How to stop your work from becoming your identity
“How to build a life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, addressing questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to the trailer for his new Happiness Podcast Series, How to build a happy life.
Aan economistI have heard a lot of complex explanations for Karl Marx’s famous opposition to capitalism. Basically, however, Marx’s reasoning boils down to something simple: happiness. He believed that capitalism makes people miserable by treating them as part of a machine in which the person is redacted and only productivity remains. “The spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and of the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him”, Marx wrote in his 1844 essay “Estranged Labor”. “It belongs to another; it is the loss of himself. The workers are objectified, according to him, transformed into miserable shells.
Whether or not you agree with Marx’s assessment of what the capitalist system is doing to us, many of us are unquestionably doing what he describes as ourselves. Too many people who work hard and aspire to success self-objective as excellent working machines and performance tools.
Strive for professional success to provide satisfaction and happiness. But self-objectification makes both impossible, preparing us for a life of joyless accomplishments and unattainable goals followed by the tragedy of inevitable decline. To be happy, we have to get rid of these chains that we put on ourselves.
Wwhile it is about happiness, Marx was right: objectification lowers well-being. Research shows, for example, that when people are reduced by others to physical attributes through objectifying looks or harassment, it can reduce self-confidence and competence in tasks. The philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to that as becoming “an object of appetite for another”, in which case “all the motives of moral relation cease to function”.
Physical objectification is only one type. Objectification at work is another, and particularly damaging. In 2021, three French researchers from the journal Frontiers in Psychology developed a measure of objectification at work based on the feeling of being used as a tool, and of not being recognized as an agent in the work environment. As they note, workplace objectification can lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, depression, and sexual harassment. This can happen if a boss treats his employees as nothing more than disposable labor, or even if employees see their boss as nothing more than a purveyor of money.
The argument against objectifying others is pretty straightforward. Less obvious but just as damaging is when the objectivist and the objectified person are one and the same. Humans are able to objectify themselves in many ways – assessing their personal worth based on their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example – but all of them boil down to one fundamental detrimental act: reducing one’s self-esteem. humanity’s own unique characteristic, and thus encourage others to do the same. In the case of work, it might be like judging one’s own worth, positively or negatively, based on one’s job performance or professional status.
Just as our entertainment culture encourages us to physically objectify ourselves, our work culture pushes us to professionally self-objectify. Americans tend to value being driven and ambitious, so it’s relatively easy to let work occupy virtually every moment of your life. I know a lot of people who hardly talk about anything outside of their work; who say, essentially, “I am my job.” It may sound more humanizing and empowering than saying “I am my boss’ tool,” but that reasoning has a fatal flaw: In theory, you can abandon your boss and find a new job. You can’t give up you.
So far, I have not found any published studies on the well-being of professional self-objectivists. But we can take a clue from physical self-objectification, which has been found to increase depression and lower problem-solving ability. Common sense tells us that self-objectification at work is an equally nasty tyranny. We become Marx’s heartless overlord for ourselves, cracking the whip mercilessly, seeing ourselves as nothing more than Homo economic. Love and pleasure are sacrificed for another day of work, searching for a positive internal answer to the question “Am I already successful?” We become shams of real people.
And then, when the end inevitably comes – when professional decline sets in – we are left lifeless and withered. As a self-objective CEO par excellence told me: “In the six months following retirement, I went from Who is who To Who is he?“
Aare you a self-objectify yourself in your job or career? Ask yourself a few questions and answer them honestly.
- Is your job the biggest part of your identity? Is it the way you present yourself, or even understand yourself?
- Do you find yourself sacrificing romantic relationships for work? Have you given up on romance, friendship, or starting a family because of your career?
- Do you find it hard to imagine being happy if you lose your job or career? Does the idea of losing it sound a bit like death to you?
If you answered yes to any or all of these, acknowledge that you will never be satisfied as long as you objectify yourself. Your career or job should be an extension of you, not the other way around. Two practices can help you reassess your priorities.
1. Get some space.
Maybe you’ve had a couple of unhealthy relationships in your life, but you didn’t recognize it until you broke it, whether it was voluntary or involuntary. Indeed, this human tendency probably contributes to the fact that most probationary separations lead to divorce, especially when they last longer than a year. Space offers perspective.
Use this principle in your professional life. For starters, that should be the main focus of your vacation: taking a break from work and spending time with the people you love. As obvious as it sounds, it means take his vacation, and does not work at all during this. Your employer has to thank you for doing it: I was CEO and I can assure you that I only wanted employees who worked with all their hearts and free will. If they had to leave, I wanted them to leave.
Related to this is the old idea of keeping the Sabbath, or taking regular time off work every week. In religious traditions, rest is not only pleasant to have; it is essential to understand God and ourselves. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is therein, and rested on the seventh day,” we read in the book of Exodus. “This is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. If God is resting from work, maybe you should too.
Such a practice does not need to be religious and can be practiced in many manners in addition to simply avoiding all work on Saturdays or Sundays. For example, you can have a small Sabbath each night by outlawing work and devoting all of your activity to relationships and leisure.
2. Make friends who don’t see you as a business object.
Many professional self-objectivists seek out other people who admire them only for their professional achievements. It’s completely natural, it makes me feel good when someone I meet for the first time recognizes me as a columnist for Atlantic rather than a random guy, but can easily become a barrier to forming healthy friendships, which we all need. By self-objectifying yourself in your friendships, you can make it easier for your friends to objectify you.
This is why having friends outside of your professional circles is so important. Forging friendships with people who have no connection to your professional life encourages you to develop non-professional interests and virtues, and thus to be a more complete person. The way to do this goes hand in hand with recommendation # 1: don’t just take time off work; spend it with people unrelated to your job.
Mmaybe difficult your own objectification makes you uncomfortable. Honestly, that freaks me out. The reason is simple: we all want to stand out in one way or another, and working harder than others and being better at our jobs seems like an easy way to do it. This is a normal human drive, but it can nonetheless lead to destructive ends. Many of my students have confessed to me that they prefer to be special than happy, and I have often felt that too.
The great irony is that in trying to be special we end up reducing ourselves to one quality and turning into cogs in a machine of our own making. In his 1964 book Understanding the media, Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message. He noted that in the famous Greek myth, Narcissus fell in love not with himself, but with the image of himself. And it is the same when we professionally self-objectify: our work is our medium, and it becomes our message. We learn to love the image of ourselves who is successful, not ourselves as we really are in life.
Don’t make this mistake. You are not your job, and I am not mine. Take your eyes off the distorted reflection and have the courage to live your life and your true self to the fullest.