credit to tide over. Yet I never had to arbitrage food for bills or heat or medical care. And I’ve become more than comfortable since then, thanks to both privilege and effort.
I’ve also been lucky to have interesting jobs, though I’m pretty well able to find anything interesting for a while. Even when I was a junior paralegal, xeroxing and stapling and stamping, I enjoyed making a game of the process engineering, to see how quick and efficient I could be. When I worked in the library stacks in grad school, I got a kick out of learning the classification systems and found meditative calm in the mechanics of sorting and shelving, coupled with the delight of unexpected discoveries in the collection. When on (eventually permanent) hiatus from my studies, I wound up temping at the HQ of a big-box retailer in the “merchandise presentation” department, where I was fascinated by the system that maps store layouts, puts the merchandise on the shelves, and tracks and replenishes inventory.
Curiosity led me to my more substantial jobs. That’s been a blessing and a bane. I’ve liked to exercise my intellect – it’s where I have comparative advantage, and reinforced how I saw myself, typically: if not as an “intellectual,” then at least as someone actively thinking and solving problems. It’s why I majored in religion at college. It’s why I undertook to study history in graduate school, with the aim of being a professional scholar. It’s how I ended up doing location research for the selfsame big-box retailer – the notion of understanding how places work –, something I parlayed into geospatial analytics at an elite consultancy. There, I broadened beyond straight-up retail into all manner of spatial networks. I fancied myself an “applied behavioral geographer.” I’m not sure such a thing exists, but it sounds cool and was generally accurate.
The blessing is that my jobs have kept me entertained, for the most part. The bane is how entertainment distracted me from the problem of meaning, until it couldn’t. Sure, I managed to rationalize the possible benefit of having convenient access to goods and services as a useful contribution so I could toodle along. But there came a day when the reality of bulldozing apple orchards and cornfields to erect consumer temples full of future landfill wouldn’t shut up. There came a day when the human face of “behavioral geography” was overswept with data, remote sensing, and cellphone traces. I hadn’t yet read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but I knew what I did not want to abet. What I felt was not quite the “moral injury” I’ve heard people cite, because I was at enough of a remove not to feel like a perpetrator, yet it definitely qualified as “moral dissonance.” My work had externalities, and I didn’t like them.
See, curiosity isn’t purpose. Just like exploration isn’t intrinsically good, or necessarily benign. Or problem-solving, or the search for knowledge. They’re just instruments of purpose.
Of course, there are intrinsically purposeful jobs. In my circle of friends and family there are a pastor, a small-town librarian, some doctors and nurses, a few teachers (especially music teachers!), artists, and a buncha Marines (hi Dad!). My sisters work in healthcare to improve things for people living with mental illness. These are only a few examples. If you’re helping people directly or fixing the planet, I reckon your access to purpose on the job is pretty immediate. Those are the occupational jackpot equivalent of becoming a rock star, a celebrity, or a billionaire: the sort of thing many of us in our youth dream of becoming but few achieve. Those who work as caregivers, paid or unpaid, are also up-close-and-personal with purpose. That’s enviable, and I am grateful for them and to them.
If you work for yourself, I suspect chances are better you find purpose at your job. That’s not the way most of the economy operates though. Almost 15% of the American labor force works for the public sector (federal, state, and local governments), and three-quarters of the rest are at firms with 50+ employees.
A lot of jobs – most of them? most of mine, to be sure – fall into what I think of as the “relatively worthwhile” or “neutral” buckets: keeping the gears of the economy greased and at least doing no harm. (Though remember those externalities!) They exist in part because there are so many of us now, and we all must do something. (In case you’re wondering what do people do, you can look it up here.) A lot of these jobs are necessary, “essential” in the most recent parlance. Someone has to drive buses and stock warehouses and plow streets. Someone has to manage supermarkets and prepare taxes and fix plumbing. On top of that, people are constantly innovating, looking for new niches, new appetites to stimulate and fill. To people for whom the simple dignity of work leaves something to be desired, and who want to articulate purpose in their jobs, it’s easy enough to do, like I did with mine. (Also, by the way, I think this is a better and more honest approach than fake “I love my job!” smugness.) No disrespect: when you spend so much of your life doing a thing you want it to matter, you need to believe in it. I needed to believe in it. Our culture tells us loudly it should matter.
