Last week, I was saddened by the news that Dr. Oliver Sacks is suffering from terminal cancer. He wrote this wonderful op-ed for the New York Times, where he discusses his diagnosis and how he is spending his final days. Despite the subject matter of the article, it is an amazingly uplifting piece and I highly recommend reading it.
Just after reading the piece by Dr. Sacks, I came across this article, also in the New York Times: “The Tyranny of the Forced Smile.” In it, Paul Jaskunas recounts a story of a failed interview for a teaching job where he was asked if he would describe himself as a “passionate teacher.” His answer showed him to be less than enthusiastic and he acknowledges, in the article, that he didn’t consider himself a teacher at all because he hadn’t been in a classroom in years. He goes on to discuss the disturbing “enthusiasm” and forced smiles of Disney World workers and wonders what it implies about our attitude toward work that this level of enthusiasm is expected, even if there is nothing genuine about it. Jaskunas says, “Work has been an obligation since Adam and Eve found themselves east of Eden. We are still enchained by the dull necessity of earning our bread, yet we cheerfully insist, to ourselves and one another, that we labor freely.”
True, work is mostly about survival. For many of us, it isn’t about anything but survival. But most of us spend at least 40 hours per week—sometimes more—at our jobs. If you do the math, that’s 2,080 hours a year (about 87 full days) at work. That’s a huge chunk of our lives. While we all inherently know and understand that working is what we have to do for survival, we aren’t always aware of what spending so much of our time in a miserable job can do to our mental health.
As we learned in Heather’s post yesterday, actively disengaged employees are a huge problem for organizations. The problem isn’t so much that they don’t love what they do, it’s that they drag the organization down and cause productivity and morale problems for the entire staff. They aren’t just bad workers, they are bad for those they work with.
I realize that loving one’s job is a luxury, a privilege too many of us don’t have. But none of us should spend such a large portion of our lives laboring with forced smiles plastered across our faces. We need to find opportunities for fulfillment in the places we spend 8 hours or more a day. Even if we don’t love where we go, or what we do, or who we work alongside while we do it, we need to come away from it with our self-respect intact.
It is easy for me to understand why Mr. Jaskunas was not hired for that teaching position. He probably wouldn’t have been a good fit and there were probably other, more dedicated and enthusiastic candidates for the job. Maybe the person who was eventually hired loved the job. Or maybe they simply tolerated it until something better came along.
Near the end of his op-ed, Dr. Sacks says, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.” When you know your time is limited, it’s easier to focus on only the essential. Maybe we can learn something from this—about the importance of our time and how we spend it throughout our lives and consider the areas where we need improvement.
My takeaway from both these articles is this: pay more attention to how you spend your time, in your personal life and at your job. Consider your quality of life. If you have a job or a career you hate, maybe it isn’t for you. You may not ever land your dream job, and you may never find a job that you love, but seek out opportunities to do something that won’t leave you with regrets at the end of your life.