In This Episode
If you spend a lot of your life doing something, it’s natural to care about it! But sometimes the amount we care about our jobs does not match the way our jobs care about us. So when you come to the realization you need to care a little less about your job… how do you actually do that? Simone Stolzoff, author of The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer questions from listeners who want to dial down the caring.
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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. This is Work Appropriate. And I’m your host Anne Helen Petersen. [music plays] If you spend a solid third of your life doing something, it is natural to care about it. If you’ve spent, oh, two thirds of your life pursuing the path that led you to doing that, then also natural to care whole lot about it. But sometimes the amount we care about our jobs does not match the way our jobs care about us. As the great labor journalist Sarah Jaffe put it in the title of her 2021 book, Work Won’t Love You Back. And that’s a hard realization, isn’t it? Particularly for those of us who came of age in the era of do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life. But there’s a real movement, I think, to try and disentangle ourselves, or at least our whole selves from our jobs. That doesn’t mean that you care less. It just means that you also care about the ability to keep doing the work while also maintaining your mental and physical health. It’s one thing to have this realization, you know, that I need to distance myself from my job, that I need to figure out a way to care less, even just slightly less. But it’s another thing to figure out how to do it. Usually the advice is just something like care less. [laughs] Or even better, quit. But when you’ve developed a particular sort of relationship to work, quitting and starting a new job doesn’t solve the problem. You need to reconfigure your entire relationship to work as a whole. Now, I want to be clear here that I know that there are people in certain lines of work where figuring out how to care less is incredibly, incredibly difficult. Particularly lines of work where you’re serving a population that’s vulnerable or exploited. And we’ll be doing another episode that focuses specifically on these helping professions, especially when caring less can possibly look like, when that means that someone goes without shelter or without food or without health care that they need. And if you have a question or dilemma along these lines, please submit at WorkAppropriate.com and you can stay as anonymous as you’d like, as always. But for this episode, I wanted to focus on workplace quandaries from people in situations where caring less and still doing solid work is absolutely possible. [music plays] In fact, some detachment might actually make them better at their work and better at so many other parts of their lives. And I had the perfect person in mind as co-host.
Simone Stolzoff: My name is Simone Stolzoff, and I’m the author of the book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work.
Anne Helen Petersen: I know all about your book because I read an early version because this is obviously something that I think about a lot, too. [laughs] But tell the audience about your book.
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. So in short, the book is about work culture in America and how work has come to be so central to people’s identities and sources of meaning in their life. And then there’s a bit of an argument of the book, which is about the value of diversifying our identities beyond just what we do to make money. And each chapter follows a different worker from the different industry. So there’s a Michelin Star chef and there’s a librarian and there’s a Wall Street banker and there’s a software engineer at Google that lives in a van in the Google parking lot. And through each of their stories, I uncover one myth about that working world from your workplace is your family, to do what you love and never work a day in your life. A lot of the axioms that we hold true about the working world start to become a little bit more fuzzy and gray when you zoom in on them a bit more.
Anne Helen Petersen: How did you find the people that you use as kind of the centerpieces of each of these chapters?
Simone Stolzoff: A few different points of entry. One is I had a Google forum that hundreds of people filled out, which was, yeah, just so interesting. I think one of the interesting things about this topic is that everyone has an opinion on it.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: Everyone has a relationship to work, and often people have had to renegotiate that relationship over the course of their life. So some of it was proactive people coming to me and then some of it was me reaching out to people that have done a lot of really interesting thinking on these topics before. So, for example, there’s a chapter about this woman that Anne both you and I have written about in the past, named for Fobazi Ettarh, who is a librarian and writes about this concept called vocational awe. Which is the idea that an industry has had this sort of perceived righteousness or this kind of halo that goes around them that obscures a lot of the exploitation or injustice that exists with it within them. So you can think about health care workers or teachers or people in the nonprofit sector or in Fobazi’s case librarians, where they’re often told, you know, no one gets into this line of work for the money or everything that is problematic about this industry is a result of your personal choice of getting into this line of work as opposed to actual systemic flaws that should be addressed on the institutional scale.
Anne Helen Petersen: I’d love to hear you share a little bit about how you arrived at this point that you felt like passionately enough about these subjects, that you wanted to write a whole book about it because it’s a very personal story, just like, you know, my writing about burnout is also very personal. So please tell us.
