Toxic love affair with work

There have been a lot of stories in the press recently about work-induced burnout.  I will delve into that subject a little more in a later post, but first want to talk about something in this story that relates to how we define ourselves though our work.

In it Amber Coster says:

“I was working non-stop. The company was almost like a love affair. I call it ‘my greatest love affair’, because it felt so, so important. My identity was so wrapped up with work. If I wasn’t doing that job, I didn’t really know who I was.”

You may think that her story is exceptional, but I believe that what she is describing is something, to a greater or lesser extent, is something that many of us have experienced.

“So, what do you do?”  If you are an adult this is question you will probably have asked – or been asked – hundreds of times over the course of your life.  Chances are that it is one of the first five questions that you ask when meeting someone for the first time.  You have probably heard it so often that you have never really stopped to think about the words themselves.  The intent of the question, of course, is to find out what someone does for a living – what their job is.  I find this interesting for a number of reasons.  The first is that shows how strongly we define ourselves and others by they jobs – so much so that it is one of the first things we want to know about a person, along with their name and where they are from.  The second is that it would almost never occur to us to interpret the word “do” in the question as meaning anything other than our work – for most of us the single most important thing that we “do” is work.

The next time, heck, why not every time you get asked the question “What do you do?” in future, answer it by saying the things that you do outside of work – raising your children, playing with you cats, watching enjoyably trashy movies with a pizza and a bottle of wine, going climbing, going to gigs – whatever that might be.  Sure, some people will think you are being a smartalec, others perhaps a weirdo, but you are certain to get into some interesting conversations. More importantly, you will be defining yourself, both in the eyes of the questioner and yourself, in terms that are unrelated to work.  I would much rather know what books, what music, what film and TV, a person loves than what they do for a living, both because it is inherently more interesting but also because it will help me learn much more about the person than knowing what their job is.  Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, don’t reflexively ask them what their job is, try something like “What do you enjoy doing outside of work?” (though be careful to not make this sound like you want to ask them out on a date – unless, of course, you do want to ask them out on a date…).

The psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for devising his “hierarchy of needs” in 1943.  The hierarchy is most often portrayed as a pyramid, one which many of you will doubtless have seen.  At the base of the pyramid are four levels which Maslow defined as “deficiency needs” (D-needs) – one that person would not feel if they were met, but could become anxious if they were unfulfilled.  In ascending order these needs are:

1) Physiological needs, such as having food, water, sex, sleep

2) Safety needs, such as not being in danger, having a secure home, having a secure job and financial prospects

3) Love and belonging, such as having friendships and family

4) Esteem, such as having confidence, achievement, respect of self, respect by others

Maslow theorised that if one suffered a deficiency in a lower need, then one would be unlikely to focus upon a higher need until that deficiency is met.  If you are dying of thirst, for example, you are unlikely to care that much about not owning a house.  At the apex of the pyramid is a fifth need, this one not a deficiency need, rather this one is a “growth need” which Maslow called “self-actualisation”:

5) Self-actualisation, such as being creative, being able to solve problems, being able to accepts facts about the world

Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be – once a person’s lower level needs have been met the remaining need they have is to live their lives to their full potential.

The theory is not without its critics.  Maslow’s research in devising these needs was far from scientific – he based it upon studying people who his considered to be exemplary, writing that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.”  Later researchers subjected the hierarchy to proper experimental scrutiny and found that whilst there were (unsurprisingly) many basic needs common to all people regardless of culture, age or gender, they were not all necessarily identical nor in the hierarchy that Maslow proposed.  Edward Diener from the University of Illinois carried out a six-year survey of more than 60,000, questioning them about six needs that closely matched those proposed by Maslow.  The analysis of the responses showed that people to not follow a simple progression up the hierarchy, filling their needs in turn, the lines are far more blurred.  A person could, for instance, be hungry but still be happy in the company of their friends.  Someone might run into a burning building to save someone that they loved, prioritising their level 3 need for love and belonging over their level 2 need for safety.  Diener compared need to vitamins in our diets – we can’t exclude any of them, we need them all.  Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation is also both somewhat wooly and, based upon his own research, rare – in a study of 3,000 college students he found just a single one who had achieved self-actualisation.

So far, so what?  A things stand it is an interesting theory, but one that might not seem as though it has much bearing on your day-to-day life.  That would be the case were it not for the fact that a particular facet of Maslow’s beliefs has been widely adopted by modern management.  Maslow believed that the route to self-actualisation was through work.  As he writes in the opening paragraph of his book “Maslow on Management”:

“We can learn from self-actualising people what the ideal attitude towards work might be under the most favourable circumstances.  These highly evolved individuals assimilate their work into the identity into the self I.e. Work actually becomes part of the self part of the individual’s definition of himself”.

Later he goes on to add (capitals as per Maslow’s original):

“Or I can put this very bluntly: Salvation Is a By-Product of Self-Actualising Work and Self-Actualising Duty.”

You have to remember that Maslow had been studying, in his eyes, exceptional people, such as Albert Einstein and it is not unreasonable for the kind of work they undertook to be a key part of their self-identity.  For the vast majority, however this is not the case, we work to live, we don’t live to work.   To be fair to Maslow, he does advocate for a benign, supportive management approach that I would commend but this does not undo the damage caused by popluarising the notion that work, rather than being a means to an end, is an end in itself.  Many management texts and courses take it as read that people can, and should, self-actualise through work.  This makes sense, perhaps, if you are a surgeon or a concert pianist but far less so if you work in a shop or an accounts department.  For much of my career I have defined myself in terms of my job – it has been a huge part of my sense of identity – not least because it occupied so many of my waking hours.  Because of this it is so easy, perhaps even desirable, to let your work dominate your life at the expense of things outside of it, and so you are trapped in a vicious circle, the more your work is part of your self-identity, the more it makes sense to devote your time to it.  Similarly, the more sense it makes to seek continual advancement within your career – if your sense of self-worth is significantly linked to the work that you do, then of course would always be seeking a more senior, and hence more valued, position.  

We are unbiased observers of our own lives.  It is incredibly hard for us to rationally assess our motivations and sense of identity.  This is why we  all too often ascribe the concerns of friends and family about our working lives to ignorance or misunderstanding on their part, despite the fact that they are far more impartial judges than we are ourselves.  It is only when we are truly removed from our working lives that we can step back and assess our behaviours more critically.  Few opportunities present themselves in order for us to do this but one that we all will face, albeit too late to change anything, is the prospect of imminent death.  The old adage, “Nobody on their deathbed as ever said “I wish I had spent more time in the office”  has been attributed to both Rabbi Harold Kushner and Senator Paul Tsongas – the latter when he quit his Senate seat in 1984 at the age of 43 having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma – expresses a sentiment that few would disagree with, but I think is answering the wrong question.  It is much more interesting to ask how many people on their deathbed wish they had spent less time in the office.