For anyone that’s participated or spectated in work culture over the last few years, it’s clear that our relationship to work has shifted. The pandemic spurred a recession, which led to mass layoffs and added intensity as tech workers shifted to working from home. The age of burnout ensued. Less than a year later, 48 million Americans quit their jobs in what became known as The Great Resignation. What came next falls somewhere between the Great Reset and the Great Reconsideration – a general acknowledgment that work hasn’t really been working for workers for all too long, and something has to change.
Independent journalist and consultant Simone Stolzoff explores this very topic in his new book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work. Through the stories of tech workers and Michelin star chefs and unionizing startup employees, Simone deftly catalogs how work has gradually encroached on life, and offers some suggestions on how to take life back. The book is well worth a read for anyone looking to reset the dynamics of their relationship to work; here are six essential lessons learned on work, balance, and productivity.
1. It’s not just the hours, it’s the energy
It’s easy to think of work as a scenario where the more you put in, the more you get back. After all, it’s what we all learn as the fundamentals of productivity. But Simone notes in his very first story of a Michelin star chef who burnt out in success that “her job didn’t take up just her best hours, but her best energy, too… none of us is just one thing. We are workers, but we are also siblings and citizens, hobbyists and neighbors. In this way, identities are like plants: they take time and attention to grow. Unless we make a conscious effort to water them, they can easily wither.”
2. Resume virtues often determine our self-value
Simone presents what author/op-ed writer David Brooks coined as “resume virtues” – essentially outward validators that we’re successful. Resume virtues look like having great grades, prestigious job titles, and accolades that signal that you’re building status and ambitious about your next steps.
These resume virtues have come to define how many workers see themselves; in pursuit of more accomplishments to broadcast to their networks and beyond, but they really aren’t where we should be looking for self-value.
They are things that are shareable on social media and resume-worthy. These resume virtues have come to define how many workers see themselves; in pursuit of more accomplishments to broadcast to their networks and beyond, but they really aren’t where we should be looking for self-value.
3. Value self-determination can be a solution
Unlike resume virtues, a commitment to value self-determination can help us figure out what really matters to us, beyond the external validation. C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at University of Utah (and who is noted in the book), wrote about this concept in his paper “Gamification and Value Capture.” In it, he posited that value self-determination helps us figure out our definition of success that is unique to our identities – not our workplaces. In doing so, we can better understand what is truly fulfilling, which is likely a mixture of work and all of life that happens outside of our jobs.
4. Burnout has cost employers an estimated $190 billion a year. Short-term fixes don’t solve it.
In the immediate aftermath of COVID, much was written about burnout. It felt like a ubiquitous human experience, as the lines between work and life blurred with many people working in makeshift locations in their bedrooms or living rooms. When you quantify it though, the number is staggering, and it’s something that no Zoom bonding activities or small health perks can offset. It requires a holistic rethinking of how to change our relationship to work, not just the band-aid solutions that employers often point to when burnout starts to bubble at the surface.
It requires a holistic rethinking of how to change our relationship to work, not just the band-aid solutions that employers often point to when burnout starts to bubble at the surface.
And it’s something that both workers must advocate for themselves, but also have modeled for them within company leadership. Simone shares the story of a prominent tech CEO who would Slack at any time of day or night and insist that others don’t need to follow suit, but recognized the inherent pressure that was creating for her team. If she was on all the time, they would feel compelled to be, too. It was only in restricting herself more to work hours that she saw that behavior mirrored in her team.
5. Work can give you a lot, but it’s never going to give you life.
While it might be tempting to villainize work or the workplace, it’s not the enemy. Many good things come from our working lives. Work helps us build self-esteem and discover a sense of purpose. It can create and nurture lifelong or brief friendships and relationships, but it will never be everything. It’s important to keep work in the context in which it is literally defined: it’s your labor in exchange for a salary. Sometimes that can feel more or less gratifying, but to know that definition is to always be able to see work for what it is – and ideally never more than it should be.
6. The best thing you can do is know who you are without work.
Simone interviewed hundreds of people for his book and discovered a common thread – those that seemed to find the most happiness and had the best relationship to work had a clear sense of who they were without it. If you removed what you do for a living from how you describe yourself, how much else would you have to say? Could you talk about yourself as a parent or a dog parent or plant parent? Do you have a hobby or side project you’re passionate about? Your identity is layered, and ensuring that yours doesn’t exist as just one single layer will help you be more resilient and establish a healthy relationship to work.
This is merely a snapshot of the learnings found in the pages of Simone’s book. To order a copy, check it out here. If you’re interested in sharing who you are and what you do beyond your 9-to-5, Polywork is the place to be.