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah, I think there’s sort of two ways in. The first is that my background is as a journalist and labor and the working world has been my beat for about seven years. So, you know, I’ve written for places like The Atlantic and Quartz and Wired, and I’ve always covered labor, and specifically I’m here in the Bay Area so it’s kind of Silicon Valley’s approach to to labor. But the second is extremely personal, and I am probably smack dab in the middle of the millennial generation. And I was raised on certain scripts about following my passion, about looking for my dream job. And so I spent my twenties seeking vocational soul mate looking for that perfect job that could help me self-actualize. And so I worked in advertising and I worked in tech and I worked in journalism and I worked in design, all looking for that, that one job that could make me sort of the fullest version of myself. That was a unique reflection of my personality. And, you know, after ten years of searching like that, I sort of came to this idea of as opposed to, like the dream job as being this job that we put up on a pedestal. What would it mean to have a good enough job? So a good enough job as both a foil to a dream job, but it’s also an illusion to this theory that was devised by this British pediatrician and psychologist named Donald Winnicott in the 1950s, the mid-20th century. And Winnicott was observing how there was this growing idealization of parenting, there was this striving to be the perfect parent to shield your kid from experiencing any sort of negative emotion. And then when you know your kid or your toddler inevitably felt anger or frustration or fear, the parents would take it extremely personally. And so Winnicott devised this theory where he called it the good enough mother or the good enough parent, where as opposed to using perfection as the ideal, he instead thought an approach that valued sufficiency would be better off for both the parent and the child. The child would learn how to self-soothe and deal with some of their own issues. And the parent, wouldn’t get lost in their children’s emotions. And so similarly, I was observing sort of this growing idealization of the working world and dream jobs. And my sort of take on Winnicott is perhaps an approach that values sufficiency of a perfection and approach that thinks about how can my job fit my version of a life well lived, as opposed to being the central axis around which the rest of my life orbits could actually make us healthier, more fulfilled, and ultimately better workers too.
Anne Helen Petersen: In previous episodes, we talked a lot about ambition and about the myth of work life balance. And our questions today come out of navigating both of these ideas. This first question is from Remi, and our colleague Ashley is going to read it.
Remi: I’m a person who likes to work. I am team work life balance, but I want to have enough work to fill up my workdays and feel satisfied with my productivity by the end of it. I recently left my U.S. government job after five plus years because I felt unchallenged, untapped and bored. I moved around the world and started a new job in the private sector. Now I’m a few months into my move and I feel just as bored. I am not being utilized, but everyone around me seems to be drowning in work. When I do get work. It’s either mindless or completely lacks guidance, so it’s just as futile. Everyone around me says I’m lucky to have a job that doesn’t demand much of me, and I should enjoy the freedom and flexibility. But I want to work. I want to use my brain and I want to be productive. But I feel like no job wants that of me. Is the universe trying to tell me something and I’m too busy being annoyed by my boredom to hear it. I know the economy now is dependent on jobs that keep us busy for the sake of being busy. Am I asking too much of a job?
Simone Stolzoff: I love this question.
Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] I know I do too. I love it because like, I think that some people would hear this and be like, must be nice not having to work much. But then I also really empathize with the asker because having had really boring jobs in the past. Or jobs where you’re not busy. So the first one was I worked at a bagel shop that was failing and there just wasn’t very much business. And it was just like I wanted it to be busy so that the hours would go faster. [laughs] And then I worked as a nanny for infants and like, there’s stuff to do, but most of the time you’re just like hanging out there, bouncing an infant on your knee and also really boring. And you’re like, What if things were happening? Wouldn’t that be cool? [laughs] And so I think that I like I understand that desire to, like, fill your days. This person is spending a third of their life, if not more, doing this job. They want to feel like it is something. So I understand that. What’s your first reaction?
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah, I mean, the first thing where my mind was thinking about the late thinker David Graeber’s bullshit jobs—
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: —framework, and I think there’s something about having a job like this in the corporate world that feels so meaningless, where it’s like, does anyone else see what’s going on right now?
