Hate Your Job? First, Shatter Your Work Prejudice
Our culture has a prejudice against work that dates back thousands of years. We view work as a troublesome sacrifice instead of an opportunity for joy and meaning.
This prejudice is so ingrained in Western culture that many of us have given up hope of ever finding a job that makes us happy. So let’s talk about the prejudice, so we can better understand this plague of perception and finally learn to be free.
The Ancient Prejudice Against Work
For proof of the longevity of our prejudice against work, consider the ancient parable of the ant and the grasshopper, over 2,000 years old.
In this familiar story, the ant works hard all summer long, building his house and storing food for the winter. The grasshopper, on the other hand, spends all summer playing and dancing, mocking the ant’s hard work, and neglecting his chores. When winter comes, the ant gets the last laugh; the foolish grasshopper, possessing neither food nor shelter, starves to death in the cold.
The moral of the story is clear: plan for the future or suffer. As a cautionary tale, it works. I am not suggesting we change it.
But notice the way the fable depicts work as joyless sacrifice. Notice the implication that a person (or in this case, an ant) cannot enjoy today while planning for tomorrow. Building houses and storing food is the polar opposite of play: the latter provides enjoyment, the former pain. In short, work sucks, and you’d better get used to it; that’s the message.
If these misguided notions were restricted to this simple story, they wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but they’re everywhere.
In the book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar writes:
…There is a society-wide prejudice against work. The prejudice is deeply rooted in the Western psyche and can be traced to our most influential texts. Adam and Eve lived the quintessential life of leisure—they did not work and did not plan for the future. Yet when they ate the forbidden fruit, they were banished from the Garden of Eden, and they and their descendants were condemned to lives of hard work. The notion of hard work as punishment has become so embedded in our culture that we tend to depict heaven… as devoid of all hardship. As it turns out, though, here on earth we do need work to be happy.
Think about that last line for a moment: we do need work to be happy.
I can already hear some of you screaming that your job sucks; it doesn’t make you happy now, nor could it ever. But that’s my point. Because we view work as sacrifice, we resign ourselves to jobs we hate.
We can do better.
Re-framing Our Prejudice
On page 93 of Happier, Ben-Shahar tells us of a study conducted by Donald Hebb back in 1930. In the study, 600 students between the ages of 6 and 15 were told that they no longer had to do any schoolwork: if they misbehaved, their punishment would be to go outside and play; if they behaved well, they’d be given more schoolwork.
The result of this reversal of circumstance was very interesting. Within a day or two, the students discovered that they preferred work to no work, and they actually ended up learning more than in previous years.
Similarly, men and women who have been unemployed for long periods of time for reasons beyond their control often report that they miss having something productive to do. Both the students and the unemployed workers have something in common: a forced change in perception.
In other words, to be happy at work, you must first overcome the notion that all work is unpleasant. That’s not to imply that every human being can learn to be happy with any job; that’s silly. So, then, once we recognize that work can be rewarding – once we overcome our prejudice – how do we find work that satisfies our individual natures?
Happiness at Work: Balancing Today and Tomorrow
True happiness involves a balance between our present-day activities and our future responsibilities. That is, in order to maximize our happiness, we need enjoyable daily activities that build toward meaningful long-term goals.
Work, then, should be pleasurable today while helping us accumulate wealth and meaning for tomorrow. It sounds Utopian, and I suppose it is. Not every day at work can be a party, nor will all of our long-term goals fill us with joy and inspiration. Living involves setbacks, hardships; we know this. But to the extent that it’s possible, balancing today and tomorrow is a worthy goal.
Thought Exercise: Take a moment to consider what tasks you truly enjoy: writing, playing music, singing, programming, solving math problems, or whatever else. Now consider what careers might offer meaningful long-term rewards while allowing you to perform those tasks on a daily basis. Do any potential careers spring to mind? Are they different than the one you have now? If so, are they viable options for you?
If, like the ant in the fable, your life’s work is all about the future, you’ll soon discover a painful reality: the present – the thing we’re experiencing right now – is all there is. If you give away 30 years of your happiness so you can retire in style, what a terrible cost, those years you’ll never get back.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s important to plan for the future. But it’s also important to enjoy today. And in the context of our careers, it’s important to do both.
The Hardest Work is Finding Happy Work
Finding a job you love is hard work, which I suspect is why most people don’t do it. It requires you to research jobs, salaries, and educational requirements. It requires commitment, planning, and risk assessment. And since your expectations of work are unique, you’ll research, plan, and soul-search largely on your own.
These challenges cannot be denied, but I believe that meaningful work exists for almost anyone willing to identify and obtain it. There is no single best method to help you identify your dream job, and even if there were, it would certainly be too lengthy and complicated to share in an article like this one. I’ve compiled a list of related articles immediately below this one to help get you started, but you won’t find everything you’ll need there. It’s a start, and every step toward a more satisfying work-life is a step worth taking.
My goal in this article was to address the prejudice against work and to lay a foundation for all the hard work that follows from the realization that a career can be so much more than a mindless and uninspiring series of tasks. Toward that end, I hope I’ve given you incentive to take on whatever challenges lay before you.
September 7, 2007 Friday at 2:25 pm