Many Americans look to work as a means of self-actualization, community and purpose.
But if our job is our only identity – what happens if we lose it?
"Certainly, we are all more than workers. We are also neighbors and friends and siblings and citizens and artists and travelers," Simone Stolzoff says.
"And yet, if we give all of our best time and energy to our work life, other identities that exist within us can wither."
Today, On Point: Instead of finding that dream job, why not find the good enough job?
Simone Stolzoff, author of the book “The Good Enough Job.”
Excerpt from “The Good Enough Job" by Simone Stolzoff.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: My hometown of Corvallis, Oregon used to have a summer science and art festival called Da Vinci Days. And when I was in ninth grade, that year, they brought in a guest speaker from NASA. And it's funny now because I don't remember his name or his specific job, but I do remember exactly what he said.
He wasn't an astronaut. He was an engineer though, who had stars in his eyes when he talked about his work and he said, "I don't really have a job. I have a hobby that I love and I just happen to get paid for it." And let me tell you, 14-year-old Meghna was sitting in that audience, mesmerized thinking, "Oh my God, yes, that is exactly what I want when I grow up."
I want my work to be my passion.
This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. And alas, I did not become an astronaut or a career engineer, but that message about finding your passion in your work really stuck. It's one I'd been hearing for virtually all my life and maybe your life, too. In fact, in the past 50 years, the exhortation to find your dream job has thoroughly permeated how Americans talk about — and believe they're supposed to think about — working life. It's plastered on coffee mugs, office plaques, in job postings, in high school and college counseling sessions and in books. So many books. Where occurrence of the phrase "dream job" has grown more than 10,000%. In 2005, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs crystallized the message in his commencement address to the graduates of Stanford University.
STEVE JOBS: I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love, and that is as true for work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.
And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
CHAKRABARTI: More than 42 million people have since watched that speech online. But dreams don't always manifest in reality, do they? So what happens when your very identity, how you define yourself, is imbued with the pursuit of that passion, that dream job?
It felt like such a weighty decision, not because I was trying to set myself up for financial security or anything pragmatic like that, but it was just this pressure. Find your passion. Find this thing that is going to be the identity that rules who you are.
CHAKRABARTI: Anna lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
When it came time to pick a major in college, she'd always loved science, so she chose chemistry and even went on to get her PhD in it.
ANNA: I remember in grad school the crushing expectations for the amount of effort and passion that you put into your time in the lab. 12, 14 hour days, at least six, often seven days a week.
But if you weren't so motivated that this was everything you did, and it was just the vast majority of your time and your identity, you were less than, you were a failure. You weren't serious, perhaps lazy. You were not the ideal in that world.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Anna liked what she did, but it was her job. It was what she did to pay the bills, and she didn't want that to be all she did or all she was.
ANNA: It was hard for me to accept that I did not feel that kind of passion for that kind of work. I didn't want to be in the lab for much more than 10 or 12 hours a day. I craved hobbies, I craved other things, and it made me feel like a failure, like I had failed to find my true vocation. And it sent me into something of a panic because what is my life if I haven't found my true vocation?
CHAKRABARTI: Anna struggled with that feeling for many years, but today at 35 years old, she says she has finally come to peace with it. She's no longer in science.
More importantly, Anna says she has a family of her own, a rich social life and hobbies, and those are the things that give her life meaning.
ANNA: I'm really okay with the fact that my job is a job that I find interesting. It's part of my social life. I love my colleagues. But it is certainly not who I am.
I'm so much more than that job.
CHAKRABARTI: That's Anna, an On Point listener in Pittsburgh. I wanted to start with Anna's story because it is one of many you told us, prompted by the recent book written by today's guest, the book is called "The Good Enough Job," and it's by Simone Stolzoff, and he joins us from San Francisco.
Simone, welcome to On Point.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Meghna, thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: And I apologize for mispronouncing your last name. It's Stolzoff. Did I get that right?
