Our Real Job Is Fulfilling Our Potential

It’s always awkward when I tell people about my work schedule.

On the one hand, some folks think trained monkeys work harder than I do. I tell them how a philosophy Ph.D. is hardly a full-time job for me because my mental state of being a zombie after four hours of deep work is a daily reminder that my life is limited far more by focus rather than by time. I add that since pseudo-work does not equal work I see no point in sticking around after putting in this small number of highly intense hours. They wave their right hand, crack out a joke, give me that look, and mentally award Getting A Philosophy Ph.D. -1 point.

On the other hand, people often object that I do it too much. When my sister was visiting me in Budapest, for example, she was crashing in my room, so we were joined at the hip 24/7 for five days. In between museums, castles, and bars, we would retreat to my place to unwind and have a moment to ourselves. While she relaxed in her bed, taking a nap or playing on her phone, I labored away on my next article. This surprised her in the beginning, and later, when she realized spending these breaks on serious stuff was an actual habit of mine, she couldn’t help voicing her disapproval. Or, last week, when I went to a concert with a few friends and mentioned that I would still have to finish my newsletter when I’d get home after midnight, one of them shouted in my ear — drops of beer hitting my cheek — with scarcely hidden condemnation in his voice: “What? You’re seriously still going to work after this?”

If we are going to define work not just as my official job, but also everything else serious I do in my life, I start to see why people say I work a lot.

Let me tell you: If all this counts as work, then working all the time is by far the best way to organize your life.

Personal Business Model 1: Sell Your Time

There are two ways to think about work.

In the first way, work is what you do for eight hours a day, and that time is pre-sold (it’s not yours) for most of your life. All the other time is yours and is where you do things you like more.

Let’s call this model the sell your time version of a personal business model: you sell your time to an employer, and they pay you for that time.

This personal business model sucks.

When you sell your time for a living, it does not belong to you anymore:

“Those who blocked off their entire day and sold it to an employer, are therefore OK giving it away in 30-minute phone call increments. It’s not really their time anymore.” –Ryan Holiday

When you design your life like this, it has a so-called work-life balance.

Work-life balance also sucks.

It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside (that which we must endure to get paid for our time) with the upside (that which we do to feel alive during the time we have left).

Work-life balance implies allocating half of our waking hours to “work,” anxiously waiting for the other half to arrive so that our “life” can start already:

“A “sell your time” model of work means you’ve set your personal time (and goals) in direct conflict with the time you have to sell for work.” –Andrew Chen

I don’t want to live like that.

So let’s get out of selling our time for a living and find another business model instead.

I have an idea, and I call it the life as work version of a personal business model.

Personal Business Model 2: Life as Work

When we think of something as work, we think it’s not something we get to enjoy. We see work as the things we must do. Our obligations. Our shoulds. It has a negative connotation.

It’s time we opt out of this cultural narrative and expand our definition of work.

In the second, more powerful way of thinking about work, everything that is related to any goal you have counts as work.

The distinction is not between work and life but between goal-directed time and idle time.

Work is the sum of everything you want to do in your life. Working is fulfilling your potential and expressing yourself optimally. Idle time, on the other hand, means unplugging, decompressing, relaxing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial difference is that this model does notequate spending time on something during work time with working. Only activities that — directly or indirectly — contribute to goal achievement count as working.

Doing stuff that’s neither decompressing nor goal-achieving means you’re wasting your time. Some examples that come to mind: conferences built around buzzwordsalmost all conference callseverything done for the sake of impressing othersdysfunctional relationships, fad diets, figuring out how things work which you don’t need anyway, almost all ‘productivity improvement’almost all meetingsFacebook and Twitter. Etcetera.

Note that the objective of avoiding these things is not to be idle. The goal is to control this non-renewable resource called time, so you can allocate it to the things you want to do and avoid spending your time on something that someone else says matters but clearly doesn’t.

Having a Work-Life Balance Is the Worst Plan There Is

I don’t have a problem with strenuous toil at all, as long as it is applied to the right things. Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning.

In personal business model #2, there is no distinction between work and life, because all the time in the day is “yours.”

Obviously, this means there’s no such thing as a work-life balance.

That’s a good thing, because you shouldn’t separate your time into working and living like that. Making that separation is one of the most boring ideas for how to live that I’ve ever heard. I propose the opposite: find a way to integrate your life and your work.

The question of how to “balance” life and work presupposes the wrong picture entirely. If we choose the life as work paradigm, by contrast, the question shifts profoundly.

Imagine, for instance, being asked as a kid not what kind of job you want,but what kind of life you want — and imagine then being taught to work towards that goal.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Looking After Yourself Is Part of the Job

But Maarten, surely you don’t want to count meeting friends as work?

Why not?

For the life as work scenario to work, it’s crucial that you’re taking care of yourself and improving yourself. You are the project and your life is your assignment. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault wondered in his last interview before he died:

“What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”

Spending time with friends counts as work for me because I enjoy it, I find meaning in it, and (consequentially) I benefit from it. It contributes to achieving my goals.

I’m OK with “working all the time,” or being a workaholic, or whatever. I make no distinction between time that’s pre-sold and time when I get to do things I like. I consider all the time in the day to be mine. I just actually like spending it on achieving my goals and dislike wasting it on virtue-signaling pseudo-work.

Our real job is fulfilling our potential. Therefore, if you do it right, almost everything is work.

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