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I Work, Therefore I Am

When we first meet someone in the United States, we frequently ask, “So what do you do?” This is accepted as polite conversation and serves as an ice-breaker and a way to show interest. On the surface, the question seems open-ended and innocent enough, but the underlying information may be quite personal. Since the inquiry typically refers to our work, it can be a quick gauge of socioeconomic and educational status.

In a business networking situation, this is to be expected. But in a purely social setting? Why are we so work-focused in social settings?

We may have lost the art of a simple, pleasurable conversation about life, family, hobbies, home, and personal interests. In Spain, they couldn’t care less about what I did for a living in the United States. Why would anyone want to discuss work in a social setting? We are here to relax and enjoy ourselves!

Also, what if someone is unemployed, retired, ill or disabled, a caregiver or a stay-at-home parent? Unpaid work or an inability to work is a reality of life for many.

Perhaps we should turn off that work-monkey-mind and discern whether we are in a social or a business setting. In a business setting, ask about work. Outside the office, pick a different question: “Where are you from? How do you know so-and-so? This quiche is delicious – did you make it?”

Ok, so maybe that sounds dumb, but it’s only awkward if we are!  It’s a subtle shift, a tilt away from “I work therefore I am” and towards the human within.  Non-work-related questions also take the pressure off.  They are less likely to touch on feelings of anger, disappointment or frustration if their work status is less than ideal.

That in no way diminishes the importance of work, its meaning or our professional contributions. To be fully human, though, we need to be able to turn that off, to relax and enjoy ourselves.

I am speaking to myself, clearly. For many years, I lived in a heightened state of stress and worry that I was never doing enough professionally; but I was very devoted to my career and worked hard. Why did I experience such a disconnect between perception and reality?

In the United States, our employers ask a lot of us. We want to be valued and viewed as worthy of greater opportunities, so we step up, but often sacrifice personal boundaries. I even felt guilty when taking vacation days or personal time off. Clearly, I had a problem.

In the past fifteen years, I have loved the people I have worked with, but have struggled with the leadership, culture, strategy, and operations in how those companies were actually run. This created a great deal of cumulative internal stress, which ultimately left me worried about my health and emotional well-being.

That is admittedly an important sabbatical goal: to reclaim my health! Taking time for introspection is key here. Who am I as a human being and what kind of work should I do – and where – and how much – to better balance my personal needs with my professional responsibilities?

Corporate America labors on under the dated notion that someone is at home tending to children, elderly family members, laundry, meals, errands, household cleaning and maintenance, and yard work. But quite frequently, nobody’s home. Salaries rarely compensate adequately to hire help, so many live in a state of disorder and overwhelm.

I am fortunate to be married to a man who is a true partner in the at-home duties. We don’t argue about equity in that area because we are both very practical. If it needs to be done, just do it. We have informally carved out a division of labor based on what we are good at, and whoever is pickier about certain tasks gets to tackle those. Even with a strong partnership, I feel it keenly as a personal failure if our home, mealtimes or family dynamics are lacking.

Perfectionism, being the form of self-torture that it is, demands that my home look as though June Cleaver lives there. I don’t want my kids to suffer a lack of home-cooked meals or homey comforts that I enjoyed growing up.  But my mom was at home full-time!

For those who work full-time outside of the home, how realistic is that? I channel my inner Martha Stewart and tackle household tasks with as much skill and elegance as I can summon. We cook and eat, clean up, supervise homework and run the kids to activities. I am usually back on my laptop at night catching up on paperwork and emails or studying for a licensing exam or another round of continuing education.

In hindsight, this is ridiculous and unsustainable; but in an over-achieving culture like ours, it is difficult to slow down or jump off that treadmill. No one wants to be labeled as lazy or inadequate.

I have no idea how many holidays and festivals there are in Spain, but employees seem to have a lot more time off than in the United States. Also, August is considered sacred as a month to go on holiday. I am shocked at the number of businesses and offices that close for siesta and remain closed until the next morning.

In the winter months, many businesses work reduced hours to enjoy the holidays and to offset the long hours worked during tourist season. I am not a big shopper, but I actually suggested we hit a mall on a Sunday afternoon just to have something to do. Families were there enjoying meals together, but all of the stores were closed. We have since learned they will open on Sundays beginning in April for their busier season, but for now, they are closed. If you need groceries, want to shop for clothing or shoes, get a haircut or a manicure, or run errands, you’re out of luck on Sunday.

“When do they work?” we wonder. Spaniards are quick to chime in that they enjoy their lives and are entitled to their time off. Those with family in the United States shake their heads in disapproval at the pace and lack of free time there. The word on the street in Valencia is that all we do in the US is work!

So here I am and I do not work. In Spain, no one asks and no one cares. If I was in the United States, how might I introduce myself?  I am currently a non-working 50-year old at home with my teenagers.  And I am sitting here writing a blog in a foreign country!

Among friends and colleagues in the States, I have surprisingly sensed no judgment.  But yes, they are curious, and even incredulous, that I have taken such a financial risk!  I have hopped off the bus where everyone else is smoking the same dope.  And I have declared my life a weed-free zone.

In letting the haze clear, the stress diminishes and my adrenals relax. My mind slows and my heart tunes into its own wisdom again. I find that I am, indeed, more than my work. What a relief!

But who is this person? What is my real identity now that I no longer work? Some of this is tied to my personality, human talents, and characteristics. I also feel a strong connection with the people I know and love.

There is more, though…a spiritual presence that knows me and my place in creation better than I know it myself. I sense that we are connected, all of us, into a tapestry of life.

Yes, we have to make a living and money serves a practical role in our modern existence. I embrace money as the powerful tool it is for creating freedom and providing for human needs. Yet I reject money as an end in itself and a replacement for meaningful relationships.

I celebrate the growth of the sharing economy, wherein we can access what we need without being so dependent upon this collective construct called money. The greater work seems to be that of building a community, a parallel universe that provides for one another in spite of corrupt politicians, arrogant executives, and broken economic systems.

At the moment, I am enjoying this idealistic little oasis of woo-woo. Outside of this blog, believe me, I have made some very strong “I will not…” and “never again…” declarations about my life.

Yes, I will choose what I do and most importantly, with whom. I will curate my life more selectively to create not just a career – hoping that money will buy me a lifestyle. Instead, I will create a lifestyle – and place the career into the context of my life – for a much better fit!



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