It’s a problem, though, when our jobs crowd out all the other avenues we possess to seek meaning and purpose as human beings, when they take all our time and exhaust all our energy and leave nothing for family and friends, community, nature, art, religion, idle creativity, self-realization.
And then the magnates and their minions step into the breach. They’re wholeheartedly willing to frame a purpose for the rest of us. Typically, it’s some variation on a theme of “make positive difference in the world,” anodyne and amorphous. Selling electronics? “Enrich lives through technology.” Exploiting fossil fuels? “Power progress together with more and cleaner energy solutions.” Baking biscuits? “Lead the future of snacking around the world.” Manufacturing sodapop? “Refresh the world. Make a difference.” Selling everything? “Transform the systems on which we all rely.” One can practically hear the swelling soundtrack. The apotheosis of this is the well-worn NASA janitor story. Asked by visiting President John Kennedy what he was doing, the (apocryphal, no doubt) broom-toting janitor declared, “I’m sending a man to the moon.”
You want to know why they do this? Color me cynical but increasing shareholder value and their own wealth worked just fine for a very long time, so I don’t think it’s driven by any existential crisis on their part. I regard it as no coincidence that the rise of “corporate purpose” and that of acute income inequality happened to parallel each other. They have the gall to dangle purpose at us and profess that it’s even better than mere money and benefits.
Whenemployees are disengaged and underperforming, the reaction of many managers is to try new incentives and ratchet up oversight and control. Yet often nothing improves. Why? Because the assumption behind such conventional approaches is that work is fundamentally contractual and that employees are self-interested agents who will seek to minimize personal effort. And that assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Employees do just what is needed to earn a reward or meet a standard, and nothing more.
But there is another way: Rally the organization behind an authentic higher purpose—an aspirational mission that explains how employees are making a difference and gives them a sense of meaning. If you do that, they will try new things, move into deep learning, and make surprising contributions. The workforce will become energized and committed, and performance will climb.
What if people were “disengaged and underperforming” because they were overworked and simply exhausted? The purpose trick might work for a while, or until folks reach the next threshold of burnout. Note: it doesn’t really help that the millennials and the Z’s are going around telling everyone that purpose is more important than salary. (X’er here. I have to believe that’s either relative affluence or inexperience talking.) Daniel Pink touts this as “Motivation 3.0”, made up of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Certainly, intrinsic motivation sounds nobler than extrinsic motivation, as long as it’s not an Inception-style plant. Around here we call that “drinking the kool-aid.”
Meanwhile, how convenient for the titans of industry! For purpose is a means to their end. It seems to make money too!:
There is an increasing awareness that the purpose of a company has to be beyond shareholder value, and that this is not something that will cost your business but something that will enhance your business [emphasis added] … Purpose-driven companies make more money, have more engaged employees and more loyal customers, and are even better at innovation and transformational change. It seems to be easier to win the game when you care about the game..
Remember the intrinsically purposeful jobs? Nurses, teachers, caregivers? The ones we call “labors of love”? It should be no surprise these are also the workers most easily exploited. Why pay people more when they’re willing to do the work for less? At least, until they hit the breaking point – which point I fear we may have discovered amid the pandemic and Great Resignation of 2021.
Here’s the thing: yeah, I’m looking for purpose. Aren’t we all? Not in the slightest do I pooh-pooh that. But employers, it’s not up to you to dictate or commandeer. And where will I find it? That’s for another blog entirely, I suppose. Still working on it. But I figure knowing where not to look is a good start.
 Unlike a lot of people, sociability and community has never been a key driver for me work-wise. The pandemic has actually been a relief from it for me – the simulated camaraderie, the manufactured fun. God, I sound like such a misanthrope. I’m really not, just an introvert. I have genuine friends and I love them, just not at work.