STOLZOFF: Yes. You wouldn't be the first.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. My last name is Chakrabarti. I'm sensitive to being, trying to get things right here. Now I wonder, Simone, if you could first tell us what in Anna's story in particular resonated with you as you heard it?
STOLZOFF: It's a very common story. For this book I spoke to over a hundred workers across the American economy, and not only in the stories that I heard, but in my own personal life, it really resonates, this idea that we must find our vocation, we must find our dream job. As Steve Jobs said, very fitting last name.
That if we don't find our dream job or if we don't find what we love, we won't be able to do good work, and I think it provides a few risks. As Anna said, it creates this massive expectation and lots of room for disappointment underneath it. It can neglect other aspects of who we are. And the third, as many Americans have learned recently, if your job is your sole source of identity or in meaning and you lose your job, it can send you for an existential loop.
CHAKRABARTI: Ah. I think it's pretty commonly understood. That a part of how Americans view themselves has always been bound up in that Protestant work ethic. And then you write about how specifically, Calvinism. But I want to spend a minute or two talking about the sort of modern incarnation of this idea of finding purpose through work. Because in your book, you write that a major turning point in this view of what work is supposed to mean comes in 1970 with the publication of a different book called "What Color Is Your Parachute?" by Richard Nelson Bolles. Now Simone, I actually dug up a really early version, an early edition of that book, and there's a chapter in it called "What Skills Do You Most Enjoy Using?"
Where Bolles writes, "There's a vast world of work out there where people live for the weekends, essentially. Because they're bored during the week and on the weekend they can go do what they really want to do. And then he writes, "The world does not need more such poor souls. The word world needs people who feel true enthusiasm for their work.
You can choose to see it as fun, an exploration of the inner world of yourself as a means of gaining more of a sense of control over your life and of your destiny under God."
So what is it about the world of work in America in the 1960s, the late '60s that made Bolles' message both revolutionary and so resonant at the time?
STOLZOFF: Yeah. Thinking from today's perspective, you might think that the idea that we should look to work as a reflection of ourselves, as a means of self-actualization is self-evident. But wasn't the case. Coming out of World War II, we had a very different economy. Work was very much framed as something that you do to be a productive member of society, or maybe to be able to care for your family or take care of your material livelihood.
And then Bolles comes out with this book, or has a relatively revolutionary idea. That work can be a reflection of your passion. Not only can it be, but it ought to be. And so you see sparing from this moment in the '70s, paired with the decline of some of the other sources of meaning and identity in Americans' lives.
Things like organized religion and neighborhood and community groups. This explosion of people looking to work as their primary means of self-actualization. And as I argue in the book, that isn't necessarily an expectation that our jobs are designed to bear.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you know what's really interesting though?
Once I started reading, I had never read "What Color is Your Parachute?" before yesterday. And so once I started reading it I had a bit of trouble putting it down. Because Bolles actually, when you read deeply into it, and you get to especially the appendix, he actually equates, openly equates secular work with religiosity, right?
There's an entire part of the appendix called "How to Find Your Mission in Life," and he says, "The universe or God caused us to be born for some unique reason to contribute to life on earth, something that no one else can contribute in quite the same way." And then he says, "Yes, he's a Christian." He absolutely states that openly. And he continues to write that he believes, "A person's employment, their vocation," a religiously imbued word, "is what they've been called to do in the secular world."
And he says, "Finding your mission is finding what you can do day-to-day to make this world a better place, following and leading the guidance of God's spirit around you." In a sense, wasn't he selling work as a religion from the start? Just repackaged for our secular world where, I don't know, maybe the invisible hand wasn't necessarily God, but capitalism.
STOLZOFF: Yeah, I spoke to Richard's son for the book, his son named Gary. And he said, "As you can see in the text, he wrote Mission with a capital M. And vocation with a capital V." There was this always this idea of equating our work with our worthiness to become essentially a child on the path to heaven.
