My parents hated their jobs. I don’t ever remember having a positive conversation with either of them about a day at work. Comments like “It’s work!” or “It puts food on the table” have left an imprint on me. If the average person spends around 86,000 hours of their life at work, how many people are out there are thinking, “Work sucks, but you have to work to live!”?
It’s a question that I have confronted throughout much of my life. This is a story about some of the characters that have shaped my perceptions, values, and continued curiosity about this phenomenon. My hope is that by exploring these questions publicly, you might join me in critically evaluating and boldly confronting your own relationship with work.
My mother, the artist
Suzette lived to perform. It was her dream to move to New York City and work on Broadway. She was a songwriter, an actress, a painter, and a true original. She was the girl in high school who sketched a sky blue shimmering star around her left eye every morning for no reason at all other than to start her day with creativity and self-expression. As a junior in high school, she moved out of her parents home to live an independent life free of structural constraints and familial pressure. At 19, she recorded her first and only record.
Fast forward a decade and that person was a shadow of her former self. Slowly, she had said yes more frequently to short-term comforts and no to risks and opportunity. Every dream she had faded into a story of what she once was. That inspirational and creative space was taken up by more traditional goals — marriage, children, and the best fruit pie at the family Thanksgiving. She was a mother of two, unemployed, and in an unhappy marriage to a 34 year-old machinist. She was stuck.
Finally, my mother decided to pursue independence again and went to nursing school. It took her five years to finish an associate’s degree while raising children, but she did it. For the next twenty years she would work as a nurse. A career that brought both satisfaction and resentment, but never joy or fulfillment. It became a necessary evil in her life enabling financial independence, but also gripping her tightly in a life her teenage self would have despised.
Why did my mother become a nurse, a profession that is selfless, scientific, and requires you to wear a boxy cotton uniform that mutes any resemblance of individuality? Suzette was clearly born to wear a costume. What do we do as human beings when we dream big, but hesitate to nurture our talents? Does opportunity have a way of losing interest in people who have lost interest in it?
My father, the anarchist
Mark, on the other hand, never reimagined his life. He was incredibly bright, a skilled craftsman, and a social creature. However, his most distinct characteristic was his defiance. He liked to refer to himself as a “freak”, a true anarchist. He had long hair, rode a Harley Davidson, and hung with a rough and tough crowd. He spent his entire childhood moving around the country for his father’s work. He hated his nomadic upbringing. At 18, his family settled in Conneaut, Ohio. Mark vowed he would never move again. He crafted and accepted his fate early. The pursuit of simple pleasures was his only life goal. Working a physically demanding job under undesirable conditions was just a necessary part of that equation.
Despite the apparent contradictions, this self-proclaimed-anarchist biker, my father, raised his children to value spirituality, honesty, commitment, and the pursuit of freedom and happiness in all our endeavors. Instead of books or chores, he used music and storytelling to teach us these lessons. My father spent 40 hard years working in factories between Ohio and Pennsylvania. By the time he was 60, this work had not only broken him down physically, but it had also washed the color out of the bright, unique, philosophical character who raised me. He had abandoned his ideals and conformed to the simplistic worldview of his peers. He stopped thinking for himself. He stopped wanting anything at all. He had become a simple man without simple pleasures. All he had left was his shitty job.
Mark chose to set low expectations for his life and work. Honestly, his strategy was effective. He frequently found himself pleasantly surprised by life’s gifts. However, I can’t help but wonder what potentially beautiful parts of Mark have been disabled? As emotional beings, what are we refusing to ask of ourselves in order to preserve our stability and avoid the sting of rejection or failure?
My obsession with “success”
My parents relationship with work shaped me even at 5 years old. I associated their unhappiness with our working class woes. I spent most of my time trying to develop creative ways to score a buck–everything from gambling with my grandfather to selling bows on the side of the street made from colored paper towels. I kept a tight watch over my funds and even provided low interest loans to my family when someone wanted to see a movie or was short on cash for groceries.
I’d do anything to live a different life than that of my parents. By 22 years old I was becoming a cutthroat competitor, studying business and global leadership, preparing to make six figures before any of my friends. Near the end of my program as a business student, I was determined to lead my team to victory in a client-centered competition. After 2 months of asking my team to work grueling hours, micromanaging the production of every slide, and undermining the ideas of my peers, we did just that — we killed it! The client loved our suggestions. However, my confidence in our success was quicky humbled by feedback that left me in tears. A team of my professors cautioned me that despite my short-term success, my lack of empathy for my team members was an indicator that I would be an ineffective leader. As anticlimactic as this anecdote might read, if this were a blockbuster film about a millenial career gal who learns about life and love, I would insist that day be the dramatic turning point.
