My parents grew up in Taiwan in the 1950s, the country was poor, and stories of their childhood without shoes or other basic necessities juxtaposed with my fortunate upbringing. In our household, education was the key to success, and success was defined solely by work that brings in money. This traditional belief had governed my path, but it’s time to redefine work in the changing world.
I began college as a music and business major. I had enjoyed playing the piano, and through many hours of practice, I was relatively good at it. While I had no desire to become a concert pianist, I had always enjoyed teaching. At 15, I began my first job as a piano teacher, recruiting students with tearaway flyers at the local grocer. This side gig continued until Sophomore year of college, when the allure of business school made me feel teaching piano is not a “prestigious” career. I thought I could and should do “better”.
My career has twisted and turned so far, but almost always in pursuit of what makes money. Even most recently, when I decided to quit the corporate grind, I signed up for coding bootcamp. Why? Because it’s a skill that makes money. Yet with time, I have been reflecting on how I want to redefine work. For the first time in my life, I grant myself the luxury to evaluate how I want to spend my waking hours.
What Is Work?
The technical definition of work is, “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.”
When someone says, “I have to go to work”, they usually refer to reporting to a particular place, for a defined number of time, and spending energy on a set of tasks or goals that are often defined by someone else. The efforts are then rewarded with money; if there isn’t any monetary compensation, then that effort is usually labeled as a hobby, volunteer work, or household chores.
Since money is the medium of exchange, and as my recent experience with Workaway proved, bartering isn’t the most effective form of transaction, I can understand how we have evolved to believe that a good job equals high pay.
Yet, for the majority of us in the developed world, we no longer live in conditions where we lack basic necessities. In fact, we have progressed so far that many of us can no longer discern between our needs and wants. As result, we frequently forget what we are working so hard to achieve.
Establish Social Safety Net
This conversation to redefine work and shifting attitudes is all very nice, but the elephant in the room for most Americans is: what about health insurance?
When my mom was laid off from her job just a year before reaching retirement, she immediately got a full-time job in the service industry in order to have health insurance. She hated her job, and complained endlessly. We urged her to quit, and pay for private insurance, but she was afraid. Unfortunately, this is a story all too common in the United States.
In order for us to shift our attitude towards work, we need to make sure basic needs, like healthcare, has been covered. Tackle this issue and understand your options first; this will free up mental energy to pursue the work arrangement that makes the most sense for you.
Discussing healthcare options requires a whole post (or a whole book) on its own. But let’s assume we are in a position where our healthcare coverage is sorted, what then, is work?
Financial Freedom and Work
With the exponential growth of artificial intelligence, future of work is all the hype these days. Are we all going to be replaced by robots? Meanwhile, in the personal finance community, the definition of financial independence is often hotly contested. Why? Because apparently you can’t “work” if you’ve truly reached “FI/RE” (Financial Independence/Retired Early) status.
I’ve recently defined my own version of financial freedom, which includes working. Other bloggers have written about taking a break from their professional lives, and slowing down on their journey to FI/RE. Discussions on what constitutes “work” often arise on Twitter. Until recently, I did not know there is judgement around the pursuit of FI/RE while working part-time, or being married to spouse who “work” in a traditional 9-5 job.
All the judgement seems futile. The true joy of reaching financial freedom is that work can be whatever you want it to be. Those who enjoy the structure of a traditional 9-5 can keep grinding, those who want to reclaim some time can go part-time, the ones with higher risk tolerance can become entrepreneurs or freelancers. And for those who don’t need any money, and have no desire to trade effort for monetary reward? Invest your time and energy to realize your wildest dreams, or twirl your thumb and watch Netflix all day. Whatever floats your boat, you do you.
Whichever way we choose to devote our time and energy, we need to change the narrative that only income-generating activities are considered “work”. We need to begin acknowledging that child care is work, maintaining a household is work, and pursuing creative passions takes work.
Part-Time Work is Respectable Work
If we decide to shift toward part-time work in order to have more time dedicated to our own wellness, our children, and/or our hobbies, we should do so without feeling like a less valued member of society. It’s unfortunate that part-time work in most organizations aren’t treated with as much respect, and thus part-time work is often not considered, “career track”.
With the rise of gig economy, soon we’ll all be doing project-based work, part-time or not. If you can afford to go part-time, and want to go part-time, then by all means, go part-time. But let’s do so standing proud and demand the well-deserved respect. Let’s not describe our work as “only part-time”. There is nothing “only” about it.
Maintaining Household is Hard Work
Somehow, our society has evolved from believing women shouldn’t work, to now treating the term “house wife” with a rather demeaning attitude. This judgement extends even further to men who have chosen to be “house husbands”. Yet, people around the world hold jobs as nannies, cooks, cleaners, and more.
Think about the amount of money it would take to outsource cleaning, cooking, and/or child care. This could easily be more than one full-time job. That is what our efforts to maintain a household is worth. Let’s not demean these tasks that take up a lot of time and energy. No one is “just a house wife/house husband”. There is nothing “just” about it.
Devoting Time and Energy to Hobby is Work
Society doesn’t take people who pursue their hobby as work seriously, until they’ve “made it”. Think about the secret (or in some case, blatant) eye-rolling that takes place when people say they are a singer, an actress, a writer, an artist, or insert any creative profession that doesn’t typically make much money. With this type of societal judgement, it takes real guts to pursue a hobby, especially when there isn’t financial stability.
I myself felt sheepish and vulnerable, when I declared to take this writing thing seriously. But that’s part of the problem. We have to grant ourselves the respect to pursue creative work if we expect others to treat our efforts with dignity.
Office Job is Overrated
Now, let’s circle back to why 19-year-old me thought teaching piano is not “prestigious”. The world has evolved to think sitting in an office, staring in front of a computer, and sit in endless meetings all day as the epitome of “career success”. We have gone overboard to optimize manual labor, and now we engage in work that requires such low level of activities that we need an entire fitness industry to keep us moving.
Unfortunately, the reality remains that office jobs pay better in general, and sometimes that’s the best way to pay off debt, and get ahead. But let’s treat them for what it is, and not put the suit and tie image (or hoodie and jeans for the tech crowd) on a pedestal.
Collectively, we need to shift our attitude and place our reverence for teachers (if children is our future, why are we not investing in educators?), the service industry, and any job that is not “white-collar”. Students should be coached to explore career options beyond sitting in an office. Office jobs aren’t all it’s cracked up to be, and most of them are BS.
Respect & Compassion
The world is changing faster than we can keep up. How we choose to devote our efforts to yield a meaningful life no longer follows the traditional formula. People are coming up with creative ways to make ends meet, and to fulfill their dreams. Let’s withhold judgement, and extend respect to the courage it takes for everyone to live their best lives, doing work they love, income-generating or not.
For those of us making the scary move outside of prescribed norm, let’s be proud of our efforts, treat them with compassion, and demand the respect they deserve.
6 thoughts on “Redefine What It Means to Work”
You should read the book “Shop Class Soulcraft”. It is an essay on how working with your hands engages your mind far more than working in an office.
Ooo, thank you for the recommendation. Adding it to the list! 🙂
So sorry to hear your mom’s story regarding health insurance. My mom took an early retirement package this year. I had to look her in the face and say, “What do you and dad plan to do for health insurance?” She had overlooked it and been ignoring the news or something?!! My dad needs major heart surgery every ten years and they’ve always been on my mom’s insurance. She is wondering if she should go get a different job now. It’s so weird that in another country she could be fully retired with no worries.
Anyhow, I love this reflective piece of yours. It’s kind of anxiety provoking – like you said – the world is changing too fast to keep up! I liked learning more about your music background and thoughts on giving lessons too:)
Absolutely. The more countries around the world that I live in, the more our health insurance system in the US feels insane and unjust. Not enough stories are being shared on people chained to a job they hate for health insurance. It really affects the quality of life to have such stress over healthcare!