And this isn't necessarily new. If you think back to our country's foundation, as you mentioned, the Protestant work ethic and capitalism were really the two strands that entwined to form our country's DNA. So from those early days, you have an economic system that values growth and a religious system that values material wealth.
As a sign of your path to heaven, and it creates this perfect storm for a country that worships work.
CHAKRABARTI: Worships work, okay. So it's become as you write in the book, an ism, workism.
CHAKRABARTI: Simone, we got a lot of response from listeners when we ask them if they find their identity their life's meaning in their work. And the, first of all, the jobs ran the gamut and so did the responses.
For example, here's Tammy Fry from Portland, Oregon. She's a teacher.
I love my job. My job is my passion, my job is my identity, and that is one of the biggest problems we have with education in the United States. Teachers are underpaid and not respected, but they keep doing what they do because they love it.
There is no way that anyone stays in education if it's not their passion. Because the work environment is just not conducive to staying.
CHAKRABARTI: So much is said in that one sigh. And here's Stacy from Charlotte, North Carolina, another teacher.
When I go back into the classroom, I find my happiest being. So it is my dream job. One of the things that ends up happening, however, is for people, especially for people who are teachers, if it is not their dream job, the students suffer. So for some things, you really do need someone who feels like it's their dream.
And here's Matthew Vincent from Long Beach, California. Not a teacher, I think, but he had some strong feelings about America's work-centric culture.
MATTHEW VINCENT: I am one who definitely finds meaning outside of the workplace. I've seen plenty of people who seek that meaning in the workplace, but they're not doing anything very meaningful. I think especially in American culture, too many people get so caught up with their work life that they forget what else is really important?
CHAKRABARTI: We're going to hear from a lot more listeners as we travel through this hour, but Simone, in your book, you point out that in the 1960s there was a poll that found that 6% of people thought meaningful work was important to their success. And just 20 years later, so roughly 1982, that number jumped to 49%.
And today, nine out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do what they believe is more meaningful work. Now journalist Derek Thompson crafted this phrase called workism. It seems like we're pretty well embedded in a world of workism. How would you define what that is?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, so workism is the idea of treating work akin to a religious identity. So not just looking to work for a paycheck, but also for a sense of meaning, purpose, community, and transcendence. And as Thompson and I both argue, this is an expectation that puts a lot of pressure on our jobs to deliver something that they aren't necessarily designed to deliver.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Not designed to deliver.
Okay, so we're going to come back to that in a second because I think sometimes I feel a little bit odd when we're talking about the lives of other people, regarding a subject that both me and my guest are actually also living, right? Because we're working. So a little transparency, I think is in order.
Have you, Simone, found yourself ever pulled into the pews of the Church of Workism?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, undoubtedly. The cliche is that you write the book that you need to read.
STOLZOFF: And I think I've spent my entire life looking for a vocational soulmate. I've wanted to be a lawyer and a diplomat and a short stop for the San Francisco Giants, and I think all of these things were in an effort to have a good answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up? Or, "What do you do?" The canonical piece of American small talk. And so I think in many ways I spent my twenties playing Goldilocks with different careers, looking for that perfect job. But as some of the listeners just spoke to, when we are expecting our jobs to be perfect, or when we are treating our jobs as our sole source of identity and meaning, it can set the conditions for exploitation.
It can be all well and good until meaning and identity become stand-ins for fair pay. Or fair protections or workplace or job security.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I'm glad you said that because I think there's a difference between seeking the perfect job and finding your identity in that job. Because I think people who are seeking true meaning, their true identity might actually tolerate some imperfections in that work, don't you think?
STOLZOFF: Totally. Yeah. And I don't think it has to be an either-or thing. I don't think there's anything wrong with identifying with your work or treating it as a source of meaning in your life. But I think it becomes problematic when it is the sole source of identity or the sole source of meaning in your life.