My book club met this weekend to discuss Celeste Headlee’sDo Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Great book. As you can imagine, I recommend it, and I’m on the same page with her almost completely. Where I think she doesn’t go far enough is (not unexpectedly) in buying into the concept of work-life balance, so that where she thinks we need to scale back doing work in our jobs, I also think we need to scale back doing not-job work in our lives.
One thing I appreciate most about Headlee is how she historicizes and deconstructs the philosophical mess we’ve gotten ourselves into – thinking that leisure is unworthy if not immoral, that we must work all the time, and that busyness is the ultimate marker of status.
“We have been deluded by the forces of economics and religion to believe that the purpose of life is hard work,” she writes. We have the Protestant reformation to thank for the equation of industriousness with virtue. “Idle hands are the Devil’s work,” and all. Industrial capitalism reinforced the notion that time = money, making us hyperconscious of the “opportunity cost” of leisure and social time. The early 21st century obsession with productivity and optimization (thanks, Big Data) has taken over our jobs as well as infecting our personal lives. The crazy thing is that given how productivity is rising, we needn’t have pushed so hard: we could have had a standard of living equal to our grandparents in a fraction of the hours we work now. But we wanted more stuff. Not to mention, we were producing more stuff, and a whole industry sprang up to convince us we wanted – nay, needed – all this stuff.
To this let me add there’s our obsession with growth and the “American Dream”: among other things, the idea that my kids should do “better” than I have. If they don’t that’s my fault as a parent, or it must mean our society is in trouble.
So we’d best keep grinding. We’re working more hours. We take fewer vacations. We stopped taking breaks at work and going out for lunch, instead gobbling down a few bites at our desk, multitasking. We answer emails on the weekend and work at night after the kids go down, and even on vacation (when we dare to take it). Our time is contaminated with our jobs even when we’re not at them.
Is this what we want? What we need? I’ve probably done slightly “better” than my parents. From being a super-achiever in school, I went to a fancier college, and after some peripatetic years and switchbacks, I’ve landed at a fancy-pants consultancy making more bank (though not consultant-level bank) than my parents ever did. Although I believe I live reasonably modestly, I know where my income falls on the curve – and it’s pretty far to the right. I think back to my grandparents. My dad did “better” than his dad, a blue-collar son of immigrants: Dad went to college, had a career as a military officer, and retired into a series of organizational management roles. My mom’s parents were solidly middle-class: a bank manager and a homemaker who became a librarian when the kids were grown. They had a lovely house that was by no means grand, in a lovely town; two cars; one television; and no dishwasher, microwave, or of course, computers. Then again, they had friends and parties and bridge clubs, things notably absent from my day-to-day life.
But then I think of my own kids: what would it take for them to do “better” than me? And would I want them to? I shudder to think. I seriously question whether my cohort of uberachievers, stressed and divorced and burnt out and overcompensating and unconnected, is worthy of emulation. Fortunately (?) neither of my bairns seems inclined to pursue the overachiever path, or to embrace workism. They’re not especially interested in college. I’m nervous about this, but who’s to say they’re not onto something?
Here’s the thing. Maybe our kids could do better than we do, maybe our standards of living could keep rising, if we could keep pushing harder and harder to be more productive (as workers, as parents, and so on). But it’s sure starting to seem like we’ve pushed ourselves to the brink of our capabilities as humans, that we so have exhausted ourselves with working, and stripped away so much of the fluff of humanity, that any further “gains” will come at the cost of more burnout, more anxiety and depression, more addiction.
Those rising standards are just about to drown us all.
When I started thinking differently about the place of work in my life, in spring 2020 – not quite the “before time,” but before we realized how much the coronavirus would affect us, or for how long – there was obviously a lot of ink spilled on the subject of work, and of (so-called) “work-life balance”.