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: And that the desire to not just be busier, but to be spending your hours doing something that feels like it’s actually making some semblance of a difference in the world? I’m reminded of this study that I think both of us have written about in the past of there’s these two researchers, one is named Jane Dutton, and then the other is named Amy Wrzesniewski. And they study how workers make meaning in their jobs, and particularly in environments that you might not think of as particularly meaningful. So one of their most famous studies was about janitors in a hospital. And they were wondering how these, you know, custodial workers who all had the exact same job responsibilities, the exact same job description, had such a variance in the amount of fulfillment they got from their work. And they found that their workers roughly broke down into two categories. The first category did not see their job as like particularly skillful. They did not go out of their way to interact with the people they worked with, the patients that were in the hospital and ultimately were not very fulfilled by their work. And the second group, they thought their job was a bit more skillful. They went out of their way to interact with their colleagues and and folks in the hospital. But the biggest difference was the folks in the second group saw that their job was part of this greater system.
Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm.
Simone Stolzoff: Whose goal was to heal the sick. They sort of placed a subjective value on their job of the impact that they were having or the system they were contributing to that made the menial aspects of their job a bit more bearable. And the sort of term that the researchers used was with job crafting service ability that each of us has to influence our sort of perspective on our job that actually will change their relationship to the behaviors of the job as well. And, you know, hearing this question made me think of this. It’s like I feel like we’re having this like society wide debate right now. Where on one end of the spectrum there’s sort of the anti work people. And, you know, you must have heard of like the subreddits.
Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm.
Simone Stolzoff: And the people that are thinking that like, you know, work is bad essentially. And the other end, you got sort of the fallout of the hustle culture and the productivity point and the entrepreneurs that say that if you don’t work 60 hours a week, you can’t do anything meaningful in your life. And the truth is the answer is somewhere in the middle. You know, neither both extremes are dangerous to a certain extent. And the question is like, how do you pursue meaningful work without letting what you do for work take over who you are? And then I think that’s essentially what are listeners asking here is like, how do you balance that pursuit of a meaningful work? Because we work more than we do just about anything else in our life. I’m curious, like how you might advise them to, to think about their their situation.
Anne Helen Petersen: I think like on a structural level, this person is also perceiving that there are some corporations that are overstaffed for various reasons. And I think like government oftentimes is is in this bucket and there isn’t enough work to go around. And then there are other [laughs] corporations, organizations that are like incredibly understaffed and there’s so much work to go around. And everyone’s it’s a burnout machine and it seems like there’s not, as we were saying, like the Goldilocks, like happy middle. So it’s hard to find that place. But I think I admire what this person is looking for. They are looking for a job that doesn’t burn them out. It doesn’t sound like they’re particularly ambitious per se. They just want to think. They just want their intelligence to be used for something. [laughs] And I think that, like probably they are feeling discouraged by the fact that they changed seemingly a lot in their lives. You know, it says they moved halfway across the world, but it’s easy for two jobs to be pretty similar. My advice, when someone’s in a situation like this, it’s not a job that’s threatening your life if you don’t hate it, right? You don’t like it, but you don’t hate it. This is a great time just to casually look for a job. You can find something. And I don’t think that they should feel bad or like they’re asking for too much and looking for something that falls in that sweet spot. It’s going to take longer to find it, and you’re going to have to narrativize, you know, in your resume why it is that you’re moving from job to job. But like sometimes the job’s not a fit and that’s okay.
Simone Stolzoff: And perhaps that new job is even at the existing organization where they work. You know I think they can use this opportunity to look around and say, is there something at this company that I’m inspired by? Is there a type of work or a team that feels like a better fit for me, or is there some way where I can channel some of this sort of latent potential, that sort of intellectual curiosity that I have into realms outside of the office? It could be a great time to get really involved with your local neighborhood group or to start politically organizing about a cause that you care about or volunteer for something that matters and use some of that space that you have in your day in order to diversify your source of meaning outside of just what you do for money.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I feel like we’re going to come back to this again and again. And this is a real callback to too our our episode on ambition with Rainesford Stauffer about like you can be ambitious in these areas outside of your work. Get that feeling of productivity in areas outside of your work as well. Like I get it [laughs] I get the feeling of productivity like when I’m gardening, I’m like, wow, I was so productive weeding, you know, like there are so many different places that aren’t just your work that can create that high. I think the other thing I want to ask, see if you have any advice on this is how when this person is on the job search, like screening jobs or in the interview process, like how can they identify companies that are a little bit more in that sweet spot instead of places where they might be a little bit more on that like bullshit job side?
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah, I have a few things to say here. One is I wonder how they might be able to prototype different types of jobs or different types of work without having to go all out and, you know, start another job right away to figure out whether they like it. So, you know, for example, like you and I are both writers, I have a lot of people that reach out to me and say, hey, I’m considering, you know, quitting my job and becoming a writer full time. And I say, that sounds great, but maybe like, start small. Why don’t you, like, write one blog post [laughter] or contribute one article and see if it’s actually something that you like doing.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.
