On working and living

A few comments hit me over the last week that has inspired this post. The first was something that occurred at my partner’s workplace, where a manager used a supposed near death experience in their past to justify their need to achieve and be a workaholic. The second was a comment by my own manager in a response to a team mate’s blog, “work to live, don’t live to work”.

Sometimes words are just words. You hear them over and over again over a range of years and they have no impact on you. “Work to live, don’t live to work” was such a set of words for me. For years wiser people than myself have told me that and I blithely and ignorantly nodded my head and said, “yes, yes, of course” and then continued on my self destructive course of being an addict – addicted to working long hours, addicted to the stress, addicted to climbing the career everest.

This has led to a great deal of mixed fortunes. On the one hand, all of that hard work meant an ASD kid with barely functioning social skills, with English as a second language and who was a high school dropout managed to climb a ladder that should not have been in his reach. Perhaps it was the hard work, perhaps it was luck or perhaps it was being underpaid for most of that time. Regardless, one can say that yes, indeed, he did climb. But it was not without cost. Being a workaholic may be the root cause, but the symptoms are varied. Long hours and stress can (and in my case – did) foster heavy drinking, heavy smoking and a lot of unhealthy eating. I was never an athletic guy, but my work-oriented lifestyle didn’t help at all.

Then one day it all broke. Amusingly, it wasn’t a heart attack, or stroke, or even late onset diabetes. It started with Epiglottis, a full physical check and discovery of colon cancer.

Nothing shocks and the system as much as the cold shower of mortality.

Long story short, everything I thought I knew about myself, was wiped away and all of those sage words over the years flooded back to me … and at the forefront was “work to live”. Namely, I had been working, not living.

Maybe you are smarter than me, perhaps this was common sense to you. But let me tell you all, quite honestly, those words did not mean anything to me before that day.

The point I am trying to make is that thought in another way, “I am not defined by my work”. This is my job. I like it, a lot, there are days I also hate it, a lot. But it is what I do, not who I am.

Sometimes I make comments like “blah blah project x blah blah its a mess blah blah politics blah blah … but in the end I don’t care” and people assume its a sense of apathy towards my role and responsibilities – but really, its a reminder to myself. Don’t get so overly involved with a project and make it personal – it’s not you. It’s not about you. It’s not defining you. Let it go, go home and live your life. Come back to fight another project tomorrow.

The video my manager embedded in his blog post is another reminder of that. Another quote I read was from psychologist Prof Scollon, who said that research shows that happy people are healthier (i.e. spend fewer days out of the office sick) and are more creative at problem solving. There are three things that keep us happy in the workplace, and for many of us in our field of work, it is no different to any other employee in other industries:

  • The relationships (with our peers, management, customers);
  • The quality of the work – in our case the opportunities we are provided to solution (solve?);
  • The ability to balance our other interests (work / life balance)

Some of these things we can bring to the attention of the workplace, asking them to make cultural changes or to be aware of when they cross the boundaries. However, ultimately, it is our individual responsibilities to ensure we keep the microsystems around us working efficiently, fostering those relationships, asking for those opportunities and saying no after the tenth hour of the day.

There are some contradictions here. I want my work to BENEFIT  people. I want to say that my work changed the world. I want to say that it was useful. Truth is that it is unlikely that our work will ever have those tags, because the people who can afford to pay us are not those in the business of making grand changes in the world. So, I have to divide my time up into two areas – one where I go and work. I work in a workplace that keeps me interested. Where I can have a level of automation. Where I can say it is not a soul-torturing circle of hell. In turn, it allows me the opportunity to earn enough to pay the mortgage(s) and be involved with the boards, community groups and other activities which tick off those things that I need to feel like I have made an impact on the world, if only in one small corner of it.

It’s not perfect, and it may not always be ideal, but it is ultimately our responsibility to ensure that we work to live and balance the happiness in our lives.

Therein ends the lesson for today.

4 thoughts on “On working and living”

    1. No, hardly. I can maybe call it wisdom if you consider that wisdom comes from good decisions, good decisions comes from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions.

  1. I think Satre’s “bad faith” describes well how we often identify ourselves. We become actors and then think of ourselves entirely as the characters we play.

    The other day there was an electrical mishap in my office building. It emitted fumes through the air conditioning. Most people carried on working. No officials had made the call to evacuate the building. I weighed the situation up in my head: “Do I leave and then be accused of being a slacker or worse get a nasty red mark on my contract or do I stay and potentially put my health at risk… for a bit of pay?” The warden stormed in and cleared us out. The taste of the fumes remained in the back of my throat for hours.

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