This week’s Good Work is by Simone Stolzoff, a designer at IDEO and a freelance journalist.
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?Mary Oliver, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?”*
I once had the chance to interview my favorite writer, a spoken-word poet named Anis Mojgani. Mojgani is arguably the best at what he does in the world. He earns a living traveling from bookstore to college campus to perform his words. As a poet myself, I couldn’t have been more excited about the chat. I was 22 and sure Mojgani was about to give me the “follow your passion” pep talk I thought I needed. He didn’t.
When I asked him whether he believed in the whole “love what you do and never work a day in your life” mantra, he said something I’ll never forget:
Work will always be work. Some people work doing what they love. Some people work so that they can do what they love when they’re not working. Neither is more noble.
Oh, how that last sentence rocked me. Until that day, I believed figuring out what to do for work was life’s ultimate mission. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, or however the saying goes. But here was my idol—a professional poet, no less—telling me that it’s fine to have a day job. To be frank, I was disappointed. I wanted him to tell me to jump off a cliff and fall ‘til I built a parachute. Instead, he was cool with taking the stairs.
In his seminal piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson defines “workism” as the belief that work is not only necessary for economic production but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose. As I get older, more of my identity has become subsumed by my career. I’m a writer first; son, lover, Jew, Californian—all distant followers. But in a culture where “What do you do?” doubles as an existential provocation, it’s important to remember that it’s okay for work to simply be a means of exchanging your time for a paycheck—and that doesn’t make it any less noble.
Consider the case of the modernist poet Wallace Stevens. He worked his entire life as an insurance executive, which gave him the stability he needed to pursue his passion. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, the year he died. Your job doesn’t define who you are—and it doesn’t have to dictate the work you leave the world.
The rise in new aethisms undoubtedly stems—at least in part—from the decline of organized religion. I loved this Tara Isabella Burton piece in Vox about Crossfit and Soulcycle as new-age churches.
I didn’t think work/life was design-able until I became familiar with the work of Bill Burnett and Dave Evans at Stanford. If you’re in the throes of existential angst, I recommend their book Designing Your Life.