Often, when we embark on our careers, particularly in academia via a PhD, we’re often seeking to merge two ideas of having a job/career whilst simultaneously engaging in your passion or at least something you deeply care about. In an ideal world, this is the perfect scenario – having a passion and being able to live it out day in day out whilst simultaneously having a fulfilling life. There’s a phrase that says, “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. However, for most, this isn’t always the case and before you know it you’re living to work as opposed to working to live.
When we think about the idea of “living to work”, it encapsulates the idea of getting up every day, or every week with your sole purpose being your work. As mentioned above, in some rare cases that works and it’s an incredible feeling – but this gets inherently more complicated if you’re still exploring your passion, you want to explore other interests, or you simply have other non-work-related priorities happening in your life such as parenting, travelling, your health, hobbies, etc. This living to work ‘persona’ can look great to those in the professional world, but can negatively impact your well-being, happiness and your relationships. You may be inclined to do long hours, reluctantly take on extra responsibility, justify putting up with negative work environments, and be hesitant to change or explore new things out of your comfort zone. It’s incredibly common for people (not just PhDs) to build identities and self-images around their work. In short, your work can become consuming – you’re living to work, at expense of other pursuits and experiences which may contribute towards your happiness.
On the flip side, “working to live” has a slightly different stance. It’s the perspective that your job is there to facilitate access and opportunity for you to go and do the things you enjoy. In essence, your job enables you to have a better or more enriching social life, it enables you to engage more regularly with your hobbies, it enables you to look after and optimise your health, it facilitates the space to be a better parent, so on and so forth. It’s not so much about ‘what’ you’re doing in your 9-5 schedule, it’s more about how able and free you are to construct your life outside of this routine. In turn, this takes the pressure off from ‘what’ your job is per se, and more about how well it fits into the life you want to live.
For example, if you know you deep down want to have sociable working hours on a Tuesday so you can explore your passion for salsa dancing on a Tuesday night – it doesn’t really make sense for you to keep the job you supposedly ‘love’ if it has incredibly long working hours. Similarly, if travelling the world is what lights you up inside, having a job with limited holidays or little flexibility probably isn’t the best option for you. If like many others and you want to retire early, finding a career that provides you with finances to explore this pursuit are going to be more important to you than ‘what’ it is you do in your working hours.
With these two perspectives in mind, it’s important we emphasise that one isn’t better than the other, or you should have a particular approach. Of course, in an ideal world you want your work to light you up whilst simultaneously enabling you to live the life you want outside of work. A possibly more realistic perspective (or at least in the early stages of your post-PhD career), we should move towards a particular stance. For many, the “living to work” route has been the driving force behind academia and behind further education. If you’ve done this and started to find that this makes you unhappy, or it doesn’t quite fulfil your personal and lifestyle needs – then perhaps it’s time to try the other route of “working to live”. Exploring careers that enable you to engage with the things that are deeply important to you is worth a shot. Our careers are an ongoing journey that needs exploring. Trying new things, adopting a growth mindset, knowing what you do and don’t want in your life and from your career is deeply important. Far too often we fail to collect enough information about the world of work to be able to make an informed decision of what it is we actually want.
Once we have a good idea of the lifestyle we want to design and build, this can change our job search process entirely! Your career now fulfils a different purpose, it’s not necessarily something you ‘do’ because it’s your purpose, it’s now something you ‘do’ to act as a vehicle to enable you to design a life that feels happy and fulfilling to YOU.
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