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.

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Everyday Superheroes

“I always wondered why no one did it before me. I mean, all those comic books, movies, TV shows… you’d think that one eccentric loner would’ve made himself a costume. I mean, is everyday life really so exciting? Are schools and offices so thrilling that I’m the only one who fantasized about this? Come on, be honest with yourself, at some point in our lives we all wanna be a superhero.”

– Dave Lizewski, Kick Ass

Didn’t you want to be a superhero at some point in your life? Do you still?

The fictional title character of the 2011 film Kick Ass took this sentiment to the extreme, donning a costume and risking his life to save innocents in danger, despite having no superpowers to speak of.

We all may dream of making a big difference and changing the world, but most of us don’t find this to be very practical. Indeed, even superheroes often need to hold down a day job to make ends meet.

So how does an enterprising world changer resolve this? I posit that the solution is in focusing expectations on something far more achievable.

In fact, I bet if we think about how can do our part to save the world in just the right way, we might also find ourselves heading down a path that also addresses the question of finding true meaning and fulfillment in our work.

Enter the everyday superhero.

The everyday superhero is the person you can be if you focus your efforts on doing things that are practical and sustainable.

What does that mean? Lots of different things for different people. In the extreme case, a janitor might not be able to do much more with their time than clean things well. But if they take the proper attitude, they can take pride in the work they do, knowing they are helping make their corner of the planet a slightly more pleasant place. If they aspire to something bigger, they can use their spare time to practice something they find to be more meaningful or valuable (like in Good Will Hunting, but with a less beardy Robin Williams). But regardless of the scale, everything they do contributes to the big picture.

Because if you’re doing something that you enjoy doing, you’re setting an example for others. The effects of your actions might be far greater than you ever even know.

Who wants to be a big time superhero anyway?

Their job is never done; they are constantly burdened with unending cries for help from a society facing ever more dastardly villains. Their loved ones are always getting kidnapped. They have to wear the same spandex suit day in and day out. That’s a lot to bear.

Maybe being a full fledged superhero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we just need to be a superhero to someone. Maybe we just need to be awesome at what we want to be awesome at, and contribute to making the world better in our own way.

Maybe, by aiming for something small and actionable, we can find our own path to having a much larger impact. “Think big and act small,” and all that.

I want to talk to people who are embracing this basic approach to their lives.

People who love doing what they do, regardless of whether it’s glamorous or lucrative. I believe that within these people lie the secrets that might help more of us discover healthier, more meaningful pursuits in our lives.

Are you an everyday superhero? Do you aspire to be one?

Even Thing's gotta make ends meet.


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