And the research backs us up. It shows that people who have, what researchers call greater self complexity, people who have invested in different parts of who they are, tend to be more resilient in the face of adversity. This makes sense if you're rising and falling based on your professional accomplishments and you have a bad day at the office or your boss says something disparaging, it can very easily spill over into all the other facets of your life.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Now I'm waiting for you, Simone, to say, "Meghna, are you going to be a little transparent too?" (LAUGHS) Do you want me to share with you my story of how I view my work?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, I think it's especially true for people in our profession, journalists, where our name and our work tend to be one and the same. Yeah. Please, how have you wrestled with this over the course of your career?
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I don't want to make this about myself, but again, like, I want to be transparent to listeners. First of all, I never thought I'd be a journalist growing up, but as I said at the top of this show, I grew up in a family and in a culture where we weren't just in the pews in the church of workism. We were like, I was in the choir, okay?
I absolutely believed for a long time that no matter what I did, I was going to find the thing that I loved the most. And falling short of finding that thing that I loved the most meant I wasn't in the right job. That's the key thing. And I said I didn't become an astronaut unfortunately, but I absolutely, once I landed in journalism, found my identity in journalism, 100%.
Like it was in everything as I defined myself as, and my life outside of work was pretty withered. That changed though, for me, when I had kids. Because I suddenly realized that seeking my identity in work was actually somewhat narcissistic. It was pretty solipsistic. I was expecting work to give me meaning as a person.
And when I had children I realized, "Oh my God, my duty on this planet now is to provide health, wellbeing, and setting up my children to find meaning in their lives somehow." So it became less solipsistic and more directed towards others. But it took parenthood to do that for me.
And before that, I was absolutely seeking that in my work. So I guess that leads me to the question of: What are the consequences for someone when the thing that they had invested their identity in work is taken away from them? Because ultimately it is transactional and you know your boss is not your pastor, right?
They can actually fire you.
STOLZOFF: Yeah, I think this was true for many of the people I spoke to. And many of them had a similar experience to having kids, whether it was a health scare or a time living in a community that had a different hierarchy of value, that sort of woke them up to the shortcomings of workism's promise.
I think many people found this out in the pandemic, often by no fault of their own either getting laid off, or furloughed or their job just changing in some material way. I remember speaking recently to an employee at a big tech company who told me, "I used to think this job was my purpose on this earth, and then they let me go. So in my next job, I'm just going to treat it more like a job as a means to pay for my material existence as opposed to the entirety of my life."
I'll tell you a quick anecdote from my own sort of awakening experience. I was 22 years old and I was studying poetry and economics in college, so you can already see a little bit of a setup of attention between the pursuit of art and commerce.
And I had the opportunity to interview my favorite writer in the entire world. This poet named Anis Mojgani. And here I was, a senior in college about to embark on an unknown future. I wanted Mojgani to give me a pep talk about following my passion. And so I asked him, "Anis, how do you feel about the phrase, do what you love and never work a day in your life?"
And he said something that I'll never forget. He said, "Simone, some people do what they love for work. And some people do what they have to for work so they can do what they love when they're not working. And neither is more noble."
STOLZOFF: I think that last part is key. We live in a society that loves to revere the astronaut, or the journalist or the painter of people whose identities and their jobs neatly align.
And here was my professional idol, a professional poet no less, telling me that maybe it's okay to have a day job.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I will just say, as an aside, I don't think our society necessarily reveres journalists. Nor should they. But your point is well taken. And let's pursue that a little bit more. Because I want to just say that, and you acknowledge this fully in the book, that when it comes to pursuing that dream job or sinking your identity into your work, it may be a luxury or of privilege of white-collar workers, right?
STOLZOFF: Yeah. Even the question, "What do I want to do?" is a question that necessitates a certain level of privilege to be able to ask.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, because I think in, in other sectors, in blue collar work, service work, it's not that those jobs are not meaningful, right? There's dignity. There should be dignity and meaning in terms of the actual work being done.
