In Part 1 of this miniseries, I challenged you to rethink your definition of a career. I also pointed out that a huge number of people are dissatisfied with their work; in my view, that’s because (in most cases) there is a more fundamental disconnect between one’s view of productive work and what happiness and success really mean.
Today, I’d like to bridge that gap and more fully answer the question: what is the proper way to think about work? To do that, we need to dip a toe into some controversial philosophical and psychological concepts.
When I ask people what “work” is, the overwhelmingly most common answer I hear is something to the effect of “it’s what I do to get money so I can live the rest of my life.” But hold on – what is “the rest” of your life, and why the implication that it’s inherently preferable to working? There is an immediate dichotomy in this statement: when you think of work and “the rest” of your life as two separate things, there is a real slippery slope involved. If your career is nothing more than what you do to finance things you would rather be doing, you’re already setting yourself up to resent the very idea of work. The bigger the disconnect between your work and whatever you’d rather be doing, the more likely you are to end up resenting yourself, too. Human beings can physically exist in a divided, conflicted state, but it’s not possible to flourish this way.
There is, of course, another fairly common archetype we haven’t mentioned yet: the person who does nothing but work, paying little attention to anything other than their next promotion or high-profile client. This person’s problem might seem more apparent; few of us fail to recognize the value of friendship, family, and leisure time, and if you’re shunning those things, something must be wrong. On the surface, it may seem as though these two kinds of people have opposite problems, but in reality they are merely slightly different manifestations of the same issue.
Humor me while I switch exclusively to first person for a few paragraphs. Early in my adult life, I was a Type 1 – the person who hates going to work and dreams of some undefined ideal, some alternative that will be better, somehow. I slogged through meaningless jobs at forgettable places for a while, and eventually joined the Army out of a vague desire to make progress. I was fortunate enough to discover a skill set in the military about which I was profoundly passionate: emergency medicine. I identify strongly with Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of Dr. House, minus the misanthropy; I generally like helping people, and I love puzzles – the more complex, the better. Learning to stitch wounds and put organs back where they belong was an unexpected dream come true for me, and I launched into my new career at full speed.
I immediately morphed into a Type 2. Everything was medicine, all the time. I accumulated a pile of degrees and certifications and set myself firmly on a path to medical school, followed by surgery training. I saw my friends once in a while, but in retrospect, not nearly as much as I should have. “The 4.0 GPA and lack of student loans is worth it,” I told myself as I continued working 60 hour weeks in order to avoid taking on school-related debt. It’s not as though I was lying to myself; I had legitimate pride in my ability to do all of that, and to do it all well. But the facts remained that I had permanent raccoon eyes, was gradually gaining weight, and my PlayStation was steadily accumulating more dust (as were most of my friends). I also rarely saw my wife, who was on active duty in the Navy, hundreds of miles away. Life was good, but it wasn’t great. Something was still off.
I didn’t really, truly figure it out until 2014. I was still going about my career incorrectly, just as I had been in my late teens. Too much focus on work is just as bad as too little, but I hesitate to phrase it this way; I don’t mean to imply the issue is purely quantitative, or one of “balance.” The problem for me was the same as it is for most people: a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the role of productive work in human life.
I firmly stand by the definition of work I cited in Part 1: it is “the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.” If we accept this definition – even if only for the sake of argument – what does it say about what an ideal career, in the context of an ideal life, looks like? If you’ve begun to notice the first ripples of a pattern emerging in my writing, you’ve realized that it’s all about integration. In order to flourish, to truly have all your ducks in a row, every single thing you believe, learn, and do must integrate seamlessly into the entire context of your life and knowledge without contradiction. That probably sounds obvious when stated so directly, but how many people take it seriously and live their lives according to that standard? Not many, in my experience.
Contradictions cannot exist in reality. Nothing can be that which it is and that which it is not at the same time and in the same respect. I’m offering a $100,000 cash prize to anyone that can show me a legitimate contradiction. (Please don’t waste your time looking for one, they really don’t exist; you should be working on your own eudaimonia instead.)
So how does that fit into what we’ve been talking about? Well, if your career isn’t fully supporting and enriching your personal life – and vice versa – then something is wrong. It’s not enough to merely use your career to enable your personal life; that would imply that it’s a one-way street, that your personal life doesn’t support and enrich your career. It means you’re leaving time – a lot of time – on the table. Assuming you work 40 or more hours per week, you’re leaving something like half of your waking life on the table. Recall that a flourishing life is one that is successful and healthy in every context, one in which every link or sector complements and strengthens all the others.
What did I do, specifically, to resolve this contradiction in my life? To put it simply, I became a professional mercenary, but not the kind you’re thinking of. I abandoned the traditional idea that your career is one thing that you do forever, and if you do change jobs, then the new thing has to be forever. I went back to basics, asked myself the most fundamental question: why am I working? Well, to support myself, to enable and enrich the rest of my life. If that’s what a career really is, then by extension, it can’t just be one thing that you do forever, even if you hate it. The essence of trade is free exchange to mutual benefit – creating win-win transactions. This is how we live flourishing lives that don’t impinge on or conflict with the flourishing of others: by producing value that didn’t exist before, and trading it for the value that someone else has produced. The exact kind of value you produce is irrelevant, in this context, and there are truly infinite options to choose from.
These days, I describe myself as a full-time side hustler. I take all the things I love doing and find ways to offer them to others as goods or services. I write, I train dogs, I flip used goods for profit, and do half a dozen other things that I’d be having fun with even if I weren’t getting paid for it. And you know what? I make less money than I did working in the medical field, but I’m flourishing ten times more.
Sure, that sounds great, but how many people can really get away with doing that? Everyone, I say – if that’s how you want to structure your professional life. “Traditional” careers are perfectly valid, if they fit snugly into the larger context of your life and promote eudaimonia. More on that next time.
Part 3, which will conclude this series on productivity, goes live next Monday and will (finally) offer practical tips on how to rethink and restructure your career in the best, most life-enriching way possible, no matter your situation. Not everyone will want to do it just like I do, and that’s perfectly valid – everyone has different needs and priorities, but the fundamental principle is universal. Tune in next week and I’ll explain how to consistently implement that principle in your life in a way that produces the best results for you.
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