Back then, my perspective felt divergent. When I saw articles extolling the potentially greater productivity of workers who didn’t have to commute, they pissed me off. Who gave employers the idea that they could usurp the incremental productivity of people freed from the (unpaid!) work of commuting? That’s our time. It’s my time.
Now my thoughts feel less unique. The tone has changed. Pandemic or no pandemic, it seems a heck of a lot of people are happier being at home, alone or with their pets or their real families rather than their “work families”; having the flexibility to do what they need to do when they need to do it; maybe even getting more done in less time; not having to dress (or spend!) for success. Perhaps, not confronted on a daily basis by the strivers and the supervisors and the persuaders and the influencers in the office, we started to feel like our unmediated and unjudged selves a bit more. Hence, the “Great Resignation,” the national wave of “take this job and shove it.”
I know everyone’s waiting for this to all be over, but the ex-historian in me knows we could still be closer to the beginning than to the end. Just today there’s news of a worrisome new variant. I’m curious to know whether this reckoning of work will persist: will people continue to demand flexibility, to value their time more than their money; will they–those who can–excuse themselves from the frantic race? My kids aren’t beguiled by the kind of corporate overwork I unfortunately subjected myself to for so many years. Maybe they’re right, and we’re just figuring it out belatedly?
I got this acknowledgment from my sister, when she read the first few entries of my blog:
I feel I do more work as a “part time” consultant and a “full time” wife and mom than I ever did as a full time Marine (which is by the way a 24-7-365 job).
Can we stipulate that being a wife or a mom is not a job? Far be it from me to say there’s not a lot of work associatedwith motherhood (hopefully not with wifehood, although I myself found that to be somewhat the case). But motherhood itself is a relationship: it’s that thing made by birth–though not always–and hugs and snot and worries, built of love and need and pride and hope. Sometimes motherhood seems like an identity, more so for some than for others. For me personally, a partial one. But what it ain’t, is a job.
Why make the distinction? So you can love motherhood, and not feel guilty about all the shit you can never get around to doing. When people say “motherhood is the toughest job you’ll ever love,” I hope they’re talking about the parenting part: helping your kid through the trials of being human, like the loss of a friend group or a learning disability or a bad breakup or depression or anger or addiction. Helping them find the things that turn them on, that challenge them and help them grow.
Let me point out what motherhood is not: grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, or picking up toys. Those things are housework. Motherhood is not bathing or diapering or carpooling or helping with schoolwork or filling out camp forms or remembering to make dentist appointments. Those are caregiving tasks. Wiping off the kitchen counters and filling out financial aid forms are drudgery, plain and simple. We never talk as if fatherhood is all of those things. What the hell. I do think men nowadays understand their joint ownership of the caregiving tasks for small children (e.g., diapering); but are often either oblivious to much of the rest or conflate it with “motherhood,” conveniently for themselves.
People used to talk about “quality time,” do you remember? Quality time is the Not Work of motherhood and fatherhood. The work is inevitable, yes, and it should be shared equitably. And just like you shouldn’t let yourself get buried by work in life, make sure you don’t get buried by the work in parenthood. Men especially: you don’t get a pass to let your partner do all the work, just because she will. Women: let the work go if you have to and can. You need the energy for better things.
If you want to gain Work – Not-Work balance, the first step is learning to see all the work you do as Work. Our economy and our cultures frequently stand in the way of this.
In these times, most people labor for money at jobs. Society excels at rewarding high salaries and the effort that leads to them. Work harder, work more, and you see the fruits of your labor in more money, more prestige, and more social capital. Produce more and the economy benefits.
Except when your labor is unpaid. If work is what you get paid to do, then unpaid labor is… not work? As if. Ask any woman who’s cooking and cleaning and doing laundry for her family if that’s work. Ask my teenagers whether doing chores is work. Some may argue that these things are for private benefit, so they’re not Work. But neither are they Not-Work. The modern economy has bamboozled us into believing that only work whose benefit accrues to someone else is worthy of recognition as Work: the paycheck as imprimatur. Look—these things were work before anybody was paying anybody, and they’re still work now: Not-job Work.