While beaten down and agonizing over my future, a friend told me about a graduate program in Industrial/ Organizational Psychology. It is a field focused on maximizing human capital by leveraging data to drive behavior. The prospect of being paid to learn about people was enticing. It felt like a profession crafted just for me.
Slowly the advice of my professors had seeped into my psyche and I began searching for new ways to work and lead.
My experience in Corporate America
Before I was 30, I was promoted to a corporate Director position for a company that has over 130,000 employees. I rocked the pantssuit, mastered the memo, got the right people to listen, and finally figured out which fork to start with at a fancy dinner. To my parents, I had made it, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I was deeply unhappy and I certainly wasn’t alone. I was playing someone else’s game and it felt unnatural and sometimes just wrong. I was working 10–14 hours a day and every weekend. I’d ended relationships, lived on the road, and let my work define my value as a person. I watched individuals and teams form internal alliances and battle each other to win executive approval. I was an active participant in a system that did not nurture individual expression or fulfillment. My aggressive pursuit of corporate success led to the same unhappiness I saw in my parents’ relationship with work.
I thought I had learned from my parents mistakes. I took a different path to create a better life. I constantly evaluated myself and relentlessly sought to improve. I created big dreams and I chased them. I followed the rules set by society and myself. I started to ask, what is left to do if I have done everything “right,” but I still feel unhappy and unsettled? As compliant and contributing citizens, how do we handle feeling like we were sold a lie about what success is and how it is supposed to feel?
A new “human-centered” perspective
In 2012, my company decided to invest in design thinking training for leaders. I was a participant in the session and for the first time in my life the work we were doing felt natural and meaningful. Brent, from Stoked, was my team’s dedicated teacher and coach. He was clever, commanding, and simply uncommon. He communicated with us in ways a “leader” had never done before. He was encouraging and appeared to be 100% confident in our ability to do something new. Instead of telling us exactly what he wanted from us to calm our discomfort, he reframed all of our fears into engaging and meaningful questions. As a part of our experience, he challenged us to reimagine the marriage proposal. I distinctly remember interviewing people on the street about their intimate relationships and life goals. It lit me up. I had permission to love people, take interest in their lives, AND solve problems at work. Despite my efforts, I still believed they were mutually exclusive; caring for others could not exist in the same space as “work.” I left the session feeling electrified.
Over the next 5 years, I found myself reimagining what my job could be. I started to dig deep about the purpose of work in our society. I concluded that work should serve two primary purposes: 1) provide the resources necessary to help people fulfill their basic needs and 2) give individuals a purpose and an outlet to share and hone their talents. This perspective forced me to change my priorities. My desired outcomes were now created by me, instead of set for me. I was determined to signficantly improve people’s lives at work. My team integrated human-centered design into the projects and priorities of about 200 high-potential leaders. We were able to see the payoff through the transformational stories they told. It was an incredible journey I am very proud of. I was able to do meaningful work in a way that felt authentic, even inside of a very large and conservative corporation.
This experience made me realize there are so many opportunities to recreate our relationship with work using human-centered design. It had me asking more questions about the behaviors that our society passively accepts as normal. How many tasks do we do each day that feel unnatural, misaligned, or misguided? As philosophical creatures, when we stop and ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” do the answers feel genuinely aligned with creating a better world for not just ourselves, but each other?
My parents were capable, talented, and passionate people, yet their work didn’t reflect their complexity, it minimized it. They hated the 86,000ish hours of their lives they spent at work. They were victims of a rigid and outdated construct of work. They worked to live, despite the negative physical and psychological impact. While a new construct is emerging, some antiquated beliefs about work remain widely accepted by our society:
Working longer is working harder.
The immeasurable is invaluable.
Financial success is the only proper measure of success.
An individual’s value is limited by their educational accolades.
I am on a personal journey to change our sometimes unhealthy relationship with work. I know this is an endless endeavor, because let’s be real, work just sucks sometimes. It took me 32 years to even begin to develop my own perspective. But I do acknowledge that my newfound human-centered view has significantly reduced my anxiety and weekly hours worked. I am a significantly better friend, daughter, sister, colleague, and partner.
It’s my goal to continue to ask these questions and seek new ones from you. Together, let’s re-imagine what those 86,000 hours look like. Let’s craft a new vision of work’s role in our lives — one that is full of personal growth, introspection, creativity, freedom, and purpose. A reality that our parents can admire and our children can enjoy. One critical look, short story, and small step at a time.