Finding meaning, connection, and identity in our work can be incredibly fulfilling. But somewhere along the way, we—Americans in particular—have taken this to an extreme.
Work has become so all-consuming for many people that we constantly drive ourselves to work harder and longer, feel guilty about not doing enough, and put up with poor working conditions in the name of “passion” or “mission.” And if we happen to lose our jobs, we can completely lose our sense of worth and purpose.
Is there a different way to relate to work? Journalist Simone Stolzoff’s new book The Good Enough Job looks at this question, telling the stories of people who have taken deliberate steps to find meaning and identity beyond their careers.
“Right now, so often we treat work as the central axis around which the rest of our life orbits, and shove everything else into the margins,” Stolzoff says. “The central question of the book is how do you [pursue] meaningful work without letting work subsume who you are?”
We talked with Stolzoff about why you might want to question the current culture around work, what gets in the way, and a few small steps you can take toward a more meaningful life.
Kira M. Newman: Where can we cultivate meaning and identity outside of work?
© Bradley Cox
Simone Stolzoff: It’s different strokes for different folks. You can think about your relationship with yourself and ways that you can invest in your own interests. There are relationships with your family and your loved ones, people that you feel are near and dear. There are ways to invest in your local community, your geography, your other identities that you inhabit, as a citizen or a resident of your town.
We’re all more than workers. We’re also friends and siblings and parents and neighbors and citizens and artists and travelers, what have you, and I hope each of those identities get our time and intention. Because these identities are sort of like plants; they grow in proportion to how much time and care and attention you give to them. And so if we don’t invest in them with our energy, then they might wither.
KMN: What are the benefits of doing that?
SS: I think there are a number of benefits. Some are borne out in research. For example, research shows that people who have greater self-complexity, who have cultivated other aspects of who they are, tend to be more resilient in the face of change.
This makes sense intuitively. If you’re rising and falling with your professional accomplishments and you have a bad day at the office—your boss says something disparaging—it can very easily spill over into all of the other facets of your life unless you have cultivated a more diverse portfolio of identity. Also, the research shows that people who have interests and hobbies outside of work tend to be more creative and innovative.
But there’s also the moral case in addition to the business case, which is to say that when we are able to give more of our time and our energy into our lives outside of work, we become fuller and more well-rounded versions of ourselves.
KMN: What gets in the way of us doing that?
SS: I think there are cultural things that are top-down. In the United States, one of the reasons why our relationship to work is so fraught is because the consequences of losing work are so dire. For example, the majority of Americans’ health care is tied to their jobs; or if you’re an immigrant, your ability to stay in this country is tied to your work.
The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work (Portfolio, 2023, 272 pages)
But I think there are also bottom-up reasons why we live in such a work-centric society. I definitely found this out myself as I left the corporate world and began to work for myself. It wasn’t my company or my manager who was driving me to work all the time, it was myself. I’d internalized a lot of the metrics of the market, if you will, and thought that if I wasn’t getting ahead, then I was falling behind.
Especially with knowledge work and the economy that we live in now, work can so easily expand like a gas and fill all of our unoccupied space. It creates a chicken-and-egg thing, where people are working all the time and so they don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re not working, and people don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re not working, and so they work all the time.
KMN: Why is the culture of work-centricity so strong in the U.S. compared to Europe or other places?
SS: We place an incredible subjective value on work in the United States. We treat CEOs like celebrities, we plaster “always do what you love” on the walls of our coworking spaces, you scroll through TikTok or LinkedIn and there’s so much content about finding ways to monetize your hobbies or turn one of your passions into a side grind.
Here in the U.S., productivity is not just a measurement, it’s a moral good. You can start at our country’s foundation and the Protestant work ethic and capitalism, or you can move into some of the more economic or political factors that I talk about in the book.
We are a country and we’ve created a culture that really idolizes work. And part of the fallout from that is the decline of other sources of meaning and community and identity in people’s lives, things like neighborhood groups or organized religion. For many, work has taken their place.
KMN: What do you suggest for readers if they want to make a change?
SS: At the individual level, it’s important that we carve out time where working is not an option. The benefits of, say, going for a run or going to a yoga class or having a one-on-one date with a friend is that you can’t multitask when you’re doing these things. You have to actually be invested in the present moment. So, simplistically, the first step is to carve out space to do things other than work, and then the second is to choose how you want to fill that space.
