Work, Wealth and Worry

 


A co-worker recently asked why I don’t have a phone. I explained that I’m busy enough and choose to limit the number of distractions and prevent the constant messaging that goes with a phone. Then he asked what I’m busy with. I really didn’t have an answer.

Sure, I work a full-time job (often rather long hours), write short articles, go running, make my own meals and read a lot. But other than those normal life things, there is no explanation for why I feel so busy. It’s not like I’m working full time, doing a master’s course, training for a triathlon and writing a novel all at the same time. Yet, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling busy. I am equally sure that not every culture is like this. Why are we so busy? What can we learn from other cultures to help us find balance and a healthier lifestyle?

In order to understand why we have created a culture of busyness, and how to fix it, we need to understand our own culture and source of identity. When we’re young, we tend to get our identity from our age- “I’m Duncan and I’m four!” As youth, much of our identity transfers to what we do. “I’m good at school” or “I’m not good at school”. “I like math” or “I like english”. “I do Karate” or “I do trivia”. As an adult, our identity becomes attached to our occupation. 

Think about when you meet a stranger. What’s the first question you ask after their name? It’s likely “What do you do?”, “Where do you work?” or something similar. It’s as if we think that knowing what field they work in will tell us about their interests and character. 

Yet this is flawed. I know many bankers who are harder workers than construction works and many contractors who are better with numbers than most bankers.

At one time in history, occupation may have played a large role in identity. When the world was more isolated, each region, each workplace and each school would have created a unique mix of ideologies and character traits. It made sense that farmers would be rougher and hard working. It was logical to assume that teachers might be more liberal as most teaching colleges were hubs for liberal thought. 

But the world has changed. People are now more connected and the ideas that shape people’s thinking and actions are no longer restricted to location. But our perception of occupation influencing our identity hasn’t changed.

The European cultures, I have experienced don’t have this same occupational link to identity. To be sure, Europeans definitely care about their occupation; European craftsmanship is renown around the world. But outside of work, people are valued for their character and reputation. Instead of being known as a baker or a lawyer, they are recognized as people who are excellent in their field. My Danish grandfather is known as a leader in the community, not because of his occupation, but because of his character. A person’s identity is based on their honesty, generosity and convictions.  Isn’t that a better view of who a person is? 

When identity is based on occupational performance, it is a driving factor in pushing people towards excellence. When work defines people, it’s no wonder that people are driven to work long hours and even bring work home!

In the quest for performance, people in all sorts of occupations will work extra hours on their own time to make a project better. I can not tell you how many hours I have spent working at home. Yes, I did create some wonderful content and yes, it has helped my career, but it also made me busier and took me away from other activities I could have enjoyed.

Even for those who don’t physically bring work home, often we are bogged down mentally. One part of our brain may be preoccupied at home with thoughts about work, or not fully enjoying our time off, knowing we might get called back to work. 

I don’t even have a phone, but I get stressed going on hikes, leaving the house and even sleeping because I may miss a message and that could affect my career. And work in a hotel! The worst that could happen is some tourist may not have a flawless experience at our property. 

Why has our culture evolved to a point where it is expected that we are on call 24/7 to our jobs? Because of the role work ahs in our lives, we work longer hours and become busier as a result. 

If our occupation determines our identity, our status is ranked by our possessions. The more stuff we have, the more important we are perceived to be. We work longer hours to make more money. We work at home to make a nice yard and house. Then we busy ourselves taking care of that stuff. We wash the car. We tidy the magazines (packed with clever ads, designed to make us want more stuff). We fold our mountains of clothes. Then our fancy new garburator gets clogged up and we need to fix that. Not only has our pursuit of more stuff made us busier working to buy it, but we are also busier in life to maintain all the stuff we worked to buy.

Again, our lives are shaped by the culture of what we value. We value stuff, so we busy ourselves accumulating it and taking care of it. When I lived in Cambodia, I admired the simpler life people lived. They didn’t hurry around doing stuff. They meandered, they chatted, they rested. Their focus was on enjoying life, and it shaped their culture. If you look at Latin America, life is very different from life in Northen America. Streets may be congested and make things feel busy, but if you poked your head inside the houses, you would see close families. They aren’t hurrying about doing stuff. It’s simpler, though not as glamorous, but it seems like a healthier life. Their communities are closer. There is no anonymity, so identity is based on your character and family, not work or wealth.

It kind of makes me want to escape somewhere my identity isn’t based on work, somewhere I could unplug peacefully and where my worth isn’t calculated by my income and wealth.

Our culture plays a large part in our busyness. Our identity is linked to professional work, so we are busying working. Our value in society is ranked by wealth, so we work some more. Our culture forces us to stay busy to keep up. 

So should we move? Or is our society salvageable? Honestly, I’m not sure society is salvageable. But there are some lessons we can learn from other cultures and implement into ours to make it more tolerable. We could learn from the Europeans and begin valuing people for who they are, not what they work at. Perhaps if we start valuing people for who they are, our possessions would not be as important to us and we could stop working to buy more stuff. And if we are valuing others for who they are, maybe our relationships will improve and, like the Cambodians, we will find make to deepen those. And, if enough of us start, maybe we can create our own culture.

Comments

  1. I read this quickly and I liked it! Good job!

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    1. Oh, and I'm Erin from DHTC by the way. It's posting my comments under my pen name haha

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    2. Hey Erin! I had a ton of fun writing these and thinking about the ideas, so I'm glad you enjoyed them also.

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