I recently caught up with a friend who, after several years of successful business leadership, quit her job in corporate America. She is young, energetic, and has much to offer the world. Her prime working years still lie ahead. But something about her life was no longer working for her; the heart had gone out from her work, and she needed a season of quiet and refreshing to find her way again.
These times of personal lostness are a universal part of the human experience. This is the essence of the midlife passage: the discovery that, like Dante’s protagonist, we have found ourselves in a forest dark, with the straightforward path lost to us. Most of us endure these seasons more than once.
The life we have been building suddenly, unexpectedly, looks very different from what we thought it would be. We realize that we have been living by scripts handed down to us by others, often in childhood. Perhaps we deeply internalized those scripts, believing that they embodied our truest desires for ourselves. However, in our ambitious efforts to faithfully live them out please authority figures, and achieve our goals, we lost something. The realization dawns only gradually, over many years, as we feel a restless, unnamable dissatisfaction growing.
“The opposite of exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” a monk tells David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. “It is wholeheartedness.”
My friend was restless and exhausted. Wholeheartedness was elusive. She expected a quick recovery before bouncing back into the arena, but months later she feels no closer to knowing what work she is meant to do.
Shrugging off her struggles, she told me, “I guess I just need to find my meaning and my purpose in my family.”
Those words grabbed my attention, because they reflect a common view of our relationship with work—a view we need to set right.
Too many of us are workaholics, especially in the United States, with our rampant individualism, long work hours, and conspicious lack of annual vacation days, maternity/parentity leave, and siesta.
I have known many people—usually men, but sometimes women—who medicate themselves with work like heroin. I know one young entrepreneur who flitted from one startup idea to another, indebting himself on patents and t-shirts for imagined companies, venting his anxieties and anger at his family, and then neglecting and finally abandoning them in his unsparing pursuit of startup success. I have met military officers and corporate leaders who compete to work the longest work hours, who sleep in the office, who heap project after project on their plates to avoid facing inner wounds. I met one sad woman at a party who tried to wow us with her professional accomplishments, the multiple startups she was juggling, and then made an almost embarrassed apology for becoming a mother and for the awkward complication of this child in her desperate professional life.
Workaholism of this sort is a danger, a corruption, and a destroyer of lives. It is rooted in lies about the nature of work, the nature of human need, and the nature of success. In the end it ruins both work and worker, and whatever productivity gains we find in the short term are gradually eroded by its corrosive effects.
Toxic workaholism has led to a strong and necessary pushback, often from religious leaders, mental health professionals, wellness coaches, and others who specialize in the nurturing of souls.
An essential element of the counternarrative is the need to prioritize human relationships, particular with family and friends. Nobody on their death beds, we hear, wishes they worked harder; instead they reflect on the people they loved, savoring their most wholesome relationships and regretting those they allowed to sink into ruin or neglect. The task before the workaholic is radical: to tear down the foundations of his or her life and rebuild on an entirely different one. Reorienting our lives around relationships rather than the pursuit of material comforts or professional success is not easy, but is one of the great projects of a well-lived life.
I wholeheartedly agree with this counternarrative. However, despite its importance and goodness, it can carry an insidious message: that work is a tangential concern, orthogonal to a well-lived life. This message, I believe, is wrong, and it eats at men and women who have strong values and prioritize relationships, and yet still find themselves yearning for meaningful work. It suggests that we must amputate a vital part of ourselves as an act of self-sacrifice.
Enlarging Our Idea of Work
The modern world generally asks us to compartmentalize our lives into non-intersecting domains, of which work is one. Work is the place we commute to after dropping off the kids at school. It is a job, the tasks we perform each day, a place other than home, a set of professional relationships that has little intersection with our friends and family, the place from which we return each evening.
Because work and family are exclusive domains, we can bound each of them and weigh them on a scale. Life is a continual balancing, as we shift resources back and forth. We move a meeting to attend a soccer game, or reschedule date night to accomodate a work deadline. Allocating the harried hours of our lives is a zero-sum game.
To some degree, this balancing act will always be a reality—confused in our present era by the imperative to work from home. But the subtle message that work is only a competitor to relationships can erode something important and necessary in our lives.
