The other afternoon I was visiting with a friend and her niece, Stephanie.
We were celebrating Steph’s recently completed master’s degree in neuroscience and hearing all about her new life back East working as part of a medical research team.
I have known Steph since she was little, and she’s always struck me as…familiar.
Not that I see myself in her exactly (the idea of me as a neuroscientist is laughable), but she has a kind of hardworking, dutiful seriousness that I recognize and relate to.
So I was taken aback when, in conversation about how much she was enjoying her new job, Steph mentioned that the only issue she had so far was, as she put it, “my boss’s lack of respect for work-life balance.”
I laughed out loud. Then I realized she was completely serious.
In my early career years, there was no such thing as a work-life balance.
I felt lucky to be in whatever room I was in, surrounded, usually, by men whose approval I needed to earn in order to survive.
I kept my head down, worked hard, said yes to everything that was asked of me and did my best to pretend I didn’t even have a life outside of the office. Then, at home, I did my best to pretend I didn’t have a work life.
It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence that eventually led to a mid-life career change and softening boundaries between what I do for work and who I am, but I never really shook that sense that there is no such thing as working too hard.
I’m not alone. We live in one of the most work-obsessed nations in the world.
As a culture, we’ve taught ourselves to equate brute labor with self-worth.
And it’s not because we’re being well-compensated for it.
The numbers tell us that Americans are working longer hours for less pay, generation by generation.
We are outranked by both Germany (#1) and France (#2) on the productivity scale, though both those countries have significantly shorter workdays, national paid parental leave policies and vacation standards that most Americans would consider extravagant.
Are we really into hard work or just addicted to it?
I’m happy to say that for Steph it’s the former, not the latter.
Millennials have a reputation for being lazy or unfocused, but Steph is the opposite of those things.
What’s different is that she has grown up with a more enlightened mindset regarding the very idea of work and the role it should play in her larger life.
She is absolutely the dutiful, serious young woman I knew as a kid, but she doesn’t view those qualities as part of a punishing nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy when it comes to her career.
In fact, she believes that having a proper work-life balance is going to be central to her success.
As she put it: “How will I perform well at work if I don’t enjoy my life?”
It's a great question. One I’ve been pondering ever since she and I had this conversation.
And one I’m now presenting to you: How does your work, whatever that work is, relate to your life?
Elizabeth is a journalist who has been writing about health, beauty and wellness for over 20 years. She lives in Northern New Mexico with her two dogs and several hundred trees, shrubs, bushes and succulents.
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