I Work Therefore I Am

Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

The other day one of the authors had a long conversation with a highly educated Mexican tour guide. We were on a seven-mile hike through a national forest near our home in Mexico. We were discussing the meaning of work in our respective cultures, and he remarked,

“People in the USA live to work. Here in Mexico we work to live. Sometimes I think people north of the border have gone crazy about their work.Everyone seems so stressed out.”

It made us wonder: Have we as a society become dysfunctional in regards to work?

In a previous posting we discussed how work lies at the very heart of our personal identity and sense of value in the USA. This orientation has its ups but it also has its downs.

On the plus side, work still promises to bring Americans personal satisfaction, a sense of contribution, increasing affluence, status in the community, and a deep personal identity. This all sounds essential to living a good life, right?

What then is the down side of our work life in the USA?

For a start consider the experience of Marie who recently commented on one of Cedricj’s blog postings: When I stopped practicing law and I became a full time homemaker I was increasingly annoyed by the question “What do you do?” The one instance that stands out in my mind was the time I was wrapping up my cases. I had made a final appearance in the family law courtroom and was asked what are you doing these days? I told her (the other lawyer) that I was a stay-at- home mom. She said aloud in the open courtroom, “It must be nice to sit on your ass all day.” I was speechless. What a put down!

It is bad enough when others insult us, in public no less! But the lawyer’s crass comment to her colleague says a lot about her personal attitudes toward work. It also reflects the underlying attitudes of our society toward work. Let’s look at a few of these attitudes:

  1. Homemaking is not a job.  Homemaking has a negative value, and is a situation to be avoided.
  2. Our society ranks professions in terms of value and importance and rewards them, accordingly: lawyers are more important than homemakers caring for children; business executives, movie stars, and sports figures are more important than educators, social workers, and nurses.
  3. We are judged on (and our value pegged to) the particular profession in which we choose to engage and our rung on the organizational ladder; by how much we earn; how many hours we spend working; our ability to pay others to do less-valued work (e.g., paying a nanny, an eldercare provider, a carpenter).

When work is viewed in such a narrow, biased way; that is, as the vehicle through which we achieve status and acceptance in our society, there are consequences. If our life is totally consumed by what we do, how hard we work at it, and how much we are compensated, there’s a price we pay in our quality of life.

For example, we can: a)   lose focus on what really provides profound satisfaction at work. b)   have very little or no time for a life outside of work and consequently, neglect other aspects of ourselves that could be developed (e.g. developing other aptitudes, discovering spiritual aspects of ourselves) c)   allow ourselves to be exploited by employers who constantly strive to do more with less and require that we, for example, do the work of two people while our salary remains the same. d)   endure high, even dangerous, amounts of negative stress because we believe that our identity, significance, and value are determined exclusively by what we do (our “Work”).

Consequently, we are willing to devote our entire lives to “work”. How then do we release ourselves from this noose around our necks and make the changes we need to live a well-rounded life of purpose and meaning? Without retiring from the workforce altogether, how can we achieve balance and a higher quality of life?

One question you might first ask yourself is how much discomfort or pain are you experiencing at work?

For some, a major negative life event is the catalyst for change, e.g., a heart attack or a relationship breakdown. Though painful, these events can serve as a wake-up call, causing us to reevaluate the way we view our lives and our work.

For others, it may be the realization that life is becoming highly unbalanced, crazy, or meaningless.

If you are ready to make significant changes in your orientation to work, how do you begin? Let’s look at some possible first steps:

  1. Face the fact that the way you are working is not working for you. You cannot change your culture’s work orientation but you can change yours. Examine the personal price you are paying in the way you work and ask yourself:  “Is there not more to life than this?” “Could there be a better way?”
  2. Ask yourself what it is about work that is working against you. Is it working long hours that you believe may be negatively affecting your health or relationships? Is it that your work no longer gives your life meaning?
  3. Are you over-investing in your work at the expense of other aspects of your life such as pursuing a life passion, balancing your life with healthy pursuits such as exercise or meditation, taking adventurous or restorative vacations, or spending more time with your children or an aging parent?
  4. If work has lost its meaning, identify the factors that make for positive work motivation and begin to think of ways to build them into your life. According to Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, these include: a sense of contribution, autonomy, and mastery. What powerful and positive motivational forces drive you?
  5. Begin to visualize how your life will be in a work situation where you have both passion and life balance.
  6. Act intentionally. This is one of the most important initial action steps you can take. For instance, you may start by devoting one hour a week to developing the artistic talent you have been neglecting. This breaks inertia and opens the door to new possibilities and ways of being.
  7. Realize that personal change comes slowly. You will need courage, focus, and the support of key people. In some cases, you may need to change careers or physically move to a different area in order to transform your life.
  8. Make changes and don’t quit your job. Perhaps staying in your job is the right move; however, you may need to change how you approach your work. Write down your most important life priorities, decide which ones you can implement now, and then set firm boundaries so that work does not compromise them. To do this, you may need to think of ways to reorganize your work.
It doesn’t have to take a crisis to make changes in the way you do your work. You can begin right now. In the comments section, please share your personal story of how you transformed (or want to transform) your approach to work.
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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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2 Responses to I Work Therefore I Am

  1. Jeff West says:

    I enjoyed this article and personally think that it is very accurate in describing our intense work ethic in the U. S.

    The extent that my self-value was defined by work became extremely apparent to me when I retired. I wish I could have redefined myself during my career and enjoyed life and more time with my family than I did. This is not a process of regret for me. I did what I believed I had to do for my family and quality of life. It is a reflective look at how I might have done things differently. I’m not at all sure I could have made such dramatic changes successfully.

    After retiring I found myself questioning my self-worth and value since I was no longer a contributing member of society. It took a full year for me to realize that nothing had really changed except that I was now in control of my own time, life and destiny. I could sit around and question my value or I could go do something.

    For me, pursuing my passion for photography has been a major contributor to my mental stability and feelings of self-worth. I started volunteering at something I enjoy and that lead to being the official photographer for the organization and I have recently been elected to their board of directors. I am teaching young people (mostly 10-14) and women and I find this immensely rewarding.

    In effect, I have redefined my life. Finding something to engage my interest and talents has made retirement (life) fun for me. I still have plenty of time to goof off and I am almost to the point of no longer feeling guilty about it.

    Thank you for this article. It has made me reflect on where I am and what I do. Assessing my life isn’t an easy thing for me and this has helped me focus a bit and understand myself a little better.

    Keep up the great work.

    • cedricj says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for weighing in on this topic and for your willingness to be vulnerable about the way you struggled with the demands of your work life. So many of the executives that I consult with have the same struggle. 12 hour days, 6 day weeks and the terrible tension they feel about not being there for their families. So many performance evaluations center on how much time (loyalty?) the person is willing to put into the job.

      I love the episode of Seinfeld where George left his car parked outside of Yankee Stadium (where he was working) for 24 hours a day. The owner was impressed by the fact that he thought that George was there long before the others and long after all of them left. That’s how some of my executives “fake’ that they are working long hours, they just take off to go to their kid’s soccer game and don’t tell the boss. The truth is that we only have so many productive hours each day, need time out, and that our analytic minds need to switched off so that the unconscious mind can take over. More and more organizations are beginning to recognize the need for such balance. Take the example of the CEO of Aetna who recovered from a near fatal skiing accident and came back to work a changed man. He has worked to change the work environment for all his people to something more humane.

      What you are finding in your fruitful retirement is the value of giving back, the joy of other interests, and the opportunity to really enjoy your family and friends.

      Now if only the “rat race” crowd can learn from you and so recalibrate their lives.

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