Workism: Should work be how we define our identity and life’s purpose?

I recently listened to this podcast and read this article which made me think about how I value my career and spend the majority of time on my work.

A quick summary of the article:

  • Workism: Belief that work is not only necessary for economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose
  • In the past, people believed that automation of many tasks would create more leisure time, but for some groups like rich college-educated people they actually work much more than people did decades ago
  • For some people, long hours is an arms race for status and income to satisfy their ego’s expectations. However, for others it’s not economic at all, it’s emotional and even spiritual
  • Work has shifted from being viewed as a Job, to a Career, to a Calling. With beliefs like religion on the decline, people have used work to define their identity and meaning in life, and not just a means for material production as it used to be viewed.
  • Since work is now tied to someone’s identity and purpose, people do not place limits on how much they invest into it
  • Many of today’s rich consider work as synonymous with play and fun, there is no such thing as “leisure”
  • Is all of this bad? There is a handful of people who will hit the working lottery: busy, rich, deeply fulfilled. But for everyone else who are in this culture that says they should be self-actualizing through work, they are set-up for anxiety, disappointment, and burnout
  • The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to be the means of transcendence and fulfillment for the entire population (e.g. It is difficult to find meaning in being a cashier). The widespread mismatch between expectations and reality creates disappointment and anxiety
  • People should consider the old-fashioned goal of working: buying more free-time to spend time with family, friends, and partners
  • Research shows people who spend more time with their loved ones vs work are happier

Now my thoughts and take on this.

I definitely fall into this category of people who find meaning through work. I generally work around 60+ hours a week, some of it is due to things I have to do for my job but a lot of it involves things I want to do because I feel that success of my company and product are directly tied to my personal identity. I get paid a good salary but that has never been the main priority for me or motivator to work harder. I feel responsibility to the millions of people who use our product in creating a positive experience for them. As stressful as it can be, most parts of the job I just really enjoy and I when I work on them time flies by. When I see the tangible results of my actions it motivates me to do more.

The question then is, is there anything wrong with this lifestyle? It depends on what you value. It is extremely important for me to be passionate about and enjoy what I’m working on and I’d like to think I’ve hit that sweet spot they mention in the article of “busy, rich, deeply fulfilled” (at least rich enough to not worry about money too much).

For other people they find fulfillment in things like hobbies, fitness, or time with friends/family more and if that makes them happy then they might not need to find as deep fulfillment in their career. It makes sense they clock in what they need to do at work and ensure they have lots of time for everything else.

That’s not to say I don’t value time with friends and family at all, as those are essential parts of life I couldn’t do without either. Eventually having a family and children is also very important for me to be fulfilled and how I spend my time will change then. I’m just further on one side of a spectrum towards the importance of work currently.

The takeaway then is not “work more” or “work less”, it’s about understanding what is fundamentally most important to you to feel fulfilled and to make sure you’re spending your time accordingly. If you’re working 70+ hours a week because you’ve been encultured to believe that work defines your identity, but in reality you would be much happier working 40 hours and spending that extra 30 hours with loved ones then something may need to change. Your reliance on your work for your life’s meaning may need to shift, and you should be placing more meaning on close relationships.

The difficulty lies in being able to be honest with yourself – there is a small part of me even now that questions if I have simply justified my workism behaviours and would actually be happier if I went out with friends more and spent more time on my hobbies. Introspection is key, figure out what’s really important to you and not just what society has deemed to be important. Those values should dictate where you stand on the workism spectrum.




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