Unshackled from being enslaved at work

The perils and pitfalls of making work your self-identity.
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
academia blog personal work

I'm in what is called 'Academia', a distinction of having a job in a university as opposed to working in the industry. I'm still an employee, with a job, a salary, a pension scheme, taxed, and with a limited number of vacation days. Everything is much the same, except the bureaucracy and the freedom that I enjoy. My friends, people that I grew up with, went to school, went to college and university, have jobs in the industry. They work 9 to 5 (or something like that), earn more money than me, and don't care much for how their work defines them in their lives. I cannot do that, because for me my work is my self and my identity. And I think this is because of how academia sets us up to be our own worse critiques and entrenches us perpetually reflecting on our positions and failures no matter whether we are at work or outside of it.

I'm sure there are several instances where people with office jobs are visibly entangled with their work, and that they bring their thoughts from the workplace to their homes and their personal relationships. Similarly, I'm sure there are instances where people in academia are able to leave their thoughts about work and research and crusades back at the university or offices and come home to a different environment.

The difference between the two, however, is that in the first instance, is where a person is a hired labourer for someone else - unless they're invested in making things happen - such as the top creamy managerial positions or perhaps in high-stake startup environments. The second instance, is where a person determines their own direction and work and thus is also responsible for setting up their own success and failure lines. This is what I view academia as. No one tells us, you have to do X amount of research or Y amount of papers or Z amount of events. Its all qualitative, and its all self-evaluated, which makes it completely arbitrary to determine whether we are doing good or not.

Maybe its easier for people who are okay with not doing their best or rather who are okay with doing just good enough, maybe they don't find their peace disturbed when wondering about: if something doesn't work, or when you aren't sure whether you've got enough research done to count it as a success, or if the amount of papers you have is sufficient to progress your career, or if you have enough funded projects to be considered an attractive hire, or if you need to do more activities to balance your CV. Maybe this is how most people are, and I'm not, and this is a problem that's unique to me. Maybe, maybe.

I often find myself thinking about work at random times when I'm outside working hours or not supposed to be working; as to how I'd solve some problem or approach it in a different way or discover an interesting avenue to do research in. It is chaotic, because spending time on this means not spending on other things that I might enjoy doing - such as reading books, or playing video games, or crafting something. How do you let go of those thoughts when they come back to nag you at other times with ideas that you haven't done enough or you're failing or that you're lagging behind when you could be doing so much more.

Sure, I've read about and listened to those things about having a work-life balance, but what do you do when you consider your work as your self-identity and thus define yourself by what you've done or not done in your work life. And so when a thought bubble in your head reads that you could be spending time doing this interesting work thing for long-term gain instead of that short-term gain pleasure hobby thing, how do you argue about it?

How do you stop looking at the past few years and always only seeing things that you've not done? OR could have done? OR done better?

Ongoing thoughts about how to resolve this

What I've learned in the last 5 years is that you don't argue with your self. Your self has already made a biased decision and the illusion of argument is just your way to reconcile that bias into an apparent conscious choice. Instead, you decide, without deliberation, where the boundaries are. You learn to be okay with not reaching that imaginary goal line.

Let me repeat that: You learn to be okay with not reaching the imaginary goal lines.

You remind yourself that you're no longer young, no longer in your 20s, and that you cannot pull together and sprint the last mile all the time. This isn't an assignment and the only person grading you is you. So draw up a curriculum like you had one in school. Leave in some time for crafts, physical training, and intellectual pursuits. And also measure your own self-identity for how well you do in these. A person who only learns by rote is a parrot, and a person who only works is a labourer. And if a person only has work without any choice or control, even if this is self-determined, they are a slave to their work.

At the end, there is no set formulae or steps to solve this. Only through self-critical thinking and acting on that can one set their own limitations and boundaries as something that is a part of them, and accept it, and incorporate it in and around their life. Realise that working harder is the worst thing you could do, because you'll always feel you could have worked even more harder. Instead, what's better is being smart about what you work on, how you work, if it's getting results, if it's helping, if its something worth doing. These are questions to ask your self every day, every week, every month, every 6 months, and every year. Most of us think this is too much effort, in which case you're doomed to criticise you haven't done enough precisely because you haven't done enough.

I used to do this thing, where you set 3 goals for the day, week, month, year, and life. And then I stopped because it seemed too much effort, too much the opposite of being in the moment. Well, guess what, being in the moment sucks in life. Because you need to be disciplined and set your own pace and follow it with grit. I also used to do something I called life experiments, where every week I tried out some interesting thing - whether a recipe, or crafting technique, or go to a place, or write something. And I stopped that too. Because I got busy with work, or that I don't find time. So I asked myself, has stopping those things actually helped me with my work? And the temptation to answer yes is overwhelming, because my mind wants to justify itself. But the honest answer is that no, it hasn't helped. If anything, it has left a longing sensation that I'm no longer enjoying my life even though the work I do is interesting and enjoyable and challenging and rewarding.

In school, they taught me that the only thing worth doing was the homework and learning exercises that they give. And that playing games or doing other hobbies is okay for enjoyment because I was a child, but if I had to grow up, I needed to learn to get better grades and get a job and get a money. And no matter how much I pretend to have grown, both in physique and mentality, I'm still brainwashed by that doctrine that the only things in life that matter are the ones that are quantitatively outlined by everyone else in society - my bank balance, the size of my home, my possessions, my career and my rank, my number of publications, my ...

Do not let your work consume and become your life and your identity, no matter how wise or joyous it feels.

Make your work a part of who you are, a reflection of it. If you only measure yourself with the marks used in the workplace, your personal life will always seem like having diminishing returns. Life shouldn't be measurable as a set of KPIs.

So what comes next? I don't know. As I type this, I already am thinking about writing an article about some interesting research problem I've been meaning to for weeks. It's a vicious cycle. And it doesn't break off in a day. Instead, smaller habits and changes are the answer. So for today, I'm going to sit through and read a 600 page book in its entirety (Iron Council by China Mieville). Tomorrow, when I do my weekly overview for work tasks, I will also do an overview of my hobbies and interests alongside it. So that I have something to look forward to every day of the week. Maybe I'll bring back life experiments eventually too. And I think that my work won't suffer through this just because I'm not spending more time on doing something. Instead, my work should improve because I'm more focused and in a better mental place and more organised and efficient. At least that's the hypothesis.