Simone Stolzoff: And I think like by designing these little prototypes, these little tests, you can find out so much quicker what you actually care about as opposed to the sort of thought experiment that we often do in our head of life. Hmm. I could be an astronaut or I can be a politician, but which one is the truest to my calling?
Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm.
Simone Stolzoff: Actually, doing the work is the best way to figure out whether it might be something that you enjoy. And then the other thing is, you know, it’s a little trite, but just talking to people that are in that line of work and getting as close to the kind of experiential aspect of it. So can you shadow someone for a day? Can you talk about what someone is doing at an idle 3:30 on a Tuesday as opposed to when we talk to people about like whether they like their work? It’s really easy to go into like platitudes or to think about these these general projections of how we want to be perceived, but really trying to get in touch with the tambor of the daily experience to the job tends to be the best indicator about whether you might actually like to do it for 30, 40, 50 hours a week.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and I think a potentially good solid way to do this is to look for people who’ve left the company after being there for a long time and be like, I’m not trying to like get dirt on the company. I just want to know if you felt like the workload was enough. Too much. Not enough. Just get some of that informational. There’s always a risk with this that, like, somehow this person will be connected to someone who’s, like, already at the company and they’re going to say, oh, this person’s digging around. Especially if you frame it as, I just want to know what the experience is like. I think that you can probably find information that way, but it does take a little bit of LinkedIn sleuthing probably to get that information. [music plays]
Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is from Casey, who seems to have found that good enough job but is now a little suspicious of it. Our colleague Reyna is going to read it for us.
Casey: About 18 months ago, I changed careers. I went from working as a professor at a small, highly dysfunctional university to working in the civil service. I was incredibly fortunate to land a senior policy analyst position and negotiated to come in at the top of the pay scale. I like my new gig. I find the work engaging and interesting and the people I work with are great. My struggle, if you can even call it that, is that I’ve gone from hustle constantly culture to being satisfied with where I am now. Moving up means moving into management, which I have zero interest in. Is being ambitionless a problem? Will ambition come back?
Anne Helen Petersen: I feel like this person is aligning hustle constantly culture with ambition. You can be ambitious at doing your job as a senior policy analyst really well.
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. And I think it’s also indicative of so many people as experience across the world right now coming out of the pandemic. I think everyone has had this reconsideration of their relationship to their work. And there’s actually a kind of cultural movement around this, around the world and in Japan there are these folks that call themselves the Hodo-Hodo Zuku, which translates to so-so people.
Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm.
Simone Stolzoff: Which are actively forgoing promotions in order to maintain work life balance or an extent of their responsibility that feels more manageable given the other aspects of their life. There is the social media movement in China that you may have heard about called lying flat.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.
Simone Stolzoff: Have people that are sort of actively resisting hustle culture and having public displays of rest or non-work. And in the US there’s this woman then that Nap Bishop Tricia Hersey, that you may have heard about that has this incredible book called Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto. And it’s about how actively resisting hustle culture and grind culture can be a form of activism that a lot of this hustle culture Hersey links to sort of white supremacy thinking in the way that we’ve been conditioned to think that our worth is tied up in how productive we are. And I think, you know, ambition, in addition to being able to be channeled into realms outside of the office, can come in waves. You know, maybe right now there’s a season in our listeners life where she is not feeling particularly inspired or ambitious. And maybe there will be another season where she’s feeling called to, you know, put in longer hours or, or try and move up the corporate ladder and just being patient with the natural ebbs and flows in the ambition in your life can take some of the pressure off. I think a lot of us have sort of internalized the value systems of capitalism as our own and think that if we aren’t somehow growing we’re we’re stagnating.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: It can be okay just to be in a period of time where maybe you’re not as ambitious and maybe that’s just fine.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I think too, this person, if they were working at a university, like they probably spent a lot of time in academia becoming accustomed to the norms of always hustle all the time culture. And when you leave those norms, she’s essentially experiencing culture shock. And I think it can be very easy to understand not moving quickly. Right? Like not hustling all the time as not moving at all, as stagnancy. And I don’t think that’s what it is, right? Like she is probably doing an incredible job at her job and doing important work and she’s probably doing better at it because she’s not exhausted all the time. But instead of recognizing that how she’s probably better at her job because she’s not pulled in so many directions because she’s not fighting that urge to always be doing more in every corner of her life, she understands it as lack as something to be ashamed of that she doesn’t want to become a manager. If anything, I think that it’s an incredible skill to recognize that management is not something that you are equipped for and that you want to do. That is humility, like recognizing that about yourself so that you won’t be a shitty manager to someone else. Like that is a gift. [laughs] But I absolutely understand why she feels the way that she does [laughs] and I want to tell her to extend some grace as she continues to change the ideology of what work should be. It’s going to take some time to become accustomed to those norms. And she shouldn’t feel bad about losing what her previous industry understood as like the best way of working, the best way of manifesting your ambition.
