Wasting Ourselves on Work

I have some ideas about work that are pretty far out there for an American. In the United States, we prize work so highly that we put up with all kinds of BS in order to make more money, show our worth, and earn particular titles. It is true that we need to work and earn money to live comfortable lives, but the extent to which we chase money and status is far beyond what is really necessary for us to be comfortable and this pushes the work we do in strange ways. We elevate the importance of our careers and often judge ourselves and others first by the jobs we have. When we meet a new person, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do?” meaning, what is your job. We don’t ask what someone likes to do for fun, what hobbies someone has, or where someone last vacation. Instead we ask about their job so that we can compare ourselves to them and get a feel for the kind of person we are speaking to.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “A good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy.” We are going to spend about 80,000 hours of our life working. The time we spend earning money can be time that we spend engaging with something just for the purpose of earning a living, but it can also be time we spend trying to make the world a better place. We can push for ever greater responsibility in our job, ever higher salaries, and more impressive titles, but we don’t need to. Seneca would argue that to the extent possible for each of us, we should try to do the most meaningful work with the time, skills, and abilities that each of us have. This can be a daunting and paralyzing thought today, which is unfortunate, but it is something that many of us can consider as we move forward.

 

At some point I think most of us set out to make a difference and to do something more on the noble side of work. However, we often settle into careers we don’t really like, work in settings and for bosses we don’t enjoy, and push ourselves in our careers at the expense of our family, happiness, time, and sometimes sanity. At a certain point, once we have a high enough salary, I think our goals and motivations shift from doing meaningful work and making enough for comfortable living to trying to impress others and show how valuable we are. This is equivalent of being busy for the sake of being busy, or worse, being busy for the purpose of impressing other people.

 

We won’t all have the ability to do the most meaningful work on earth, and I understand how scary it can be to step away from a good paying yet boring or meaningless career to take on something meaningful but low paying and unstable. I know that as our income rises our satisfaction with life will also rise, yet we should be considerate and aware of our trade-offs in search of more money, and we should be honest with ourselves about our motivations for the work we do. When we can, we should try to make a difference and do the best with our skills, time, and ability and avoid having a career or trying to climb a ladder just to show off to those around us.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the things that we present to the world when we are faking it.

 

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification. (On a side note, it is my understanding that the famous Marsh-mellow Test has had reproducibility problems within psychology research. Maybe be skeptical about the authenticity of the results of that original study but understand what it was trying to say about us.) 

 

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

 

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t  get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show people you don’t really like how successful you have become.

 

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and material goods will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.