I recently had a long catch-up with a girlfriend struggling through some personal turmoil, and she mentioned something that has lingered with me in the days since our conversation. She said that she’s not particularly happy with her current job, but that she’s also grateful for it, as its flexibility with working from home and somewhat lax work hours have given her the space to attend to herself during this bumpy personal time. She said something like — “I know I’m supposed to feel bad about not being personally defined by my job, but right now, that’s just what it is: a job.” She added that this New Yorker article by Toni Morrison had helped her come to this perspective, and to feel OK about it. In the article, Morrison explains that she had come to dislike a job she’d had owing to its unexpectedly and increasingly difficult demands, and when she returned home and complained to her father, he replied plainly: “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.” Morrison explains that she interpreted his straight-forward reply as follows: “1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself. 2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you. 3. Your real life is with us, your family. 4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”
I’ve been turning this over in my mind since our conversation. I was intrigued by and empathetic to my friend’s seeming reluctance to accept Morrison’s Baby Boomer-esque approach to work, wherein (dramatically oversimplifying here) work was perceived as a financial imperative rather than a mode of personal expression. Work is work, home is home, and never the twain shall meet. Nowadays (again dramatically oversimplifying), those of us in the millennial set are led to believe that work should be meaningful, self-defining, fulfilling. Workspaces have evolved to look and feel like homes, with couches, ping-pong tables, open kitchens, and even, in some cases, nap “pods” (beds at work!) And do any offices have a dress code anymore? You can roll right out of bed and into your cube — or open workspace, more likely — without raising any eyebrows. The subtext is that we should be our true selves at work, and that the old distinctions between work and play have dissolved. Many of my friends have absorbed this new mindset readily, hungrily, possibly unquestioningly. They take it as a point of pride when they are stuck at work until 11 p.m., or when they need to duck out from dinner to take a work call, or when their bosses are texting them on a Sunday morning. I’m not saying that they aren’t expected to participate in those interactions — it’s not feigned, and I have been required to do the same during various parts of my career — but that it’s done with flourish, with showmanship, a sort of “look at me; I’m important!” This, to me, is the unhealthy aftermath of a dramatic change in the way our generation views “work.”
But there is something else. There is a falsehood that our generation has absorbed that suggests that all work must be meaningful, important, and magically aligned with our truest passions from the minute we graduate from college and somehow polish ourselves up to appear borderline respectable in an office setting. I’ll never forget when a college-aged intern of mine came into my office one afternoon, heaved a sigh, and said that she just didn’t like the work she was doing right then. “Honestly, it’s boring,” she intoned. “Can I do something else? I want to do something that matters.” I was simultaneously pleased with myself for currying her confidence as I had never had a boss that had seemed to care about “my personal journey” and baffled by her perspective. “But it does matter,” I replied. And I explained how her seemingly menial work checking online courseware for various standards and requesting permission to republish certain works from authors were ultimately enabling us to provide free educational opportunities for those in need. She didn’t buy it, I don’t think, but it was a bluff anyway, if I’m honest. While it is true her work was contributing to a greater mission, my most authentic self wanted to say: “Yes, it’s menial. That’s because you’re an intern and I’m the director. Someone needs to do those things so that the higher ups can tackle the strategic work. But if you do your job well, you will move up quickly. Do you know how many hours of brainless data entry I did for $8/hour for four consecutive summers of my life? A lot. Like, a lot a lot. Everyone pays their dues. Even though data entry was the intellectual equivalent of writing “I will not be late again” three hundred thousands times in a row on a chalkboard, I learned how to set myself apart. I was pleasant, punctual, polite. I learned keyboard shortcuts and hack-y ways to navigate the clunky software more efficiently. I challenged myself to complete my daily workload as fast as possible. I was noticed. It’s the way of the world.”
Setting aside my crotchety “when I was your age…” musings, upon reflection, I realize that I have toggled between both perspectives (we’ll call them “baby boomer” and “millennial” for the sake of simplicity) at various times in my career. There have been jobs that I treated as pure work, completely separate from my own interests and ambitions, a paycheck when I needed it. There have been other jobs that have been “more than,” that have shaped my identity, kept me up at night and woke me up in the morning, felt so deeply personal and so aligned with my passions and interests that I’ve had trouble separating “work time” from “personal time.” And it may come as no surprise that those jobs tended to pay less and require more. And you know what? It’s OK, I think, to switch between perspectives. I think there can be courage and strength in muscling through only-a-paycheck kinds of jobs, especially when they are undertaken to make ends meet or afford a better lifestyle or help us up a ladder. And I think there can be serious growth and self-illumination that comes from jobs that challenges us and enable us to work on meaningful problems.
I realize the irony of my writing this piece right now, as I am decidedly out of the working world, spending half my week as a stay-at-home mom — and yet I am contributing to our household income and building a business, while refining a craft I have been practicing since I was a child. I am straddling the lanes of “passionate hobby” (dare I say “art,” in its own way?), “entrepreneurship,” and “homemaker/mother,” and the concerns of my friend feel so distant from my own at the moment. But hearing her thoughts on the topic of work versus real life brought me right back to the intensity of the many situations in which I found myself during my 20s and early 30s. It made me realized that of course we’d all love to have jobs that pay well and empower us to be our best selves, all while solving a meaty world problem. But the truth is that if a job is any one of those things, I’d probably consider it seriously. And I might prioritize certain elements over others given the circumstances of my personal life at a given time. For this reason, I found Morrison’s formula oddly comforting, a panacea I hadn’t quite known I’d wanted; she says: “I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.” It comes as a reassurance to those of us feeling like our work worlds are all-consuming, or that conflicts or stressful tasks or long hours in the workplace are sucking us dry, or that we should feel guilty for some reason for not being as obsessed with our jobs as everyone else in our generation appears to be. You are you first.
What do you think about the dotted lines between work and personal life?
+If I had to dress up for work, I daydream about wearing an all-white/all-cream look, something demure but fashion-forward, like this blouse and these trousers (or tucked into this chic skirt!). I also love the scalloped edge on this chic LWD (extra 40% off!), this ladylike polka dot dress (on sale for under $50!), and the unexpected two-tone chic-ness of this under-$100 dress.
+OK, I am absolutely DROOLING over this tote. It looks like it’s Celine or something — but it’s a fraction of the price. I love its roominess and versatility (note that there’s an extendable shoulder strap!).
+One of my best friends just raved about this book. Added to my list!
+Love the idea of serving appetizers on Williams-Sonoma.
+Even on sale, these are pricey — but how GROWN UP AND CHIC!??!?!
+This would be a super cool gift for a wine lover.