Simone Stolzoff: Amen.
Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] That was my sermon. I don’t even know I was gonna do it. Our next question is about the idea of perception of like feeling like your coworkers think you’re not working hard anymore. This is from Natalie, and our producer Melody is going to read it.
Natalie: How do I care less but still look like I care? I think my raises are not just based on merit, but on how much of a team player I am at work.
Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So this is a simple question, but I love it because it gets straight to the heart of like, why people feel like it’s so difficult to care less about work because you have to still perform that you care about work. Because caring about work is the way that we understand being good at your job, right? And I think that this person also identifies that if you don’t seem to care about your work, if you’re not a quote unquote “team player” that it’s going to cost you in other ways. Right. Like whether it’s you’re not going to get work that’s interesting or you’re not going to get promotions, whatever. I think this is as close as we’re going to get to talking about the idea of quiet quitting, because what this person is saying is like, I just want to do a normal job, but I feel like I can’t just do a normal job because other people will penalize me. So what do you think about all of this?
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. Natalie, I feel you. [laughter] And it reminds me actually, of the section from Anne’s book Can’t Even, where she talks about wearing headphones in an open office. And the choice is basically like, either you don’t wear headphones and you get distracted every 5 minutes or you put on your noise canceling headphones and people can perceive you as like being standoffish. You’re not a team player or at the most extreme, I think you say, or a cold bitch. [laughs] You know just being in like your own world—
Anne Helen Petersen: Right when actually you’re just actually doing your work, right? Like, that’s the way to do more work is to put on your headphones or like, you can apply this to Slack too right like the person who doesn’t really participate in Slack is not a team player when really probably they’re just doing their work [laughs] and the person who participates in Slack like does less work but is perceived as doing more.
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah, there’s this researcher out of Michigan State named Erin Cech, and she does research around which she calls like the trouble with passion, the trouble with following your passion. And there’s this great anecdote that she writes about in her book about this hotel chain that forces all of their employees to wear name tags that say, hi, my name is blank. I’m passionate about blank. You know, like, hi, I’m Jimmy. I’m passionate about archery, you know, And it’s sort of like the productivity culture, passion, culture equivalent of like service with a smile.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: Like, not only must you do the function of your job, but you must, like, perform how passionate you are about that job.
Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. Yep.
Simone Stolzoff: And it’s not part of the job description. And yet we like assume that all of the sort of going above and beyond or necessarily being so passionate about your job as X, Y, or Z is expected and your raises are contingent on it. It sounds like a communication problem about the expectations of the workplace. And maybe one thing that would help, Natalie, is just to have a conversation with your manager and be really clear about like what is expected of you in the job, like how you’re doing, doing a bit of kind of managing up to see what does good work look like? In my book, I there’s a section where I argue for a more transactional approach to work, which might sound a little bit crass. You know, we’re told jobs are meant to be callings and passions and vocations, and to think of it as like an exchange is, you know, maybe not the sexiest thing in the world, but at the end of the day, a job is an economic contract. It’s an exchange of your time and your labor for a paycheck. And I think being more explicit about what the terms of that contract are can free both employers and employees. It can free employers to be able to be explicit about what good work looks like to have expectations about quality. And it can free employees to understand, okay, this is what’s expected of me. I can do that work and I don’t need to stick around and be performatively online just for the sake of, you know, larping your job as Anne and Charlie wrote about it just like this idea of needing to be a team player just by not actually doing [laughs] the work that’s required of you doesn’t make sense for anyone.
