Work and life

I’ve spent the last several years thinking about work. It all began when I read The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work by Joanne B. Ciulla. A book that still has me thinking about what it means to work in the current US culture, along with how work has changed over history. Since Ciulla traces work from hundreds of years ago to modern times, it’s a look at many different ways of thinking about work.

What I think about a lot is the relationship between employer and employee, especially how that has changed over the past 60 years. I’ve thought about the idea of loyalty and how that factors into a job. Fifty years ago many people started working for an employer out of high school, or college if they went, and they stayed with that employer their entire twenty- to thirty-year career.

Since moving into web development about 10 years ago, I’ve worked more as a contractor or freelancer than I have a full-time employee. There are a lot of reasons for this, the main one being that most of my full-time employers haven’t been able to keep me busy, but wanted me in the office for the full 40-hour work week. There was one exception to this, and it was, by far, my best full-time job ever. The one case where it was about getting the work done, not about the time you put in.

I still see employers who desire loyalty from their employees while they don’t offer it in return. It’s hard not to be cynical. At the same time, since I’ve tasted what it is to work a full-time job that is fantastic and fulfilling, I’ve thought a lot about what makes a job a good one.

This has led me to believe the following about paid work:

  • Do what you like. It may not be your passion, but hopefully you like it enough to enjoy the time you spend doing it. As Mandy Brown said on this very site, “Seek out the roles and skills that both suit you and are sufficiently rewarding in compensation to make your life work.” Because we all have obligations, bills, and need money. So, if it’s possible for you, find something you like that pays you, that’s the goal for me, not finding my passion.
  • Be realistic about the way companies work, especially those of us who work in Start-up Land. Things don’t always work out, or the company may change directions, so the job doesn’t last forever. Be prepared to be honest and make a change if you need to or be ready for the forced change that may come.
  • Sometimes what I think of as work, especially the joy of thinking and discovering, may have nothing to do with the thing I get paid to do every day and that’s ok (see the first point).
  • I’m so much more than what I get paid to do. When I meet people, I’m trying very hard to not have my first question be, “So, what do you do for a living?” Because that may have nothing to do with what the person loves. A great example of this? My partner discovered astronomy last summer. He’s become passionate about it. It’s not what he gets paid to do, but he’d rather talk about astronomy than his paid work.

What has stayed with me from The Working Life is the following quote and it’s my goal for work in my life (emphasis mine):

Is the life we have now worth what we are giving up for it? Meaningful work is rare, but is out there to be found either in a paid job or in our free time, if we really want it. Not everyone wants it, finds it, or considers the same things meaningful. A work-dominated life is fine if it is a conscious choice and makes one happy. But if it doesn’t, then we should start thinking of how to fit work into our lives instead of fitting our lives into our work.

I’m always on the hunt to make sure I have time for meaningful work, even if that means the non-paid variety, which means that I often want to fit work into my life and not the other way around.

This leads to my final point. I think work/life balance is a real thing—it isn’t all just life. There have to be times when I don’t feel obligated to a job, where I don’t have to check email, where I can forget about what day of the week, what the date is, or even what time of day it is. This is what recharges me and if work and life are all one, I find I don’t do that. I find I never truly disconnect or unplug. So while I like what I do for paid work, I also like taking a break from it to do other things.

This piece originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project on March 7, 2015.