Cogito, ergo sum—”I think, therefore I am,” was first articulated by the great French philosopher René Descartes and over time, became an oft quoted and paraphrased pillar of Western philosophy. For another time and Newsletter, the full intent of his thought was actually: Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum—”I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am,” meaning (without getting too esoteric) that if you doubted your existence, you, by extension, must be real.
Back to work.
Almost two years into the Plague. Two years of lost jobs, slashed salaries, working from home and often locations purposefully remote from the offices that we once frequented, to the exclusion of much. Do you know many people who would say or admit to the notion that so many of us once did: “I work, therefore I am”?
Ergo I ask…therefore I what?
Perhaps, though, we need to re-paraphrase and add an opening therefore, perhaps: I need to provide, therefore I work. But what comes next?
Ergo I ask again;
I need to provide, therefore I work, therefore I…?
In a thoughtful Opinion Guest Essay in the New York Times, Jonathan Malesic states, “The Future of Work Should Mean Working Less.”
“The moral structure of work is up for grabs. And with labor-friendly economic conditions, workers have little to lose by making creative demands on employers. We now have space to reimagine how work fits into a good life.”
His essay branches into many areas including the treatment of gig workers, essential providers of all kinds, and those in soul numbing jobs—a topic that my readers know is near and dear to my heart.
Malesic ends by calling on all of us to exhibit virtuous behavior in understanding that our lives are all linked. How we treat each other, how we behave can redefine the world.
Hard to argue.
Yet, I come back to my first ergo: I need to provide, therefore I work, therefore…?
Frankly, I have been confronted by this dilemma my entire working life. Am I really defined by my work? Or does my need to provide make me real, much like Descartes opined, and in being real can I find definition for my life beyond the work I need to do?
Like many of you, I’ve spent years working on artificial deadlines:
- Clients who demanded that we work over holidays and then took weeks to respond
- Same clients who weren’t available to answer questions over said holiday period
- Corporate leaders demanding overnight information that was never even looked at
And I add to that: the number of family vacations I was forced to abandon for “crises” that made teapot tempests look like devastating tsunamis.
I worked for tone deaf bosses, of all genders.
I pushed myself, often mercilessly, to deliver.
I did what I thought I had to do to drive success for myself (my family), my team and my company.
Yet, as vile as it might sound…as so yesterday, as many would hope, I can honestly say that I never, ever felt defined by any of it. Why? Because it’s what I did to provide.
Instead, I felt defined by and found my purpose in my:
- Spiritual beliefs
- Tikkun Olam—“Repairing the World”
And finally, in always trying to do what was right for all.
Here is where I deviate from the thoughts expressed in Malesic’s NYTimes essay: I don’t know what is meant by “resolving to put work second and family first.” Of course, you should—and should have always.
I don’t understand the notion of, “never going back to sending work-related emails after dinner or on weekends.” Because sometimes you just have to. Would you resolve to never placing an Amazon order during your obligated work hours?
I’m also not sure what “doing less and enjoying more” actually means. If I can fulfill my need to provide with a job that requires less and that I enjoy more, well I’ll go for it.
I have never existed just to work. And over the years, as I have mentored and counseled many, I have always made it clear that a purposeful life is one that gives back and pays it forward.
You can be in control of those things by:
- Remembering why you work: to provide. The question is what and to whom do you want to provide? Do you want a partner? Children? Are your parents getting on? Do you care about travel? Do you like restaurants? Want material possessions? Be brutally honest with yourself.
- Not all providing is financial, especially as it relates to your own self. Is advancement important to you? Intellectual challenge? Diversity of situation and opportunity?
- Balance is not an equation. If you start dividing your day by percentages, you will fail and be caught in the trap of, “I don’t send e-mails after dinner.” Instead, be 100% in whatever it is you are doing. When you work be in it 100%. When you play be in it 100%. When you are with family be in 100%+. Just ask my daughters…it works.
- Find a cause you are passionate about. By all means, donate money, but also apply your skills where you can. Infuse your work with purpose by taking pride in your craft and job. Bring others along with you. I can’t begin tell you how that will change your relationship to what you do.
- Keep a Sabbath. ANY Sabbath. Doesn’t have to be mine. As an observant Jew, I won’t touch an electrical device—check e-mail; create a post; pick up a call; turn on TV—from Friday night to Saturday night. In all my years, it has never hurt me or my career or caused me any great anxiety. I—the man who is obsessed with technology and is never usually more than a click away! I feel no FOMO during my Sabbath. Now back to your Sabbath: start with a day and time, keep it regular, perhaps Tuesdays from noon to 2 p.m. Dinner? Always. The particular time you choose is irrelevant—just keep it holy. You will find it makes a difference. And I can tell you that the digital addiction goes away when you get used to it.
- Do what’s right. Don’t get caught up in the politics of it all (Zoom has not and will not help that). Yes, sometimes it will set you back, but you will, one day, sleep better knowing you did right.
- Pay it forward. Help all who come to you. Think of it like one of those dumb chain letters that never work: promising you riches if you forward it to five friends—except this one actually does work.
Most importantly, remember that we work to PROVIDE. Not to define ourselves. And that’s OK…Listen:
“By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread”– Genesis 3:19
Seems that part hasn’t changed and maybe never will—but that’s OK, too.
I don’t believe that work, “threatens our thriving,” as Malesic suggests. Rather, it helps us provide. That said, I am in 100% agreement with him that we must practice the virtues of a good life to make it all worth it.
What do you think?