Redefining Success: Beyond Your Job Title

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In the modern world, our job titles tend to be the centerpiece of our identities. When you meet someone new at a social gathering, the first piece of information that they will likely disclose to the question ‘what do you do?’ is the details of your chosen profession.

Your answer to this question will dictate how you will be perceived by others.

If you tell your new acquaintance that you have a senior or executive level position at a high performing business, you will be met with praise and admiration. You are someone who went to elite universities, wears trendy suits, sleeps in posh hotels and works late hours – the epitome of a success story. People will flock towards you with great interest and enthusiasm. You are seen to have high status, and in their eyes, your efforts should be celebrated.

On the other hand, if you tell this new acquaintance that you are a blue-collar worker in a low to medium paying career, getting dirty and working with your hands, chances are that you’ll be met with disinterested emotionless faces. People may be much less enthusiastic to learn about the specifics and nuances of your life.

Leonardo Dicaprio from the The Wolf of Wall Street

What I want to explore in this article is to assess why we place so much of our self-worth on a single piece of information – our job titles. Yes, I agree that ‘making it to the top’ of the career ladder is a great achievement. Work can also provide a sense of price and source of meaning.

However, I think that our careers should not subsume one’s whole identity.

What about one’s hobbies, intellectual pursuits or more importantly one’s character. There surely matter – don’t they?

You Are Not Your Job

Objectification is when our humanity and uniqueness is reduced down to a single characteristic or trait. In a hyper-efficient productivity driven society, the complexity of intricacies of our individuality can often be limited to our role in the economic system. This can happen on both sides of the employment relationship. Namely, when someone views an employer or employee as an instrument or tool to achieve their desired economic objectives.

The issue with this type of mindset is that it can lead to stress, burnout and a dissatisfaction in life. We become confined to a singular identity. Friendships or familial relationships are neglected as we become constricted by our work.

We try to distract ourselves from an existential void that cannot be filled by possessions or materialist notions of success.

Status Anxiety

It is human nature to constantly compare ourselves to others. The advent of digital technologies have given us many more ways to judge ourselves against our peers. Browsing our smartphones, we may get envious of the seemingly perfect lives that our friends from high school have crafted. Our self-worth and self-esteem take a hit when we come to the belief that they are higher on the imaginary ladder of success than we are.

The philosopher Alain de Botton coined the term Status Anxiety to describe the fear of being labelled as ‘unsuccessful’ by others or looked down upon. He claims that those who don’t attain our societies conception of success are anxious with the fear that they’ll be judged by others with a lack of dignity or respect. They see themselves as failures who’ve lost in the competitive game of the free market.

But why conform to the expectations of others.

Why not craft your own path?

Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

Redefining Success

There are at least two problems with modern society’s proclivity towards defining success in merely economic terms.

The first is that it negatively impacts one’s physical and mental health. If one finds meaning and purpose only through work, they are then inclined to work unreasonably long hours and make unrealistic sacrifices for their jobs. In a strange reversal of ideals, working late hours and ‘burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion’ has become to be seen as a badge of honour. Busyness is now a status symbol, something that high achievers and self-help gurus boast about on their social media accounts. While this may seem honourable, we all have productivity thresholds. That is, there will come a point when working more hours will lead to less productivity. You will make more mistakes. Remember we are humans, not machines.

The second issue with the mainstream view of status and accomplishment is that it restricts the freedom of the individual. People should have the autonomy to define what success means for them. Rather than merely accepting the social expectations placed on you by others, we can always make the decision about what goals, values and ambitions we would like to achieve.

Perhaps what is most important to us is our religious or spiritual practice, family life, a passion project or our work dedicated to a social cause that we deeply care about. The point is that there are many paths towards contentment. You have to find what resonates with you.

Breaking Free

You are not your job. You’re not how much much you have in your bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.

 Chuck Palahniuk , Fight Club

External things don’t define a person. Most likely, you won’t be remembered by your relative status compared to others or the contents of your CV. In the final analysis, your relationships and how you treat others will likely take precedence over your career.

People will come to judge you by your actions, character and virtues. That is, who you are as a human being.  


Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

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If you are losing your leisure, look out! –It may be you are losing your soul

Virginia Woolf

In modern society, work has come to dominate almost all aspects of our lives. One’s identity becomes subsumed by their job title. Days become filled with endless tasks and checklists. Ever increasing productivity seems to be our guiding principle. In a highly competitive global economy, efficiency trumps all other values. Technology and gadgets marketed as making our working life easier, only serve to deepen our attachment to the world of work.