But a lot of folks simply just don't have a choice. The point you were making earlier. The work is in order to put food on the table, a roof on their head, and then the source of meaning they derive as individuals may come outside of that work. I wanted to just emphasize that because I didn't want to get too lost in the tunnel vision of white-collar jobs.
But in terms of what happens when you lose a job, where you found your identity, let's listen to the story that Sarah Fox of Dayton, Ohio told us. She was a self-defense instructor for 10 years, but she had to stop doing that job and started work in a completely different field, where she really struggled.
SARAH FOX: I identified a lot with being a Krav Maga instructor, and not only did I identify with it, but everyone around me identified with it. And that changed obviously when I had to leave that industry for a variety of reasons. It was a loss in identity that I've since had to deal with as I now have transitioned into being a social worker.
I've noticed that having a passion for that job and what that was like, living with that and living with that passion that I was able to express. And then having to change into a social work job, which I enjoy, but I certainly don't identify with much, as much, and I look at it as transactional. This is what I do to make a living now.
CHAKRABARTI: That's Sarah Fox in Dayton, Ohio. Now, Simone, you actually follow some people very closely in your book "The Good Enough Job" as they go through these transitions in life about where they're finding their personal identity. Can you just briefly tell us the story of Divya Singh?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, so Divya represents the pinnacle of chasing one's passion. She was a culinary school graduate and then moved across the country to work at a three Michelin star restaurant. One of those jobs that your identity and your job can become one and the same. And she was a young hotshot working her way up, and she came up with this idea.
For a product, a consumer package, good, that she wanted to start on her own. And she approached the celebrity executive chef in the restaurant, and he said, "This is a great idea. Why don't we partner on this? Why don't we go into business together?" And so the two grew the company over time, Divya was running the day-to-day, and the celebrity chef was the figurehead and helped with PR and making connections, and Divya poured her entire self into this job, into growing this business. And the product launched a great fanfare. It grew into a multimillion-dollar company, but then Divya came to a head and thought, "Wow, I've poured my entire life into this job. I need to take a step back."
So she decided to take a step back, and it was only in that moment where her business partner, who she thought was akin to a family member, someone that was really looking out for her best interest, screwed her over. And I won't ruin the ending of the chapter, but it just shows the risks if we over invest or expect a job to give us more than it's capable of delivering.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. It can bring at least temporary financial, spiritual ruin. I think that's the more important lesson you're trying to teach us here. Now you had said something a little bit earlier, and it's also in the book that had really caught my attention.
And that is, things are changing. I'm just going to hazard a guess that maybe 10 or 15 years ago, perhaps a book like yours that's advancing the idea of a good enough job would have a little difficulty finding publication. But now, not just because of the pandemic, but I would say over the past many years because of the really, just the deepening inequities in the economy and the fact that people can no longer tolerate not getting paid adequately for even for work they love, and so much many more financial responsibilities are being put on individuals, that being paid less or working in a toxic environment is simply just not adequate anymore.
Do you really, do you feel that there's a kind of drift away from the core message that we've had for half a century of seeking your identity at work?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, I think the pendulum swings both ways and maybe the early aughts and the 2010s were represented by this promise of self-actualizing work.
We had the birth of entrepreneurship and startup culture really finding its legs and girl bossing, and all of these messages, like Steve Jobs' message that the way to do great work is to do what you love. And now I think we're seeing a pushback. There's this recent op-ed that I wrote about this concept that was termed vocational awe.
It was coined by this librarian Fobazi Ettarh. And the idea is that in certain lines of work, particularly creative, prestigious or mission-driven industries. There's this perceived righteousness of the industry as a whole, similar to what we heard earlier from some of the teachers that called in, and this perceived righteousness, this halo effect can obscure a lot of the injustices that exist in these different industries.
