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Sustainable Work, Sustainable Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately, not out of dissatisfaction or a sense of crisis. Rather, I’ve been pondering a question I’ve long put off: where do I see myself in five or ten years? Having avoided this question for so long has led me down some interesting paths, but it also means that I’ve had more jobs in the last twelve years than my father had his entire life, which is not something I think is sustainable as I get older.

I’ve been approaching this question through the lens of media ecology, which I think of less as a social science and more of as a mode of thought, and I’ve shocked myself with some of the conclusions I’ve reached. I work in the Internet industry, so I’ve had a front-seat view of the changing workplace. I love my job, but the following seven dictums suggest it’s not the right path for me.

Work has its place and should be kept in its place.
Work is a part of life, not life itself. It can be meaningful and enjoyable and offer fulfillment. However, it is still only an aspect of what makes a person whole. Work should not require my attention beyond work hours, at home, on vacation, or during the weekend. Sure, there are some people who successfully and healthfully integrate their work and personal lives thoroughly. They are rare and lucky and we should admire them. But we should not emulate them. Those who do—which is the vast majority of us who put in too many hours at a job that wouldn’t be our first choice of life’s pursuit, if given the absolute freedom to choose—shouldn’t be labeled “passionate.” We should be called by our true names: “obsessive,” “scared,” or “misguided.”

Work with people who are smarter or more skilled than you.
This will challenge you hourly, ensure you learn something daily, and lead to a deeper and more sustainable fulfillment.

Work should be described accurately as “craft.”
Not all jobs are equal here. Some, perfectly good and noble pursuits, do not qualify. I would never describe even the best retail salesperson as a “craftsman.”

Work should not involve multi-tasking.
I want to focus on one task, do it the best I can, complete it, and move on to the next task (see #3: craft). The compulsory attention deficit disorder commonly enforced in most workplaces is neither healthy nor fulfilling. I find more satisfaction in rolling one ball down a straight and narrow lane to knock down ten pins than I do in keeping those same ten pins juggled in the air. This, I know, is unavoidably changing, as more people who grew up natively in a digitally mediated world enter the workplace. But there is still value in those of us who think more linearly and methodically.

Work should involve in-person interaction or complete solitude.
I understand we live in a global, digital society. I get it. But work should limit mediated communication. This means no more phones, email, IM, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or far-flung teams. They are an excuse to schedule meetings at all hours to accommodate all parties in all parts of the world, yet avoid the tasks at hand (see #4: attention deficit disorder). If I can’t conduct work interactions face-to-face, where I can build a relationship based on handshakes and eye contact and the subtle modulations in vocal tone and facial expressions, then just leave me alone to do my work as I see fit.

Work should not move at the speed of electricity.
Again, I know the revolution has come, but for me a work environment that is “always” and “instant” is neither sustainable nor fulfilling. I prefer to prepare rather than anticipate, to act rather than react, to consider and craft rather than iterate. A thing worth doing is a thing worth doing once and well.

Work should make others’ lives better. Period.
This is a direct call-out to Web and tech companies, who are changing our language in many of the same ways George Carlin once skewered the military and government for doing. For example, please stop talking about “evangelizing” and “designing meaningful interactions” in relation to your products, when what it is you’re really trying to do is capture a large portion of the public’s attention and sell them something. The only time Internet-speak is being truly honest is when it refers to their customers as “users,” which is also the term for drug addicts.

I’m not sure what all of this means. I’m not sure if what I seek exists. I’m not sure if I’d even know it if I found it. I’d love your take on it.

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