Good work is more than a job or a place we go outside the home; it is what we bring to the world. Good work is generous, enlivening, fulfilling to both ourselves and others. Work, at its best, is the expression of our purpose here on this earth and a vital source of meaning and wholeheartedness. Whyte writes:
Good work, done well for the right reasons and with an end in mind, has always been a sign, in most human traditions, of an inner and outer maturity. Its achievement is celebrated as an individual triumph and a gift to our societies.
Good work heals, rejuvenates, and bestows energy, which we then reflect back into the world. Good work meets our deep needs for purpose and generativity, which allows us to enter back into our relationships as our best selves. On the days I do my best work in the mornings, I can meet my colleagues and family with energy and enthusiasm in the afternoons. I am replenished and ready to give. In seasons when work has been unfulfilling, when busy work or pointless meetings colonize all the white space in my calendar, I sag; energy depleted, I never feel fully myself, even in the presence of my family or friends.
In Search of Good Work
Skillfully balancing the scales of family and work is only half the story.
The deeper question is how we find good work, work that fulfills our sense of purpose and elevates us to our best both at home and at work. When we are fortunate enough to find this kind of work, and approach it with maturity and a deep knowledge of our values, it can infuse our families with life.
The leaders I respect most are principled and family-oriented, but are still exceptionally busy because they do good work. Their lives show a pattern of integration rather than disintegration. Family and work align in a way that, on the best days, brings wholeness and gives a sense of mission. These families bear much, make sacrifices, and are often under strain, but they are also aglow with the light that good, purposeful work brings.
The challenge is that much of our work is not good work. A mentor tells David Whyte:
You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers.
Unfortunately, many jobs—maybe most jobs—do not have this life-giving quality. Since the agricultural revolution, most human beings have lived like beasts of burden. The industrial revolution brought many quality-of-life improvements but also working environments in which many humans live like machines. A modern movement seeks to rehumanize work, but the world still requires many tedious, repetitive, dirty, or otherwise unpleasant jobs to keep on turning. Even the best jobs often entail long stretches of unpleasant, unsatisfying work. We often need to take whatever work we can get, just to earn a basic income and put bread on the table. Doing so is good and noble, even if unsatisfying. “Work is called work for a reason”, as the saying goes. I sometimes worry that the pursuit of meaningful work is a rare luxury and feel guilty for pursuing it.
Still, no matter how elusive good work may be, we cannot and should not end its pursuit. The quest is in our nature; the pursuit itself is part of what brings wholeness to our lives.
When good work proves elusive, we do need to prioritize our relationships. That is always the bedrock. In addition, however, we need to find some way to reconnect with purposeful work. We have a few options.
First, we sometimes just need to wait it out. Every type of work has its cold, hard winters, when the life-giving elements seem gone. The final stretch of a project might be hell. We may spend months cleaning up paperwork to prepare for a compliance inspection. During these seasons we lean on other parts of our lives to carry us, while we await the return of spring. We might need to organize our lives around a seasonal cadence, alternating between hard sprints and times of refreshing.
Second, we can seek good work outside of our jobs. This presents challenges, as it encumbers us with more responsibilities and fills more hours—but if those hours energize and refresh us, the addition can be worthwhile. Many people find their good work in hobbies, continuing education, volunteer work, acts of service to friends and neighbors, or creative arts. Each step taken towards our sources of vital energy can open up new horizons, and perhaps someday even result in job opportunities.
Third, we can change jobs. Many people harbor this dream, although it is out of reach for many of us much of the time. However, such changes are possible. We all know individuals who felt increasingly alienated from their work, embarked on a career change, and found new life. Such changes are difficult and must be approached with care, but we also need to be honest with ourselves about when a change is called for. Fear can keep us trapped in situations that are slowly killing us.
Finally, if life-giving elements are absent from our workplaces, we can seek to introduce them. This is one of the joys of being an intrapreneur or change agent. Working for a positive change in our organizations can be its own source of meaning, providing a purpose that the organization itself does not. It can also unexpectedly connect us to wonderful people who share our ideals and aspirations.
In summary, meaningful work and meaningful relationships are not in stark opposition. Both are pillars of a well-lived life. When we feel lost in our working identities, we must absolutely enjoy, savor, and prioritize the relationships that give our lives meaning. But that does not mean abandoning work; it means continuing our lifelong quest for the work we are called to do.