We're seeing this right now with the writer's strike in Hollywood, where often when you treat the privilege of being able to do the work as a form of compensation in and of itself, it can cover up workers getting less than they deserve. And so I think that's the problem that is being brought to light by so many workers that are feeling empowered across the country.
STOLZOFF: Is the idea that, yes, maybe I do love my job, maybe I treat it as a source of meaning. But that isn't enough to not pay me what I deserve.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, no, completely. The economic realities are hitting hard. And also, even underneath that, there's that phrase, right? You may love your job, but your job won't love you back. Because it's still just like a fundamentally transactional experience.
It's not family, it's not church, it's not your community, where money isn't the basis upon which the interactions are happening. So with that in mind when we come back, Simone, I want to talk a lot about the idea that's in the title of your book, "The Good Enough Job," what that is, why we might seek it, and how that might change how we seek our identities.
CHAKRABARTI: Simone, I want to just give our listeners a chance to chime in here again. Because the range of, again, their work they do and their experiences is really remarkable. So here's Connor, who called us from Minneapolis. He's a ballet dancer going on his fourth season for a Minneapolis company. He loves dancing. Doesn't quite pay the bills.
CONNOR: No matter how hard I worked or even what company I got into, the industry was never going to be able to give me generally health care or a livable wage or a full year of pay where I don't have to dance every day, but I'm still making the same amount of money.
I love what I do. I'm very grateful for what I can do. Not many people can do it. At the same time, I feel like I'm halfway through my career and I'm about to burn out because I have to work 50 to 60 hours with my 40 hours of dancing a week, just to be able to look comfortably and to save money for the future.
CHAKRABARTI: So that's Connor in Minneapolis. This is Jordan Ortiz Flores in Los Angeles. He told us that for him work is simply that: It's work.
ORTIZ FLORES: Work is not my identity. It never has been. It probably never will be. Unless I find something I really enjoy or maybe go to the NBA, but that's probably not happening at this point.
I find meaning in work and outside of work, I currently have three jobs, but I really only find meaning in one of them, in which I'm a cook at a hospital and I have an impact on people's lives, to some extent. But my other two jobs, as long as I'm not doing something that's actively against my morals or things I care about, then I don't really care much for what I do as long as I get enough money to pay my bills.
CHAKRABARTI: And one more, here's listener, Sam from Detroit, Michigan.
SAM: I did lose a job that meant the world to me, due to injuries. And medical issues. I'm also an alcoholic in recovery. Losing a job made me go into a full-blown relapse, but I'm here today starting over with that, 45 days sober. Still looking for that job, but it did make me reflect and realize how much I am invested in my work. We should work to live, not live to work. Life is short.
CHAKRABARTI: Simone, you talk about in your book, and that's the title of your book, of something called "The Good Enough Job." It's a concept that was inspired by a 1950s British psychoanalyst who wrote about good enough parenting. So talk about that a little bit. What was good enough parenting and why does it apply to the working world now?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, so good enough parenting, or more specifically, the "Good Enough Mother" was a concept that was coined by Donald Winnicott. He was a pediatrician and a psychoanalyst in England in the mid-20th century, and Winnicott was observing how there was this growing idolization of parenting, where parents wanted to be the perfect parent and shield their kid from experiencing any sort of negative emotion or harm.
And then when the kid never really felt frustrated or sad or angry, the parent took it extremely personally. They thought it was a reflection of their own shortcomings. And so Winnicott proposed an alternative, which he called "The Good Enough Parent," which was the idea that if parents take an approach that values sufficiency as opposed to perfection, it'll benefit both the parent and the child. The kid would learn how to self-soothe to take care of some of their own needs, and the parent wouldn't lose themselves in their children's emotions. So obviously I'm making a direct parallel to the working world.
STOLZOFF: And the ways in which we have idolized work, and so many of us are looking for that dream or perfect job, but maybe an approach that values sufficiency as opposed to perfection will make us more fulfilled in the long run.
