There’s a saying: “Find a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life”.
Career advice that many of us have no doubt adhered to, and probably even shared with others. If you can find something that you are passionate and make a living from it, well the grind won’t feel like work at all. That’s the theory.
But then COVID came.
Seemingly overnight, the demands, the todos, the deadlines didn’t seem all that important anymore, as the centrality of work took a backseat to mere survival.
It also destroyed our daily routines and rhythms, replacing them with novel and creative ways to do ordinary things. Lockdown and working from home meant I could go to a Reformer Pilates class 10am Tuesdays. I could have lunch with my Dad on Friday. Plus, for a while, there were other important things to worry about, like sourcing toilet paper. Whether or not I was in a job I loved suddenly became a moot point. There were too many other things going on in my life.
It’s now the first quarter of 2022 and many of us are in transition to new hybrid working arrangements. I like the idea of some days in the office and having actual human connection. But I also don’t want to lose those “wins” of the previous two years. I don’t want to lose my more balanced life –and have those things squeezed out- as pressure from work ratchets back up.
A bad one-sided romance
Now, I am blessed to have a job that I love, but there is a dark side to it too: Sacrificing to what we love. For the last 10 years there were seasons –too many of them– where I gave too much of my time and energy to my job. So much so, that I burned out. When the pandemic swept through, I no longer had the capacity and opportunity to work like I used to.
Prior to my burnout, I made the same kind of sacrifices for work that most people around me make. As a culture we value and believe in the notion of hard work, to the point where devotion to our vocation can reach religious proportions. We believe the promise that if we work hard, we'll be rewarded with a 'good life'. A life full of material comfort, social dignity, moral character, purpose and unlimited opportunity. In other words: if we give ourselves and our very soul to work, it will, in turn, give our lives meaning, prosperity and our identity.
How did we get here? Well, thousands of books have been written on this, but in short we can thank things like the Protestant work ethic, capitalism, and meritocracy for peppering the societal soup we are all swimming in. Throw into that mix family pressures and personal temperaments (I can’t be the only perfectionist around!), then it’s no wonder we work hard. And perhaps no wonder why our approach to work becomes highly transactional, rarely challenged and predictably soul destroying as more and more people find themselves burnt on the altar.
But it doesn't have to be this way. COVID has made us question the basis and the value of this hard work. Many of us have now realised that our relationship with work, was in fact, a one-sided romance. And the veneer has disappeared for many of us.
Ending a bad one sided romance
As Maggie Mertons, writing for the Atlantic recently put it:
“Though the maxim goes that finding a job you love means you’ll never work a day in your life, the past two years have unearthed a counterpoint: Devotion to an employer is often a one-sided romance.”
The problem with one-sided romances is that they can be pretty blinding. I hung in there, working hard, because I thought of work more like a frog than a toad: kiss it enough times and it will turn into a prince. So much for the fairy tale: my frog turned out to be burnout.
What I’ve only realised recently however, is that what capitalism has been spruiking promises about work that it could never give us in the first place. The corporate workplace isn’t interested in providing us with fulfilling work. It is set up to advance the interests of stakeholders. As sociologist Erin Cech observes: “Loving your job is a capitalist trap”.
The solution isn’t to leave the job I love. Nor does it lie in how hard I work. It lies in shifting the internal narratives of why we work. Cech posits that we need to find places outside of work to anchor our sense of self. Her advice is to:
1. Trim paid work to fit into more confined spaces in our lives. Rather than “how can I change my career path to do work that I love”, ask “How can I wrangle my work to leave me with more time for the things and people I enjoy?”
2. Diversify our meaning-making portfolios. Actively seek out new places to root a sense of identity and fulfilment. For no one should entrust the bulk of their sense of self to the whims of the labour market.
Sound advice. And something that should come fairly easy to those in a faith-based community.
A good one-sided romance
You see, not all one-sided romances are bad. As a follower of Jesus, that’s how my relationship with him begun. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)
I was a sinner when Jesus died for me. I didn’t deserve this. I hadn’t earned it. I wasn’t worthy of it. I took his love for granted. And yet with His sacrifice, I get a new identity. With it comes moral clarity, character and purpose that capitalism and hard work will never give me (I’d also argue my relationship with Jesus also gives me social dignity and material comfort, but that’s for another time). God cannot love me any more, and will not love me any less. And he will love me right into eternity.
I’m all for diversifying our meaning-making portfolios, not just having one egg in my sense-of-self-diversity-basket. But there is a weakness with this approach. The problem is that other eggs, like relationships, if they don’t crack, will expire. Even the most loving of relationships ends with death. Having a God-identity-egg (for want of a better term) in my basket is an egg that will never crack nor expire.
This God-identity-egg should be the biggest egg in my basket. Not the only one, since relationships and even work do give us something. When they do, I have something extra to be thankful to God for. When they don’t, I need to take another look at my biggest egg.
I’m thankful that COVID gave me the opportunity for some clarity and realignment. I’m thankful to now see what was hiding in plain sight all along. I’m thankful to have a job I love, which doesn’t need to be my everything.
I hadn’t thought of my relationship with work as a one-sided romance before, but I’ll certainly never think of office romance the same way again.