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Work & working hard

May 14, 2014

I have been thinking a lot about work and its place in our lives. As an older Millennial/GenY person, I subscribe to views that resonate and conflict somewhat with both those of the younger Millennial lot and those of the older Gen X lot. At various points, I have switched and straddled between traditional, conservative, white-collar professions and more entrepreneurial, informal, ‘cool’ roles. I have been attracted by and developed aversions for different types of jobs at various points in my brief career thus far. After some 6 years of working and a 2-year MBA in between, I am hardly an authority on all matters relating to work, but one thing I have figured out for sure is that there is no such thing as a perfect job. This conviction in our generation about the existence of a perfect job for each one (like a perfect mate) is surely one of the reasons why we are inevitably set up for unhappiness, apart from the many other reasons for unhappiness articulated well here. Even before I hit ‘Publish’ on this post, I can already hear the clamouring dissent to my claim above – ‘yes, there is a perfect job, if you follow your passion’, etc etc.

Back in the day, most people who could chose the safe option (corporate careers, long tenures until retirement etc) while the truly brave and different picked the road less travelled, truly ‘following their passion’ if you may. Now, there is a mainstream of people who are ‘off-the-beaten-path’, which begs the question on what it means to be on a ‘beaten path’. Never before have there as many articles, blogs, podcasts, private and public exhortations on self-actualising by taking a risk, placing a bet, taking a blind leap of faith, finding yourself, investing in yourself. To do anything less than something deeply in-tune with one’s calling is to ‘sell out’, or deal in ‘wage slavery’ even. Of course, this discourse on ‘Do What You Love’ is inherently elitist, because not all people can afford to take on unpaid internships and most people simply have to work to get by. But let’s be honest, even if you truly, madly, deeply believe in your work and identify with it strongly, reality can still bite, after all, especially as there is little distinction between ‘work’ and ‘life’ in such cases.

This conviction about life = work and work = life is probably to blame for the unprecedented trend of work taking centre-stage in our lives. The rich, educated who work hard for a ‘good life’ now have a reward of still more work and less leisure – in direct contrast to what it meant to be rich in previous generations. So many Millennials place such an undue weight on their jobs that it often takes something like a serious health issue or death in the family to serve as a wake-up call about the other equally, if not more important, aspects of life. I am guilty of this – I tend to define success in very narrow terms, almost completely tied to professional success and tend to hold as role-models men and women who have astounding careers, even if at the cost of their personal lives, happiness, health, etc. But it may have something to do with me getting older, wiser, less fit/healthy and more time-starved but I am starting to evaluate the trade-offs of having it all. I am going through some serious thinking on whether it is better to lean in or recline. On some days, I am guilty of being a downright entitled Muppie (embarrassing to admit, but true story).

This discussion is complicated still further if you have a complex relationship with money. For instance, for someone in the kind of profession I am in, my lifestyle has a super low burn rate…I don’t hanker after ‘stuff’, and even with experiences, I have low-maintenance tastes. However, I see monetary compensation as an important barometer of success, especially in relative terms within the same career. So if money, beyond a point, is not a strong motivator, what do I work hard for? Learning, curiosity, interest? If I got those things in a different career which paid half as much, would I consider myself less successful? Hmm.

Oh well. I am sure I will figure it out. Knowing myself, I am likely to be more guilty of leaning too far in, and trying to take on the world – this thread of thoughts is good for me to temper my natural tendencies… Meanwhile, let me ruminate on the complex relationship between identity, the work we do and the life we aspire to.

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