Resolving the battle of work vs. life

From Christopher Alexander’s landmark book, A Pattern Language:

“If you spend eight hours of your day at work, and eight hours at home, there is no reason why your workplace should be any less of a community than your home.”

When someone tells you where he “lives,” he is always talking about his house or the neighborhood his house is in. It sounds harmelss enough. But think what it really means. Why should the people of our culture choose to use the word “live,” which, on the face of it, applies to every moment of our waking lives, and apply it to only a special portion of our lives– that part associated with our families and houses. The implication is straightforward. The people of our culture believe that they are less alive when they are working than when they are at home; and we make this distinction dubtly clear, by choosing to keep the word “live” only for those places in our lives where we are not working. Anyone who uses the phrase “where do you live” in its everyday sense, accepts as his own the widespread cultural awareness of the fact that no one really “lives” at his place of work– there is no song or music there, no love, no food– that he is not alive while working, not living, only toiling away, and being dead.

As soon as we understand this situation it leads at once to outrage. Why should we accept a world in which eight hours of the day are “dead”; why shall we not create a world in which our work is as much a part of life, as much alive, as anything we do at home with our family and with our friends?

… If a person spends eight hours a day working in a certain area, and the nature of his work, its social character, and its location, are all chosen to make sure that he is living, not merely earning money, then it is certainly essential that the area immediately around his place of work be a community, just like a neighborhood but oriented to the pace and rhythms of work, instead of the rhythms of the family.

I wonder what Christopher Alexander would think of coworking communities.

Did you grow up thinking this way? That living was something you did outside of work? Note the way Alexander casts this not as a reality but as a cultural perception. Work isn’t categorically an undesirable drudgery, it’s more about how we treat it.

But it’s changing. The notion of where you “live” and where you work is breaking down. As our cultures reevaluate our relationships with our work once again, we have an opportunity to alter this perception. If we find ways to think of work not as a something that takes us away from our “lives,” but an integral and healthy part of what makes us complete people, we’ll set up future generations to think of work differently.

Incidentally, you see this phenomenon in startup culture too. Hustle hard and make sacrifices to build a startup that gets successful enough to sell for big bucks. But where in that process does one develop a healthy relationship with their work? If you’re lucky enough to make it to the other side, and get rich, to what end and at what price has that status gotten you?

It’s a path that’s certainly appropriate for some, but I fear more people are chasing that than there should be. This balance, what Alexander describes, is more in line with what many people should be aspiring towards- one that emphasizes finding and doing work you believe in as an integral part of your healthy life.

As he suggests, that becomes possible when we build communities around our work like we do around the rest of our lives.