You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

Actions Over Words

Yogi Berra
supernova7/Bigstock.com

In the classic film My Fair Lady, Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle goes on a marvelous musical rant in the song, “Show Me.”

Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!

She goes on to chastise merely talking about dreams for the future, longing for physical contact, how love is forever, and more, repeatedly demanding of others to actually show me!

Though the song is about romance in particular,

words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. Is that all you can do? Don’t talk…show me!

is insightful wisdom for life.

It’s easy to talk a big game. I’m going to be famous. I’m going to be an actor. I’m going to write a novel. I’m going to be president. I’m going to travel more. I’m going to be a better parent. I’m going to get healthy. I’m going to spend less. I promise I’ll do the dishes later.

The words sounds nice. Even praiseworthy sometimes. Wow, that’s fantastic! Way to be aspirational. It makes a person sound like a real achiever. But, of course, the words are empty without any follow-through. Hypocritical, really. You said you were going to do one thing, and instead you did another–or nothing at all.

Saying one thing and doing another is a rift in human nature inherent to each and every one of us. You and me, included.

It doesn’t take long to find examples more recent than Eliza Doolittle’s fictional Victorian England. American President Barack Obama is about to embark on an historic visit to Alaska to observe firsthand one of the states hardest hit by the early stages of global climate change. He plans to visit a number of different communities to bring attention to what’s going on, and give some fervid speeches about the need for worldwide action on climate. This is unquestionably an important trip, and hopefully putting the spotlight on places where climate change is already having a drastic, noticeable impact will shake some people out of lethargy or denial.

Except that there’s a huge action the Obama administration undertook recently that’s undermining the whole thing. A couple weeks ago, they granted final approval to Shell to drill in the Alaskan Arctic. It’s well-documented at this point that combustion of fossil fuels is the major catalyst of climate change, that we need to leave them in the ground rather than take more out, and that the Arctic in general is one of the most fragile places anywhere. If a spill should occur, it will be nearly impossible to clean up, and cause further environmental devastation.


Whatever your political affiliations or convictions, you don’t have to be a political scientist or staunch partisan to see the gulf between actions and words here. It’s hard to take the passionate words seriously when as recently as two weeks ago–in the very place you’re using as the example for your rhetorical force–your tangible actions were extremely contradictory. Don’t talk of climate change action. Show me.

I was moved this morning by (yet another) excellent profile of the brilliant Stephen Colbert as he prepares to launch his version of The Late Show. The TIME Magazine piece closes with the following story Colbert shared:

I went across the street, got myself a cup of coffee and looked at the theater from the outside for about an hour, and I realized that nothing we do right now really matters. I mean, we’ll do our best to have a good design and good logo and good marquee and hire all the right people and have the right sound and the right guests. But it doesn’t really matter until you go and do it. Everything is theory. As Yogi Berra beautifully said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

In the end, it’s the actions that matter–what you actually did or will do. We like gabbing about theory: university lectures, pub talk, dinner table chatter, cable news banter. We like flowery words: memes, speeches and sound bites, tweets and other snack-size sharable content. They feel good and profound. And they can be. But eventually we have to stop talking and just do the thing. It’s all about what happens in practice–the action. And if the actions don’t match the words then the words and all the theorizing were truly meaningless.


Whether for a social cause like the climate, or dreams for a career and the next chapter of your life, or simply taking out the trash…

May you be a person of actions over words.

The Digital Dream

The Virtual City
agsandrew/Bigstock.com

Remember Inception? Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film explores the labyrinthine, perception-altering nature of dreams. In Inception, dreams can be architectured to your own design without the restrictions of the real world, yet feel real as you experience them. You can even share dream worlds with other people. Over the course of the film, both the characters and the audience become disoriented. Such seemingly real dreaming inhibits the ability to properly function in the real world. In the universe of Inception, some people even prefer to dream all day. For them, dreaming is more enjoyable than reality. 

At first blush, Inception is merely a far-fetched, entertaining story. But the film, it turns out, is a rather good allegory for our increasingly digital, nonfiction world. Replace dreams with cyberspace, and the whole mix of imagination, hopes, relationships, perceptions, and preferences readily applies to us. Cyberspace is not a full-blown reality shift like a lifelike dream or all-encompassing virtual reality. But the digital universe of cyberspace in which many of us interact, and the so-called Internet of Things, are significantly more immersive than anything we’ve experience as human beings before. The digital immaterial bleeds into the tangible material, and in many ways is beginning to supplant it.

It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to start to understand why. There’s a dopamine seeking-satisfaction loop that shifts into overdrive when sending and receiving Snaps, Tweets, photos, texts, and the like. The digital commons, like dreams, is not subject to the rules of space and time in the way our bodies are. We can connect and engage with a seemingly infinite number of things in the expanse of cyberspace. There’s a huge rush in the feeling of transcending physical and geographical limitations.

What’s more, the digital commons seems to give us all the pleasurable and positive elements of interaction without any of the awkward and negative ones. You can keep up with the latest happenings of family, friends, old classmates, and former romantic flings without ever needing to talk to them or see them in person. You can distance yourself from painful or uncomfortable conversations by simply texting or emailing. Send it and walk away. Or if you are the recipient and you don’t want to respond just tap to exit and ignore. No fabricated schedule conflicts, small talk, or conversational exit strategies required.