CHAKRABARTI: But good enough can mean a lot of different things. Not just in parenting, of course, but in the working world. How do you define what good enough is?
STOLZOFF: My favorite thing about the framework is that it's subjective, so you get to define what good enough means to you. For one person, it might be a job that pays a certain wage that allows them to live in a place like Boston or New York City.
For someone else, it might be a job and a certain industry or with a certain job title. And for a third person it might be a job that gets off at a certain hour so they can pick up their kids from elementary school each day. But whatever your definition of good enough is, I hope you recognize when you have it. Because then you can convert some of that energy that you might be spending, wondering if there's something better out there or whether this is the truest form of your calling into your life outside of work, the acknowledgement that your job is part of, but not the entirety of who you are.
CHAKRABARTI: How does this actually differentiate, or how is this different from what Bolles was writing in "What Color Is Your Parachute?" Now, he was definitely writing about find your mission in your work, but he also called it an opportunity to explore the inner world of yourself to gain a greater sense of control over your life.
Is that not also what you're advising with the concept of a good enough work?
STOLZOFF: Yeah, I think there's a difference between looking for a particular job to deliver that, vs. looking toward work as one of many aspects of your life that might be able to give you meaning or identity. I think about what the value is in having a stable foundation.
When you have invested in multiple aspects of yourself, much like an investor who has diversified their portfolio, you have a more stable foundation to stand on. So even if one aspect of your life isn't going great, you can rely on some of those other sources of meaning and identity to lift you up.
CHAKRABARTI: We did also hear from listeners who have turned away from the world of work to find their identity. They're finding their sense of personal meaning elsewhere. For example, here's Anna from the North Shore of Massachusetts.
ANNA: Is my job, my identity? No, it has taken me most of my career to recognize that is not the case. When I was younger, I saw many of my peers doing noble and good things for others and for the planet. Whereas I had a series of corporate jobs that satisfied my brain but not my heart. One day my husband said, "Because you do what you do, which is make money. I can do what I do, save land." And that felt okay.
CHAKRABARTI: And here's John in Los Angeles. He told us he found what was truly important to him, what he was truly passionate about, later in life.
JOHN: I had two careers, one as a computer programmer and the second one as a high school teacher. In both those jobs, I definitely had to work very hard. And in both those cases, I felt like there is something else that I was put on this earth to do and this wasn't it.
But on the other hand, I couldn't put my finger on what it was that I did really want to do, and now I'm retired. And I am basically very happy and I'm studying music and I'm writing songs, maybe that's what I was meant to do.
CHAKRABARTI: So Simone, what struck me about these two callers is that perhaps they're enjoying the benefit of the wisdom that you accrue over the years, right?
Because they're, both of them are older, and also at the same time, over the years, there's the process of developing a life outside of work. So it may be easier later in your career to turn away from work as your primary source of identity. I think that's a harder ask for younger people who haven't yet lived enough years to have formed that world around them outside of the working world, especially at a time now, where, in fact, as you said earlier, the traditional sources where we found that sense of meaning and identity. But whether it be faith groups or community groups or other means of connection, they have dwindled quite substantially in the United States.
STOLZOFF: Yeah. I want to be clear that I am not anti-work. I think there is a lot of meaning and value that can be found from the workplace, and it can be a source of meaning and identity in people's lives. I think the other end of the spectrum of completely disengaging from work or having a more nihilist point of view is not a recipe for fulfillment either.
And I acknowledge that, earlier in your career, you might need to build skills to accrue some career capital to allow you to be able to have more autonomy and make some of these decisions in your life. They're not available to everyone, as we spoke about earlier. But I think in the same way that a young person is building their career, building their work life, they ought to also be investing in some sources of meaning and fulfillment outside of work, whether it's their relationships or their personal interests and their hobbies.
