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Why Your Job Needs to Matter Less

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

More than a decade ago, a palliative care nurse wrote "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying," and she found that one of the most common regrets dying people had was "I wish hadn't worked so hard."

More than a decade ago, a palliative care nurse wrote "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying," and she found that one of the most common regrets dying people had was "I wish hadn't worked so hard."

Bronnie Ware was a palliative care nurse for several years, and she took care of patients in the last 3–12 weeks of their lives. Through her blog titled Inspiration and Chai, which eventually blossomed into the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, she chronicled her observations of the dying epiphanies of her patients, people who attained a “phenomenal clarity of vision” at the end of their lives.

According to Ware—who was someone in close contact with people who had lived their lives to completion—these are the top five regrets of the dying:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

It’s glaring to find that at least four of these five regrets may have something to do with work or what we do full time. Especially No. 2—I wish I hadn’t worked so hard—which came from every male patient that Ware nursed; it’s heartbreaking to see that people who didn’t have much time left in the world were wishing they had spent more time in their lives not “working so hard.”

If you are reading this article because you agree with its title—that your job needs to matter less—then you should give yourself some credit for coming forward to accept a truth that easily gets dismissed. The idea that one’s self-worth equates to what one does for a living has been fed to most of us in the ordinary world, especially to those of us who don’t belong to the top 1-percent of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

We ordinary workers also tend to become enmeshed with our work if we’re not careful. Especially when the rewards are obviously great and gratifying such as better pay, fast promotions, a fruitful career, and when the costs are subtle and take time to materialize, such as suffering personal relationships, deteriorating health, a lack of leisure time—our work becomes who we are.

And when we introduce ourselves to people, we say our profession after speaking our name, even if it was entirely optional.

“Hi, my name’s Josh, and I work for—”

“Hi, I’m Beverley, an optometrist at the—”

Not that I know any Josh’s and Beverley’s as close acquaintances. I don’t think I do. But you get the point—we can’t stop thinking or even talking about what we do.

Disrupting Outdated Patterns of Living

The film Revolutionary Road stars A-list actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio—a pairing classically known for playing the two protagonists of the movie Titanic—Rose and Jack. In the lesser-known movie, the pair star in a 1950s-set drama-cum-tragedy which illustrates the American stereotypical middle-class life of that era.

The husband gets a high-paying job at a renowned company, he settles down and marries a woman doomed to be a housewife, and they move into a neighborhood that collects their types. Their types fall into the accepted pattern of living in that age—husband goes to work, while the wife is left to care for the house and kids, husband works the entire day, he goes home to his wife and kids, he eats and sleeps, and the whole charade starts all over again the following day—the only interruptions being weekends and holidays.

It was a miserable and dreadful pattern of living, ultimately culminating in Kate’s character (spoiler alert) self-aborting their new child—an abortion that directly caused her own death.

The reason I bring the film Revolutionary Road up is not that I feel the need to promote awareness about how horrible a time for women that era was. Instead, it is for us to draw a parallel when it comes to the “accepted” patterns of careers. The gig economy brought about by the liberalization of information and skills in the new millennium has something to do with the ongoing disruption of career norms, but great as this has been, it’s not in itself enough.

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Calling yourself a “freelancer” or a “self-employed” is still not a very catchy way to introduce yourself, especially if you don’t have a calling card or a website to show for it. Some people who have slaved away at their corporate or government jobs for several years are finding that work flexibility—the ability to choose your own work hours and the work you take on—is more valuable than the prospect of more money.

If you feel trapped in a situation just because it felt “safe” or it was heavily pushed onto you by your parents—like Kate’s character had to fit the stereotype of a privileged housewife in the movie—be brave enough to take a pause.

Some of us in the working class are clearly trying to fit a mold that was set by generations before us. And some industry leaders are clearly out of touch by reinstituting the outdated five-day, eight-hour, work-from-office routine when the pandemic proved that workers could be counted on to do their jobs while at home.

You can start by making your job matter less. Perhaps setting a healthy distance from it will open your eyes to more possibilities.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Careers

The sunk cost fallacy is when individuals continue a behavior or endeavor because of previously invested resources such as time, money, or effort—regardless of whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. Another way of saying it is persevering on a commitment even if it might not be worth it.

