I’ve been thinking a lot about work for the last week, in large part because of a few articles that have been circulating the interwebs. There was Sam Polk’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which the former Wall Street suit diagnosed himself — and his old colleagues — as wealth addicts. And there was Miya Tokumitsu’s piece, featured in Slate and Business Insider, in which she described how “do what you love” (DWYL) — “the unofficial work mantra of our time” — devalues most of the work that’s done in the world and ultimately hurts those who believe it.
Both articles were compelling, and in their critiques, both authors aptly described the reigning schools of thought when it comes to work: There’s the DWYL camp, which holds that we should all take what we enjoy doing more than anything else in the world and find a way to make a living out of it, whatever the consequences may be. Then there’s the getting-paid camp, the ones who believe that work is solely a means to a paycheck, and of course it’s not fun, because it’s work and that’s the way life goes, so you should put your head down, put your nose to the grind, and try to make as much as you can. (Given that 70% of Americans report being unhappy with their jobs, I respectfully disagree with Tokumitsu; I would argue that the unofficial work mantra of our time is actually “I hate my job, but at least it pays me.”) Both of these philosophies are problematic, however, as they both reduce the multifaceted nature of work – and what makes it meaningful – to just one dimension. And taken together, they set up a false dichotomy, leading us to believe that we have to choose one or the other.
First, the false dichotomy: Since DWYL and getting-paid are the two narratives that we hear most when it comes to work, we’re often made to feel like these are the only options. Either we do what we love, health insurance be damned, or we suck it up and find a job we hate but is financially secure. But the reality is that these aren’t the only two choices; they’re two ends of a spectrum, and there were a multitude of options in between that are stimulating and engaging and enjoyable and also provide adequate compensation. You don’t have to do the thing you love most in the world for a living in order to be satisfied in your work; it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. If there are aspects of your job that you enjoy and are good at, if you’re being challenged and learning and growing, if you have good coworkers around you, and/or if you feel like a valuable part of the organization, you can certainly be satisfied with your work, even if you wouldn’t do it if you weren’t paid. These jobs in the middle — ones that allow you to pay your bills, even if you’re not maximizing your earning potential, and to do work that you find meaningful and fulfilling, even if it’s not what you would do if you knew the world was ending next week – often go overlooked in the discussion.
The second problem with these philosophies is that both of them reduce work to a single dimension. For DWYLers, work is entirely about enjoyment. Income is secondary, job security is secondary, contribution to society is secondary. Everything else about work takes a backseat to how happy you are at your job. For those in the getting-paid camp, work is entirely about money. It doesn’t matter what you do, what kind of impact it has, or whether or not you enjoy it — work is just about collecting a paycheck, ideally the largest one you can manage.
The reality, however, is that work is not just about one or the other. Because unless you are independently wealthy or living off of your parents, you probably have bills to pay; and if we spend most of our waking hours at work, then how we feel about our work has a significant impact on our overall well-being. We regularly see people on both sides of this debate downplay (and even ignore outright) the importance of the other. And, as previously noted, work is about a lot of things beyond enjoyment and money. It’s about impact — whether you feel like you make a meaningful contribution to your organization and/or society as a whole through your work. It’s about your coworkers — whether the people you work with are people you want to be around for 8 hours a day and/or are good at what they do. It’s about the quality of life outside of work that your job affords — whether you have time and resources for relationships, hobbies, leisure, side projects. It’s about how well your organization treats you — whether you feel valued as an employee.
Work encompasses all of these things. Each of them impacts how satisfied we’ll be at our jobs, and each of us will weight them differently, based on our priorities and values and life experiences. For some, being fulfilled by our work is critically important; others are content with work that isn’t the most enjoyable if it maximizes their time and energy for their recreational pursuits. Some care less about what they’re doing than who they’re doing it with and value a great team above all else. And on and on. We want each of these elements in varying degrees. Ergo, declaring that work is solely about enjoyment or money neglects the complexity of work and how people find meaning in it.
So in the end, neither of the dominant narratives about work in our society are the most helpful, because they’re both oversimplifications of what work is and how we can find satisfaction in it. In the midst of all this talk about how we should approach our work, we would really benefit, both individually and collectively, from thinking outside of these two perspectives and not letting them be our only options. It’s a lot more complicated than that.