Mind you, that lacuna didn’t happen by accident. When GDP—the measure of a national economy—was being formalized in the post-war period, a deliberate decision was made to omit “unpaid services of housewives” since collecting the data would be just too difficult. (You need to read Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, FT/McKinsey’s 2019 business book of the year.) “Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries, and as much as 80% of GDP in low-income countries.” Since we didn’t count it, we don’t see it.
The Not-Job Work we don’t see tends to be coded as feminine, and not coincidentally, devalued. Tasks that are similar or in the same household sphere are similarly invisible, whoever does them. I’m not saying only women do Not-Job Work. Rather, I’m saying that because most Not-Job Work is gendered, anyone who does it suffers from its invisibility. Recently I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast, “Why Do We Work So Damn Much?” Ezra and his guest James Suzman, an anthropologist, were discussing the notion that early Homo sapiens got by with only 15 hours or so of work per week. Suzman said of a contemporary hunter-gatherer society, “Pretty much on the basis of around 15 hours for women and 17 hours work week for men in terms of the food quest, the Ju/‘hoansi were pretty much able to meet all of their basic needs. And then on top of that, they’d work a similar number of hours on domestic household activities, tasks like preparing food, making fires, fixing tools, and so on and so forth [emphasis added]. In other words, that they worked much less than we did.” Hello, math? And yet the “hook” is “Hunter-gatherers worked 15-hour weeks. Why don’t we?”
How would your perspective shift if you recognized all your Not-Job Work as Work? If you can pay someone to do it for you, it’s work. Cooking. Shopping. Childcare. Yard and home maintenance. Errands. Taxes. Making appointments. Filling out school and camp forms. Driving people around. Driving yourself around. Laundry. Planning meals. Planning travel. Paying bills. You have your own list, I’m sure. And if you don’t, do you recognize and appreciate who’s doing all those things on your behalf? Because dang, that’s a lot of work. It’s not a frippery.
Still, when it comes to Not-Job Work, women do a lot more of it, everywherein the world. And we must, because society depends on us to. The pandemic showed us how true this is, as the closure of childcare and virtual schooling drove millions of women out of the paid workforce. If we all saw Not-Job Work as Work, maybe we’d understand why so few women break the glass ceiling in most of our overachieving, overworking organizations and professions. Expectations of 60+ hours/week leave little time or energy for not-job work. Yes, you can have a baby at the Firm, and our maternity benefits are generous. But—spoiler alert!—children persist in taking a lot of energy, time, and cognitive labor when they’re toddlers, kiddos, tweens, and teens.
So seeNot-Job Work. See it as Work. Not only might it enable you to balance your life. It might also be the unlock to inclusion and to equality for women in the economy.
My wheels ground to a halt just a couple of weeks before the world did, in the early months of 2020. Before the novel coronavirus was making its stealthy appearance in the United States, I was reeling with anxiety and exhaustion. I was burned out. I was depressed. I felt isolated at work and at home. My memory was blinking in and out, and my forgetfulness was frightening me. I worried I had dementia. After I burst into tears more than once at work, some kind people told me I should and could take a leave of absence, so I did: two months, from late February to late April.
Week one I sang; I had a solo in concerts over the weekend. Week two I retreated, slept, ate well, meditated, read, indulged in massages, napped, reflected, and did not very much yoga. That timing was perfect, because in week 3 the COVID-19 shit hit the fan. I gave my body and my mind rest. It took a few weeks for me to stop thinking about work ALL THE TIME. For a while I really fretted about my kids doing or not doing schoolwork; and then, like most everyone else, I fretted less about that. From the security of my leave I felt insulated from the brunt of the frenzy, disruption, and fear the coronavirus created—both at work and more widely—, yet clinically aware, and tethered by (too much, probably) social media.