As Amanda Dumsch, a career counselor and contributor for the NIH, put it in the context of career decision-making, "the sunk cost fallacy often looks like individuals committing to career paths despite new data [saying] that it is no longer the right fit."

Is it because people have become so committed to their chosen career—whether or not they actually enjoy what their current job entails—that they fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy? In medicine, for example, a resident doctor does not get paid well on top of long hours at the hospital but perseveres for 3–5 years, knowing that it's the only path toward becoming an attending doctor. It's the same situation for corporate lawyers: slave away as a junior associate putting in as many billable hours as you can, in the hopes of one day making it as partner.

It's easier for those in the medical and legal professions, who have a more vivid picture of what their career path looks like. But for those who don't really have a clear idea—how will they come to the realization that the destination might just not be worth it? Some people aren't even sure if their job or line of work will still be around a few years down the road.

Amanda Dumsch adds, "We are often highly influenced by our emotions and our own commitment bias, when we continue to support our past decisions and recommit to them even in spite of new evidence suggesting this isn't the best course of action."

This commitment bias leads many people to "a decision fallacy where decisions are based on past costs instead of future and present costs and gains." And she suggests that if you feel a career path is no longer a good fit for you, "cut your sunk cost" and walk away.

Enmeshment With One's Occupation

When our work matters too much to us, we are likely to fall under a state of “enmeshment”—where our identity as a person is heavily defined by our profession.

Sophie Deutsch, a contributor for HRM magazine says, “when an employee’s identity is subsumed by their profession, they could be on an unhealthy path towards enmeshment.”

Enmeshment is characterized by an inability to control one’s emotional involvement with another person (Ann Chanler, Psychology Today). This definition may be in the context of personal relationships, but enmeshment with one’s job—or the lack of control over one’s emotional involvement in his job—is also a common occurrence.

Dr. Ruchi Sinha, as cited by Deutsch in her HBR article, says that enmeshment “happens when a person doesn’t have a narrative about who they are without that role.” This means that the person doesn’t really know who he or she is outside of work.

The adverse effects of work enmeshment are apparent with retirees. For example, it becomes very hard for former firemen or policemen to figure out who they are after 20–30 years of being on the frontlines and protecting society. They tend to struggle in coming to terms with becoming a normal civilian. They feel as though they’ve lost their identity.

Aside from unknowingly falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy, you could easily already be “enmeshed” with your work without realizing it. What happens when your job suddenly disappears? What happens when you have no other choice but to move on?

Separating Our Self-Worth From Our Jobs

Our day job can be a valuable source of purpose and meaning. In many cases, it’s what drives us to get up in the morning and keeps us awake at night. But at some point, we have to be brave enough and be willing to not tie our own self-worth with our profession.

Ben Douch, an experienced mindfulness psychotherapist member of the Counselling Directory who collaborated with Lydia Smith, says, “The danger of your self-worth being dependent on your work is the fragility it introduces to your well-being.”

This means that it’s easy to bring a person down or make him feel defensive if you attack his work. An attack or criticism of his work could easily be perceived as an attack on his person.

But there’s nothing wrong with gaining pleasure from work or making the most out of it. The key, Douch explains, is “to recognize you are more than just your work.”

“By tying who you are to what you do,” Douch adds, “you can find yourself on a treadmill of continuously striving to feel good through competence, comparison and approval.” In this case, work becomes a lot like an addiction where, because the rewards are achievable, you constantly chase that high of approval and recognition. Your self-esteem becomes more tightly wound up with your job performance.

Spreading the Word on Living a More Balanced Life

I thought it best to end this article by encouraging you, the reader, to spread the word among your peers, friends, and family on the importance of living a more balanced life. A fair warning to you would be that you might come off sounding like a hippie, or you might even be judged as someone too lazy to aim high in life and too scared to see “just how high you can fly.”

It’s understandable that many people would reject the journey to a well-rounded life and instead accept hustle culture, with all its appeal to the underdogs of society.

But if you’re unable to convince anyone that too much adoration towards work just isn’t worth it—at least convince yourself that you are more than your “job” defines you to be.

You are more than the dollars they pay you according to your payslip or in your tax returns. You are certainly more than the projects you helped deliver, the strategies you formulated or executed—and even more than the real-world people who benefited from the work you do.

In his book A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume argues that the self is “nothing but a bundle of perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity.”

Do you exist to work, or do you work to exist?

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz

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