In his book Leisure as the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper coined the term ‘total work’ to describe our current situation in which a human being primarily exists for the sake of work. That is, it becomes the center piece of our lives – all consuming, all encompassing. Consequently, through this lens everything is converted into some sort of utilitarian calculus. The intrinsic value of life or of the natural world is lost to cold and disheartening economic analysis. Our social lives become a status game mediated through the prestige of our LinkedIn profiles.

What is lost in this attitude or way of thinking is an appreciation of the spontaneity, creativity and mystery of life. A deep relationship to the world, and a capacity to be filled with a sense of wonder and awe.

Pieper makes an important distinction which contrasts his conception of leisure from idleness or laziness. Leisure doesn’t imply passivity. It is not the mere absence from work. Rather it is a mental attitude, disposition or way of being in the world. He traces his ideal of leisure back to the ancient Greeks, namely to the philosopher Aristotle. The goal of this notion of leisure is to work towards a state of inner contentment. To reflect on the state of one’s life and aim to cultivate virtue and improve one’s character.

Pieper emphasizes that leisure should be seen as a state of being in which one is open to the joy of the present moment. 

Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of “worker” …….. Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being “busy”, but letting things happen

Josef Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture

This view of leisure is not to be thought of as primarily as a rest. Recuperating from a long week at work by binging a Netflix series doesn’t fit the bill. This is because mere relaxation treats leisure as a ‘means to an end’. Rest for the sake of work. However, the individual is still confined to looking at everything from the standpoint of the working world.  On the contrary, for Pieper, leisure must be something intrinsically valuable to someone tied to no immediate external goals or aims. Something sought after as a ‘end in itself.’

So in a world of endless ‘to-do’ lists, in which each minute of our time is tracked and filled with chores and tasks, how can we embrace this view of leisure?

I think we can take inspiration from the Judeo-Christian notion of the ‘sabbath’ which asks us to set aside a day of the week for reflection, worship and contemplation. On the sabbath, production, work or consumption is prohibited. The day is meant to offer us an opportunity to break free from our identities as workers. Through this, we can bring ourselves into greater harmony in our relationships with ourselves, others and the natural world.

The idea of a ‘Digital Sabbath’ leverages this idea and adopts it to modern secular society. The goal is to avoid screens (television, cell phones, computers etc.) or at least limit your screen time for one day a week.  Think of the stillness and peace of mind you can achieve by turning off your phone one day a week. We can re-establish face to face human relationships, spend time in contemplation or immerse ourselves on long walks in nature.

Unless we are lottery winners or are lucky enough to have large fortunes, work is unescapable. However, we can always prevent it from taking over every aspect of our lives.

We need time to pursue leisure and engage in activities that provide us with genuine meaning and purpose.

If we don’t carve out time to examine our lives and our values we will simply live on auto-pilot.

Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves

Josef Pieper

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The Work and Leisure Series: A Philosophical Examination

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Is there more to life than work?

Are our identities totally subsumed in our job titles and ranking within our companies’ social hierarchies?

Of course, through work we can find meaning and purpose. We feel useful knowing that we are effectively contributing to the smooth functioning of society.

However, we must ask, has our obsession with efficiency and productivity gone too far. In modern societies, we are seeing rising rates of anxiety and worker  burnout. In a digital world, the boundary lines between work and home life begins to disappear.

Paradoxically, as ‘busyness’ has become some what of a status symbol, those in the higher economic and social classes are not those who live lives of leisure, but rather who are completely consumed by their jobs.

In this series I want to discuss the philosophical dimension of work and leisure.  For my older readers, don’t fret, I am not promoting a lifestyle of laziness or complacency. Hard work is important and should be valued.

Nonetheless, my argument is that we need to reclaim a life outside of our professional occupations. A culture’s obsession with work poses the risk of losing the richness and beauty that the world can offer. Further, an individual who lacks an interior life of meaning and purpose, can slowly fall into the trap of hedonistic consumerism – caught in the treadmill of living exclusively for the purposes of working and consuming.

The psychologist Erich Fromm put it bluntly as he observed that modern individuals,

have little interest (or at least consciously) in philosophical or religious questions such as why one lives, and why is one going in one direction rather than another. They have big ever-changing egos, but none has a self, a core, a sense of identity.    

Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be

In this series I want to look at the aspects of human existence that we have lost, and explore how they can be reclaimed. Some of the topics I will be looking at include:

  • Status anxiety and our identities beyond our job titles
  • The value of doing things for intrinsic rather than instrumental value
  • A review of Josef Pieper’s essay Leisure the Basis of Culture
  • A look at value beyond the confines of the market

Hope you find this series of interest, and a gentle reminder to cultivate a greater work-life balance.


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