Once my mind unclenched and my body relaxed, I settled into a flow of things that make me feel good. Sleeping enough (turns out to be slightly more than 8 hours). Reading books. Daily short yoga and meditation practice. Walks with my dog and more walks with my dog. Weekly choir practice and yoga class. Gardening. Book club. Watching the birds after filling the feeders for the first time in years. It was an introvert’s paradise, honestly. None of this—not even ALL of it—is outrageous self-indulgence. It just made me feel like a person again. Like myself. Centered, restored, in equilibrium.
What had been keeping me from that? A voracious job. A brew of ambition and approval-seeking. A fear of economic insecurity. A good dose of social brainwashing. And among them all, a sense of perplexed guilt that I was failing at “work-life balance.” Waitaminute, I thought. I’m smart, I work hard, I’m generally successful. Maybe I’ve been thinking about this all wrong? What if I can’t balance work and life because they’re not balanceable? Reader, the scales fell from my eyes.
Hold on a moment, humor me. I have something better, and actually attainable, to propose.
Search “work-life balance” on Google and you get 1.65 billion hits. How to achieve it, tips and tricks and lifehacks, what it is and what it isn’t. It’s a myth! It’s a dream! It’s about time and prioritization—no, it’s about purpose! Whatever it is, nobody ever feels like they have it.
That should be no surprise when you consider that the concept is, fundamentally, illogical. Whose idea was it that work and life are somehow commensurate? (Hint: follow the money.) In what other context do we try to “balance” a part with the whole? Work and life aren’t apples and oranges, they’re apples and fruit. What, then, can balance Work? Elementary, my dear Watson: Not-Work. Life is made up of Work and Not-Work. (How MECE!*) And I propose that you’ll feel better, more human, and more like your true self if you can practice Work – Not-Work Balance.
Wait—isn’t that the same difference? Work – Life, Work – Not-Work; you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to? Only if you’re conflating “work” with your (paid) job. The problem is we all have a lot of work to do outside our paid jobs, whether we’re single or in families or households, whether we have children or parents to take care of or not. So much of the “work-life” struggle is trying to get all that Not-Job Work done. Clean the house, plan meals and shop, make appointments, feed the dog, call the super to fix the dripping sink, organize the congregation picnic, bathe the child, supervise homework (or virtual school!). You may enjoy them. You may outsource them. Regardless, they’re still work. Even if you’re just thinking about work, it’s still work: it’s not uncontaminated time. You can run yourself ragged juggling your Job-Work and your Not-Job Work, and the accomplishment still leaves you exhausted. What’s missing? Not-Work.
This is where people usually talk about sleeping, and working out, and eating well—as if it’s a triumph to carve out enough time for self-care and maintaining your physical health. Come on! That should go without saying! Is your work really worth sacrificing your health? Do you want to work for someone who would expect that of you? Go read Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker.
Self-care is necessary, but not sufficient, Not-Work. As a human being, you need play, and joy, and love, all of which occupy time. Everything else is a body doing work; but this is what makes you, you: your family (the not-work part), your friends, your community; your hobbies, your creativity, your inventions, your art, your adventures; your silence, your music, your daydreams, your puttering, your rest. And all this is what we relinquish first when the pressure spikes. It’s what we put on hold when we’re trying so hard to achieve, sometimes so long we forget what it is. I remember once when I went to a big-deal midlevel training program, the managing director of my firm brought a couple of engagement managers to the stage. “Tell us about yourself, who you are outside of work,” he invited. I remember one of them reverted so quickly to the self-promotional patter of professional passions I was kinda embarrassed for him.
It took me an episode of burnout, a leave of absence, a lot of sleep, a week at Kripalu, and a lot of reading and reflection to realize this, and to see myself in the mirror again. Here’s what I learned: there’s no Work – No Work balance without legit joy. It’s simple math:
Life = work + not-work
Work = job + not-job
Not-work = self-care (eat, sleep, run) and play/joy/love
You have 168 hours a week.
Get enough sleep and make time for your joy.
You might have to work less.
Work – Life Balance vs Work – Not-Work Balance
* MECE: consultant-speak for “mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive”