I was at lunch the other day with two good friends of mine, and over sushi we had a conversation about what is considered an acceptable way to work – acceptable not only by society or according to organizational norms, but what we ourselves consider acceptable. We talked about how this may hold us back from creating a lifestyle that we truly want and can live with.
In organizational culture, there is a relatively narrow view of what a good or successful career path looks like. Mainstream careers are still quite linear and as an employee you are expected to be committed, constantly available, and to want to advance according to a certain pattern and timetable. I, as well as others, have argued that the career models that prevail in organizations today haven’t really kept up and don’t necessarily correspond to how contemporary individuals want to work, nor do they accommodate our needs.
However, talking to my friends made me realize that, not only do prevalent career models and working cultures hold us back, we also do it ourselves. A person may opt out of a certain job or lifestyle that isn’t working for him or her, simply to opt back in to more of the same because we have been taught, and are conditioned to believe that we need to follow certain norms and ways of working. We may feel guilty or pressured by this hectic culture in which we live to follow these norms, instead of investing time, and perhaps money, in creating the lifestyle that we really want. We need to allow ourselves to slow down, even when we are expected to rush off and be busy, in order to create the new lifestyle we want.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, talks about how people are individually responsible for setting a pace at work that they can live with. She says you need to just say no if it’s too much, because your employer won’t. Your employer will always ask for more. I have argued that it can’t only be the employee’s responsibility; the employer must also take responsibility for not working their people into the ground. Not everyone is as senior and established as Sandberg, and saying no may feel like a big risk.
But Sheryl Sandberg also has a point. Maybe it isn’t only the outdated, and for many people inadequate, career models that are holding us back from leading lives that are balanced and that give us energy. Maybe it’s also us. We’re so conditioned to work in a certain way – to have a certain work ethic – that it’s hard to break out of that pattern. However, there is hope.
According to philosopher and social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis (and his work on the social imaginary), people have a capacity to imagine something new that does not already exist in society. And if you can imagine it, you have already enabled the change. So that’s what we need to do. We need to continue imagining what our lives should be like, and then ignore possible inner voices that tell us that it isn’t good enough.