Part of the problem with our current work culture is that work doesn’t just take our best time, our best hours, but our best energy, as well. It’s no wonder why so many people come home and all they have the energy to do is to turn off their brain and turn on Netflix.
But if you want to derive meaning from things in your life other than work, you have to do things other than work. What those things are are really up to you. Maybe you are joining a local community or neighborhood group, maybe you are trying to learn a new instrument or finding a group of people who could care less about what you do to make money. Our identities are very much reinforced by the people around us, so I think it’s important to invest in those relationships and try to find sources of community outside of just your coworkers.
“[Our] identities are sort of like plants; they grow in proportion to how much time and care and attention you give to them. And so if we don’t invest in them with our energy, then they might wither”
As I argue in the book, the onus doesn’t just fall on the individual. There’s a distinction between the types of boundaries we can individually enact and the type of structural protections (like policies about time off or decoupling our basic human needs from our employment status) that policymakers and governments and managers are better equipped to actually enforce.
Japan has one of the most progressive parental leave policies in the world. New fathers are entitled to up to a year paid time off. But in the last data that I looked at, a paltry 5% of fathers took the time that they were allotted. That points to two prerequisites: We need the ability to do things other than work, and then we need the cultural will to do so.
Even from an early age, we start asking kids who they want to be when they grow up, and we become adults and the cocktail party banter becomes, “What do you do?” I think part of what will make a difference is changing the conversation, allowing people to define themselves on their own terms and not just by what they do for work. It may seem silly, but one of the small things that I advocate for in the book is just inserting two words into that canonical piece of American small talk: “What do you like to do?”
KMN: Does this message apply to everyone? What about people who are in an economic situation where they’re very time-poor outside of work?
SS: It’s something that I wrestle with in the book. On one hand, even the question, “What do you want to do?” necessitates a certain level of privilege. First and foremost, I wrote this book with an eye toward white-collar knowledge workers for this exact reason. The majority of people don’t work to self-actualize, they work to survive.
And yet we all live in a culture where work-centricity is particularly pronounced. There are two separate issues on the two ends of the income spectrum. For highest earners, it’s putting an expectation on work that our jobs are not always designed to bear. For the lowest earners, it’s creating conditions where work can be better and not be all-consuming by necessity. With things like stagnant wages over the past 40 years, we’ve seen many Americans have to work more hours just to put the same food on the table. And so it’s another opportunity for there to be interventions at the structural level and the systems level—but in some ways that’s a different book.
KMN: What have you realized about yourself through writing this book?
SS: For me personally, I was born smack dab in the middle of the millennial generation, and I had internalized a lot of these scripts about the value of, say, pursuing a dream job or thinking that my self-worth was directly tied to my work or that status or prestige was a synonym for happiness or health.
I learned a lot about the ways in which I treat my productivity and my output as a measuring stick. On certain weeks where I hit my writing goal, I would feel great, and on other weeks that I didn’t, I would feel lesser than. I also learned, especially in working for myself, how easy it is to enter the spiral of trying to work all the time and then trying to hit a deadline and opening up a laptop on the weekend and realizing that I wasn’t actually as productive because I hadn’t taken time to recharge.
It’s not just about how much time we spend working but the energy that we’re able to give to the job. Not all time and not all of our hours are created equally, and so I got much better at drawing boundaries and seeing how investing in other parts of myself and understanding my values not just improved my work but improved my life.
KMN: It seems like there’s a lot of interest in the book. Why do you think people are receptive to this message at the moment?
SS: Coming out of the pandemic, I think everyone had to renegotiate their relationship to work in one way or another. At the extremes, there are people that were laid off or furloughed, but I think for everyone the nature of what they did and their relationship to what they did for work has changed.
I think people are ready for a new script, a new way of conceptualizing work’s role in their life. In the early 2000s and 2010s, we had a lot of messages about hustle and girlbossing and overnight millionaires and the ability for anyone to (if they worked hard enough) pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In many ways, my book is part of a larger correction, a wave of people that are pushing back and saying, “Yeah, maybe some people do what they love and others do what they have to do so they can do what they love when they’re not working,” and trying to prioritize other things in their life.
The biggest thing that I hope people take away is the value of diversifying your identity and investing in other realms of your life beyond just your career.