Or their local community, they go hand in hand and the research actually shows that people who have varied sources of interests and hobbies tend to be more innovative, tend to be more creative. So there's the business case, but there's also the moral one. In that when we invest in other sides of ourselves, we become fuller, more well-rounded versions of who we are.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I completely hear that. But I'm struggling with the fact that because there are only 24 hours in the day, there is a zero-sum game portion to this, right? What you said in terms of investing oneself and developing a meaningful life outside of work. That takes time and there are just so many Americans who don't have the time. Because whether they just need to work multiple jobs, because their one job doesn't pay them enough or what they're investing in is their immediate family right out right outside of work. I'm just wondering how you advise folks to navigate that? When look, the bulk of our waking hours for people who are of working age is going to be at their jobs.
STOLZOFF: 100%. You know the psychoanalyst Esther Perel has this great quote where she says, "Too many of us bring the best of ourselves to work and bring the leftovers home." And I remember first hearing that and it hit me like a brick. Not only does our work take many of our best hours, but lots of our best energy, as well.
And in order to find meaning, in order to find identity outside of work, it requires both time and energy. I think the advice that I tend to give people is to start small. It doesn't have to be this grand gesture of signing up to do an Iron Man competition or reading 52 books in a year. It can just be a 30-minute conversation that you try and carve out to invest in your relationship with your best friend each week, or some hobby that you invest in, not to monetize or to become an expert at, but because you inherently enjoy the practice of doing it.
Finding these little pockets of our weeks, of our days doesn't have to be at the expense of doing great work or dedicating ourselves to our work lives. It just shows that there are other aspects of our lives, as well.
CHAKRABARTI: There's something you said a little earlier that I want to return to briefly. Because you had said that the pandemic showed us that, in fact, just a very small amount of guaranteed regular income was enough to provide people the breathing space they needed, to look for, to leave work that wasn't satisfying and look for work that was, I would say, that treated them better or seek meaning elsewhere, right outside of their jobs.
That makes me wonder. The pandemic era payments that's behind us, but there are places that are experimenting with universal basic income. Is that a stretch?
STOLZOFF: No, I think one of the reasons why our relationship to work is so fraught here in the United States is because the consequences of losing work are so dire when, for example, we tie our health care to our employment, or if you're an immigrant, your ability to stay in this country is often contingent on your employment status.
And so I think, UBI or other forms of a more robust social safety net are the types of policies that can make the consequences of losing work less dire and make the opportunities available to Americans more available when we, for example, can leave jobs that aren't good enough for us.
I think there's an important distinction to be made here between the things that individuals can do. And the things that really fall on the shoulders of leaders of our institutions.
STOLZOFF: So often when we think about work-life balance, the onus falls on the individual. We say things like, "Practice self-care." Or, "Look out for your boundaries this weekend."
But in actuality, these institutions are the ones that are better protected. They have the opportunity to set some of this infrastructure for our lives outside of work, whether it be our employers or our policymakers.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You also have this wonderful quote in the book about you are not the work you do, you are the person you are, and that a good enough job is one that allows you to be the person you want to be, rather the than the worker that the job requires you to be.
There's one more thing that you suggest. You suggest that Americans need to change how they talk about work, how they talk about each other, right? Because we always like literally after, "What's your name?" The second question is almost always, "What do?" You want us to ask a different question of each other. What is that?
STOLZOFF: Yeah. It's how we started the episode. From questions of, "Who do you want to be when you grow up," to, "What do you do at the cocktail party?" I found that inserting two little words into that canonical piece of American small talk, instead of saying, "What do you do?" Asking people, "What do you like to do?" It's an opportunity to let others define themselves how they see fit, to choose how we define ourselves instead of letting our work define us.
CHAKRABARTI: So you got 10 seconds to answer the question. Simone, what do you like to do?
STOLZOFF: I am a chocolate chip cookie connoisseur. I am a avid pickup basketball player. And I enjoy writing.
This program aired on July 6, 2023.