Thoughts on work life

There may be a few reasons why someone lets their work define their life, but I think it often loops around to some form of insecurity. This leads to exploitive practices and expectations in academia, but it is also a pretty regular occurrence in what I call the “real world” too.

  • If you think you don’t have enough experience for the job, you’ll work more than your other coworkers to appear more productive and therefore more valuable to the team.
  • If you think you don’t have enough experience to be hired elsewhere, you’ll work more than your other coworkers to appear more productive and therefore more valuable to the team.
  • If you’re on a visa and have immigration concerns, you’ll work more than your other coworkers to appear more productive and therefore more valuable to the team.
  • If your company is on the verge of layoffs and you have employment concerns, you’ll work more than your other coworkers to appear more productive and therefore valuable to the team.

In these cases, you’re trading your self-value for an artificial, perceived value. How others value you defines your worth.

  • What happens if you feel like you’ve earned the experience you need to feel confident and then your team hires someone who has a background in what you were learning?
  • What happens if you are fired or laid off?

Does your value diminish to zero because you are no longer as valuable as you were to your workplace?

If your work defines you, yes - your value does basically go to zero.

At one point early on in my career, my manager scheduled a meeting with me and directly told me that I was fired, which was devastating at the time. I was working those long hours mentioned above because I felt like I lacked the experience that I needed to do the tasks “correctly” and I had a hard time getting hired in the first place. After hearing that I was being rejected and wasn’t valuable, I was empty inside and found life to be a bit meaningless.

I didn’t have anything else to do after that meeting, so I continued working. I didn’t have anything to do the next day either, so I still showed up to work. Apparently, word that I was fired never made it over to HR, so I never received a formal termination notice even after showing up for weeks expecting everyday to be my last.

I was a bit depressed from the experience and emitted a repugnantly bitter aura for the duration of my stay. However, this was also a formative experience. I came to understand that I could be released and replaced at anytime and that it wasn’t safe for me to allow work to be my identity. It was after that experience that I adopted the mentality of “I’m working here because I want to grow as a person”. I did continue to work long hours afterwards partially because I lacked confidence and wanted to have a job but mostly because I was very interested in the skills that I was refining. They were really niche skills that I wouldn’t really have the opportunity to develop elsewhere and it helped define the types of problems and methods that I wanted to continue using in the future. I also could see that I was becoming technically proficient and I wanted to continue to get better.

Over time, prioritizing growing as a person began to pay off in my career. It got to the point where I was teaching myself and practicing methods at home before exploring how to use them to solve problems in my work. Practicing solving problems at work then make it easier to dive deeper in my work at home. The positive feedback cycle was pretty effective at enriching my interests and experience. Even though I was very much in the learning phase, I was able to share best practices with my team and help set standards that improved the performance of the group as a whole. Developing and refining my own interests also made it possible to propose and execute realistic solutions when faced with urgency.

This is largely the reason why I advocate that people pursue interests at home even if it has some overlap with their work. A lot of people become a bit unsettled when they interpret my suggestion as bringing work home, but that isn’t my message. If you’re pursuing things because you want to grow, then you should pursue those things. If you’re bringing work home out of fear or insecurity, it will prey on your vulnerability.

So, how much of your life are you going to give to your work vs give to yourself?

There are real stressors that will pressure you to give your life to your work, but I have a hard time justifying it in the long run. You’re always replaceable. Just look at the co-founders of Lyft who were forced out of their roles after working on the idea (and then company) for more than 15 years. If you have financial flexibility, do something that you want to do because you’re interested in it and don’t lose years because the perception of others is more important than your own happiness.

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