A recent Pacific Standard article noted that online support groups seem to be more honest, reduce loneliness, transcend stigmas, and increase solidarity and validation compared to their in-person counterparts. For people who suffer from things like depression and bi-polar disorder, “Being able to just articulate something society tells you not to is very powerful…they’re looking for a social space where they can be heard.”

If such things occur they should be celebrated. If you live in Rural, Anywhere, or feel isolated in a metropolis, your only catharsis may be a couple of friends chatting with you online from thousands of miles away. Thank God that’s possible.

But we need to be conscious and cautious about giving preference to the digital commons over the real world. The digital is, in fact, incomplete. The reason you can text or email and back away is precisely because you are interacting in an ethereal space rather than the concreteness of being face-to-face. Like a dream, others are merely shallow imaginings or facades. When confronted by a dream-state projection of his wife, Inception’s main character Dom Cobb remarks, “I can’t imagine you with all of your complexity and all your perfection and imperfection…you’re just a shade of my real wife.”

It’s a thin, sensory- and intricacy-deficient version of the real world. Actual eye contact and touch are impossible (Skype and Apple Watch vibrations hardly come close to the real thing). In cyberspace, you can click to disconnect at any time and you’re instantly uncoupled and unburdened from any engagement. The people on the other side could be entirely different than how they present online, or even be some sort of bot. There’s no density or tangibility to the relationship.

In the same piece on online support groups, author Alana Massey recalls a time when she worried someone on the other end of an email correspondence had died since she had not responded for a few days.

My friend Maryam is someone whose voice I have never heard and whose smile I have never seen. She exists as a pretty but serious avatar in my email inbox and on social media accounts. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from her regarding an essay I wrote about depression and language…It was a message of gratitude and familiarity that arrived at a time when I felt particularly isolated. Connecting to someone whose experiences reflected my own was especially welcome at that particular moment. We began an email correspondence that consists mostly of long updates that are characterized by the kind of humor and honesty it might take years to develop with an offline friend.

During a commute home in April, I realized that it had been a while since we had written and my talent for assuming a worst-case scenario made me suddenly panic that she was dead. It was not too far-fetched a thought about a young woman who has frequent suicidal thoughts. We share no mutual friends, we live in different cities, and we don’t even have each other’s phone numbers, so I’d have no way of knowing…I breathed a sigh of relief after arriving home and finding her Tumblr recently updated.

Online support seems great, until someone might need all-out support. It takes an actual shoulder to lean on to hold someone up. You can see the struggle in someone’s gaze. And it’s blatantly obvious when they’re not present—they’re physically not there. Maybe you need to go knock on their door, take them out to lunch, or chaperone them to a counselor or the ER. In the digital commons, these things are hidden behind the superficiality of the medium. Someone can forget or choose not reply and others are left lost and poring over terrible hypotheticals. We shouldn’t find out that they’re OK only through a random social media post.

If we’re not careful, we begin to turn into versions of ourselves as incomplete as the digital space we’re participating in. By preferring actions like:

Texting over conversing face-to-face

Streaming entertainment inside over going outside

Online groups over groups showing up to meet together

Photo-toggling dating apps over the possibility of chance romantic sparks at unexpected times and places…

We are forgoing needed relational depth for comfortable superficiality.

In a scene in Inception that’s easy to overlook, Cobb is talking to his kids over the phone an ocean apart. He hasn’t been home with them for years, and he can’t tell which child is which as they speak. He can’t even picture their faces in his mind. The scene suggests that subsisting entirely on phone-to-phone conversations is as ethereal and incomplete as dreams are to reality. The ultimate resolution for Cobb is to be home. Not memories and daydreams in the mind or fanciful dream worlds—actually home, wrapping his arms around his children. When they finally do meet eye-to-eye and smile-to-smile, you feel Cobb’s rich pleasure of real contact in contrast to all the preceding exciting, but ultimately tenuous, world of dreams.

Snapchatting, Tweeting, texting, emailing, and the rest, all work well when in their right place. They’re not inherently evil, and I’m not a technophobe. I use them daily too, and I’ve burned plenty of hours drifting through cyberspace. But they are inherently incomplete. If the medium is the message, the message is that we don’t need the engagement and complexity of the real world to have meaningful relationships. Short snippets of text or video, sometimes in tandem with emojis, GIFs, or other simple visual and audio cues, are sufficient for social bonds.

But there’s no long-term substitute for real faces and voices. No substitute for the complexity of other people: their posture and demeanor, their touch, all the things they’re saying without speaking. Not to mention all the subtleties of the surrounding environment. A seemingly mundane hug in a backyard is exceedingly more complex and satisfying than even the most innovative digital, dreamlike engagement.

In a burgeoning era of digital immersion, we have to choose to give primacy to the real world. It’s where we’ll actually find healthy cycles of seeking and satisfaction. Complex, concrete reality has the potential for more serendipity than the digital dream ever will. Yes, some experiences can be awkward or undesirable. But in persevering through it you might break relational ground or do new things you never had before—deepening your personal enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s a fulfilling, stable dopamine loop.

No matter how pleasurable and exciting it may be to transcend the limits of space and time in dreams or the digital universe, you can’t function without a sense of place—of home. A dense self-identity, feet firmly planted somewhere, relating well to the people and things around you. Too much of the incompleteness of the ethereal leaves us longing for a completeness we can only find at home in the real world. Hopefully, like Inception, we can find our way back.