November 26, 2015
People used to talk about work-life balance, as if they were two separate things. Now they talk about work-life integration, but what they mean is finding ways to infiltrate every hour of every day with this work that is not really your life. I choose to do things differently.
Seems to me that if left to our own devices, people would just spend all day doing what gives us pleasure. Some of that would involve doing things that help other people or make them happy and some would be just for us. Centuries ago, people discovered that different people like doing different things. If you take on a task that I don’t enjoy, and I take on a task that you don’t enjoy, that leaves both of us more time for the things we like, and stuff still gets done. Maybe I do some things better than you, and you do some things better than me, so we trade off those tasks as well.
That works great one-on-one between people who like and respect each other. As the groups get bigger, so do the tradeoffs. You farm rice, I catch fish, and our neighbor keeps chickens. We start out not keeping track of things, because we get what we need from the informal arrangement and everybody’s happy most of the time. But then the village gets larger, and that one neighbor who is supposed to bring in the firewood winds up exploring the woods instead. He comes back to the village now and then to get rice, fish, and eggs from the rest of us, but somehow he never gets around to bringing us the firewood like he said he would.
So we set up a system of markers to keep track of who’s doing their share. And that works fine for a while. It reminds us to balance out the things that are just for us with the things that help the village overall. Eventually, someone gets a real hunger for piling up a lot of markers. Getting markers is what they enjoy the most. They take on tasks that they don’t particularly enjoy, and they dream up trading schemes, all in the name of getting more markers. And someone else discovers that he likes to manage other people’s markers. He makes a special storage place to keep them safe, and he keeps track of who owes what to whom.
And another guy discovers that if he can get other people to work for him, he can give them a few of the markers that come in while keeping most of them for himself. Some people don’t enjoy drumming up business and keeping track of their own markers, so they are happy to just get out there and work and let this guy handle the business side.
A few lucky people get to keep doing what they enjoy and getting markers for their efforts, but many people find that the only way they can get their basic needs taken care of is to do the work that no one else wants to do. Their lives get divided into things they do because they enjoy them and things they do to get markers, and people start talking about “work-life balance” and “vacation days” and “retirement”.
Eventually, the markers take on a life of their own. Some people spend their days transporting the markers to other villages where they buy more things. Some people don’t even make things any more, they just shuffle markers around and keep some for themselves every time they make a trade. While most people stay in their home villages, in familiar surroundings with their families and friends, the markers go off around the world.
People who used to bring in plenty of markers doing one particular thing find that they can no longer make their contribution to the village, because someone in another village is doing it instead, for fewer markers. The guy who trades the markers still charges you and your neighbors the same, but he keeps the extra markers for himself.
Eventually, some people have to leave their families and friends and move to the villages where they can get enough markers for themselves, with some left over to send back home. But these new villages don’t welcome the newcomers. “You’re trying to take our jobs away,” they say, and they talk about building walls and removing the foreigners by force. The newcomers don’t know the culture or the language, and they find themselves fair game for thugs and con artists. But they stay and work, because what else can they do?
Every aspect of daily life, right down to the language, evolves to represent this separation of what you enjoy from what gets you money. “Have a nice weekend!” “Did you go anywhere over the holidays?” “We’re looking for a good retirement community.” This is the language spoken by people whose work-for-money is not the same as their work-for-enjoyment.
One of the biggest (and fastest) changes I went through after going freelance was adapting to a life that was not dictated by the 9-to-5 structure. I don’t resent working into the night, because I sleep late and do a leisurely read of the newspaper over a big mug of coffee most mornings. If I work on your holidays, it’s because I get more done when you’re not phoning me and emailing me every five minutes. When you’re slaving away in the middle of the week, I’m shopping at a nice quiet grocery store or taking photos of the autumn leaves at the neighborhood park. If I hit a slack period during the day, I don’t spend in hanging out around the break room or sitting in my cubicle watching cat videos — I do a load of laundry or two.
It’s only been four years since I left the cubicle and commute behind, but certain phrases sound very foreign to me now. “I can’t wait until Friday!” “How many vacation days do you get?” “I’m going to move to a farm way out in the country when I retire.” “I really hate my job, but I’m going to hang in there five more years.”
I’m not piling up great stacks of money these days, but I have a comfortable place to live and a refrigerator full of food. Getting paid for my work makes me a little more focused and organized, but seriously, I don’t mind doing a little paid work on my “days off” (if it’s my choice) because I enjoy what I’m doing. I have money put away for the time when I’m not able or willing to work any more, but if I’m 90 years old when that day comes, that’s OK with me. Business is picking up, to the point where remodeling the kitchen and traveling the world for fun are evolving from dreams to plans.
In that other world, people talk about “work-life integration” and they mean that you’re supposed to check your office email while you’re on a vacation trip with your family. It means that your boss can send you text messages at 5AM and expect an immediate reply.
In my world, it means that I’m doing things I like, and I decide when to do what. Some things are just for me, and some of them help other people. The part of the help-others work that I get paid for lets me pay other people to take care of the things I don’t want to (or can’t) do myself. It seems to me as if this is how I was meant to live all along.