Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims: Live To Work
By Richard Eyre
The Harvard Business School taught this one to me – or at least the prevailing environment and attitudes there did. I loved my time there and owe a lot to what I learned. But the attitude of work as the central experience of life and as the end rather than the means to other ends can be dangerous and damaging.
We’ve spoken already about the danger of making our work too big a part of our identity. But not doing so is a particular challenge in a world where the first question of most new conversations is, “What do you do?”
Is a job something we have or something we are?
In earlier times there was a certain negative social status attached to work. The lower your station, the more you had to work. The higher your place, the less you worked, the more you were able to enjoy leisure, or art, or travel, or whatever was your fancy. It certainly is social progress that in our more egalitarian society most everyone works who can work, and the work we do is by and large far more pleasant and fulfilling.
The question is whether some parts of our society have gone too far in glorifying work. Have careers been made to seem so stylish by society that we willingly let jobs consume us – giving up to them our time, our leisure, our non-work friends, our broader interest in the world, and even our families?
I know people, and you do too, who make almost unbelievable sacrifices for career . without a second thought. They not only put in incredible amounts of time and energy, at the expense of almost everything else, but they also pick up and move to an unknown (or sometimes known but unpleasant) place, leaving family, home, and a lifestyle they love (things you’d think they’d fight for) at the whim of a transfer.
My best friend in high school and college was a remarkable case study of someone who went in the opposite direction. His name, like mine, was Richard, and he taught me more than anyone else ever has about the art and enjoyment of living. His early death was a deep wound to my soul and left a void never quite filled.
The words life and live had a meaning of excitement and relish to Richard, almost like a premonition of the fact that his life would be short and therefore must be full. Living, to Richard, meant experimenting, experiencing, enjoying. It also meant noticing and appreciating.
Money, to him, was something you needed a certain amount of to live. And work was something you did just long enough to get that money.
He would say, “Let’s go!” and what he usually meant was, “I’ve got enough to go to Acapulco, or to Alaska, or maybe just to Las Vegas.” He traveled through Europe and other places by working somewhere long enough to have the money to go to the next place. Long-term saving was a hard concept for him, because money was to be used to do something or go somewhere – to learn and enjoy – and sometimes to give to whoever seemed to need it more than he did.
Richard got a little more “responsible” as he matured and married. He became a gifted landscape architect and city planner and loved his work. Yet he never lost his perspective. Work was good if it allowed him to do what he wanted to do and if it left him the resources and time to do the other things he wanted and to care for what he valued. If work helped him to go where he wanted and let him be who he was, work was good. If it pulled him in unnatural directions or tried to own him, he dropped it or threw it out and looked elsewhere.
Work was for Richard a tool. If it extended him, increased his reach, his knowledge and power, served him and allowed him to do what he felt right about doing, then he valued the tool and took joy in it. But if it tried to turn on him, it if threatened to be the master rather than the servant, he handed it to someone else.
The president and CEO of a major, multinational computer company gave a remarkable speech wherein he described success as “nose prints on the window.” He explained that the best measure of real accomplishment was how anxious your children are to see you when you come home from work. The same sentiment was expressed by a religious leader who said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” Still another said, “The most important work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own home.”
Work is an important part of life. And that is the very point. Life is not a part of work.
Traveling the rural roads of a western state one summer, I struck up a conversation with a young couple who had, just a year before, left central Los Angeles and moved to a small mountain town. I asked them why. Their story was so basic and their explanation so simple, yet it had enormous resonance.
“We just asked ourselves one day, ‘Why are we here?’ We didn’t like the schools; our streets weren’t safe; none of our extended family was there; all we could afford was a small rented apartment with no yard. The only reason we were there was a job. We decided it was absurd to let a job dictate our lifestyle and even our values.
“We decided to switch it around, to put our life first and let our jobs follow. We found a place where we wanted to live, a place that was right of our children and that would let us live the way we wanted. We make half as much now, but we are at least twice as happy.”
It’s no mystery what the new maxim will be here. Another simple turnaround:
WORK TO LIVE
Good luck in turning this one around. See you in two weeks for a look at list-making.
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.