Live to Work or Work to Live?

Lately I have thought a lot about my career as a lawyer and about my life in general. Getting old(er) will make you do that. I have reminisced on my accomplishments, and yes, my failures, realizing I learned much more from my failures than my successes. But I have also thought a lot about the “what ifs” of my life. My becoming an in-house oil and gas lawyer, for example, was largely a matter of chance (actually two matters of chance) – or destiny, as Jamal from Slumdog Millionaire would say. In hindsight, becoming a lawyer was a great career move for me. I’m good at logic and analyzing problems and alternative solutions. I can see both sides of an issue. And I’m a decent writer. But I didn’t grow up dreaming of negotiating and drafting billion dollar deals. Like many of us, when I was young, I dreamt of what I saw as more exciting careers – first of being a professional athlete, then a star on Broadway, then a stand-up comic (you can stop laughing now). I should have been one of the people in this scene from Mr. Deeds[i]:

Perhaps that’s why the new movie, La La Land[ii], resonated with me. It’s the story of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician trying to make their dreams come true. The highlight for me was Mia’s (Emma Stone) audition where she sings:

  • A bit of madness is key
  • To give us new colors to see
  • Who knows where it will lead us?
  • And that’s why they need us
  • So bring on the rebels
  • The ripples from pebbles
  • The painters, and poets and plays
  • And here’s to the fools who dream
  • Crazy as they may seem
  • Here’s to the hearts that break
  • Here’s to the mess we make

One of my favorite movie scenes about dreaming to do something great is this clip from Dead Poet’s Society[iii] where Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) asks his students, “What will your verse be?”

I believe each of us hopes, either outwardly or secretly, that our own particular verse of life will be remembered by others and rewarding to ourselves.

A significant factor regarding our happiness in life is our work (and I include stay-at-home parents, in that term, as that might be one of the hardest jobs of all). Those people who love their jobs tend to be happier, which only makes sense since we spend so much time at it.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis[iv], notes that we have a basic desire to make things happen. Psychologists call this desire a need for competence, industry and mastery. This often results in getting more pleasure from making progress toward our goals than actually achieving them. In short, the journey can be more important than the destination. In 1964, two sociologists surveyed 3,100 American men about their jobs. The men most satisfied with their jobs were those who had more latitude in deciding how to do their jobs. In other words, if we are given a goal and then left to ourselves to determine how to reach that goal, we will be happier. Haidt summarizes recent research in this area, concluding that most people approach their work in one of three ways: as a job, as a career or as a calling. If you see your work as a job, you do it just for the money.  You constantly watch the clock and dream of the weekend. If you see your work as a career, you have larger goals of advancement, promotion and prestige. You sometimes even work late or take work home with you, yet at times you wonder why you work so hard. If your work is a calling, you find your work fulfilling, and contributing to a greater good. You would continue working, even without pay, if you suddenly became very wealthy.

So how do we find something to do that can become our calling? First, we need to determine what we like and what we are good at. Regardless of what stage in life you’re in, try taking a test or two that can help you determine your aptitudes. Then tailor your work in a way that allows you to use those strengths every day, in an environment that allows you to be self-directed. I realize a boss or two might stand in your way, but I think there are at least some subtle things we can do. As Barry Schwartz points out in one of his TED talks[v], hospital custodians, whose official job descriptions were lists of menial cleaning tasks, without any interaction with another person (at least according to the job descriptions), can find ways to make their jobs fulfilling. They did it by going beyond the formal job descriptions to do things that mattered to others.

I have found there are two equal factors that determine our happiness at work. We need to like what we do. But equally important is enjoying the people we work with. I have had jobs that I loved and jobs that I hated, where the nature of the work was the same. The difference? The jobs I loved were those where I loved the people I worked with. So if you are a boss, do what you can to make those working for you enjoy what they are doing. A happy employee is generally a more productive and creative one.

But all this sounds much easier than it is. Even if you find that thing you’re passionate about, how do you turn it into a career? For example, as a teenager, I loved basketball, but the odds of a high school basketball player making it to the NBA are roughly one in 30,000. And no matter how much I practiced (and I practiced a lot!), I am just not tall enough, quick enough, or athletic enough to make it.

I found the movie, Florence Foster Jenkins,[vi] not only funny but thought provoking. It’s the story of a wealthy New York socialite who loves to sing but can’t, and doesn’t realize it. As Florence’s (Meryl Streep) accompanist points out in this scene, sometimes practice is just not enough:

And what of Florence’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). When we love someone, how willing are we to tell the truth – at least directly enough so the person understands what we really are trying to say? How do we balance reality with not hurting someone’s feelings:

Even more offensive to me were the other people surrounding Florence who encouraged her, despite her lack of talent, merely because she was so generous to their various charities.

Let’s increase our happiness by finding ways to make our work more satisfying – even if that includes things not technically part of our job description. But let’s also show true love to those we care about, by encouraging them to realize their dreams, coupled with a healthy dose of reality.


[i] Mr. Deeds

  • Production Co.: Columbia Pictures, New Line Cinema, Happy Madison Productions
  • Director: Steven Brill
  • Writers: Clarence Budington Kelland, Robert Risken, and Tim Herlihy
  • Stars: Adam Sandler, Winona Ryder, and John Turturro
  • Release date: June 28, 2002

[ii] La La Land

  • Production Co.: Black Label Media, Gilbert Films, and Imposter Pictures
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Writer: Damien Chazelle (Justin Hurwitz, music)
  • Stars: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
  • Release date: December 25, 2016

[iii] Dead Poets Society

  • Production Co.: Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, A Steven Halt Production
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Writer: Tom Schulman
  • Stars: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke
  • Release date: June 9, 1989

[iv] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Basic Books, (2006)

[v] See, Barry Schwartz, “Our Loss of Wisdom,” TED Talk, February 16, 2009

[vi] Florence Foster Jenkins

  • Production Co.: Qerty Films, Pathé Pictures, and BBC Films
  • Director: Stephen Frears
  • Writer: Nicholas Martin
  • Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg
  • Release date: August 12, 2016



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