Anne Helen Petersen: I think that there are some managers who absolutely are on board with this and if anything, want their employees to like fuck off less, you know what I mean? Like they want them to spend less time on Slack. They want them to spend less time socializing in the workplace. And then there are some who like are, you know, like the manager in office space who’s like, where’s your flair? Like, where’s your commitment? [laughter] You know, where where’s your little badge about what I’m passionate about. And those people are often, like, deeply committed to managing up, want to rise through the ranks like very rah rah for the company. And I think expect other people to perform similarly, to simultaneously perform that passion and that commitment and do whatever their actual explicit job tasks are right, like complete all of those things. So I think the this question asker needs to perceive what kind of manager they have, right? Whether this would be a conversation that you could have. It’s like, I know I’m not spending as much time like being communicative on Slack and I am really passionate like, say like very you can just say it even if you don’t necessarily mean it. Like this job is really important to me. This work is important to me. I really want to focus on the work. Do the little defensive like I’m not as social because the work is so important to me. But I also think that she might recognize that, like there are [laughs] that that might not be the case and that you can like put it as like a checkbox on your like list of things to like perform engagement once a day, check in and be on Slack for 20 minutes. It sounds utilitarian or instrumentalist, but I think you can do that. And then the last thing I would do, and I say this only because I have absolutely done this myself, is check in with yourself and see how much of this is internalized pressure, how much of this is me thinking that I’m going to be penalized if I don’t perform in this way, just like my own understanding of how demonstrated passion is essential to a job and how much of it is actual pressure. Because I do think in some cases there can be actual pressure and actual penalization and then in some cases, not at all. What do you think there?
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah, I would experiment with sort of testing the boundaries of it, you know, and seeing what feels all right with you. I think a lot of people I started doing this during the pandemic where maybe they just signed off at 4:00 and, you know, went for that run and maybe didn’t ask for permission, but looked to see if they needed to ask for forgiveness. And ultimately they didn’t. You know, it reminds me of those days where I’m away from my phone for one reason or another, and I’m sure that I’m going to have missed [laughter] the most urgent email in the world, the opportunity to be on Oprah or whatever. [laughter] And I come back to my phone and there’s never that email it’s never there, you know, it’s never there’s never anything that really can’t be responded to when I’m back online at 9:00 the next morning. And so I think that point is is really is really sharp about trying to think about how much of that pressure is just this internalized narrative of what type of workers we should be and how much is actually explicit from the norms and the culture of your team.
Anne Helen Petersen: This last question is from Leslie. And they’ve put into practice a lot of what we’re talking about. Our colleague Fiona is going to read it for us.
Leslie: I’ve been a person who wants to care as little as possible about work for several years now. I like to think that I don’t make my career a big part of my identity, and I like that. I also like that I don’t often think about my job outside of working hours. However, I work in a field that is known for its bureaucracy, and the slow pace of progress is beginning to weigh on me recently, because of lack of enough team members and therefore not enough team resource capacity to take on new projects. I’ve had almost nothing to fill my working hours, a couple of days of this feeling like I’m playing hooky is great. But weeks turns out this is bad. I’m surprised to find that I’m thinking and caring more about work when there isn’t any to do. Perhaps this is because I spend so much of my time sitting at my computer in my home just in case I get a Slack message. I also think it may be because I was getting more personal fulfillment out of feeling useful, slash needed, slash whatever at work than I realized. So I’m interested right now in how to find the just right level of caring, because I think I found the bottom end and it does not feel good.
Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So this is kind of a cousin to our first question. Like both of these question askers are absolutely bored out of their minds, but they each have different expectations to begin with. So the less work that Leslie, the question asker here has to do, the more she has started to care. What do you think is going on here?
Simone Stolzoff: This is also relatable. [laughter] And I think you know that the need to feel useful or to feel like you have a purpose is fundamental to who we are as humans. I think one of the things that I would advise, Leslie is how can she feel useful and fulfilled in realms of her life outside of the office?
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: I mean, this is a clear cut case of like part of the reason why the contrast between the work that Leslie wants to be doing and the work that Leslie is doing feels so hard to bear right now is because it sounds like work is really central to Leslie’s life. And that’s in that discrepancy between her expectations and the reality that creates all of the dissonance here. And so often when people ask me, like, how do I care less about my job, it’s not necessarily an active role of deprioritizing the tax of your day or trying to not care about the work that you do, but actually actively caring more about things outside of the office?
Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, yes.
Simone Stolzoff: So is there something that you can do in your life, Leslie, that makes you feel more purposeful, makes you feel more needed, engages those parts of your brain or your hands that feel like they’re being underutilized in the course of your day. And I think by having these diverse sets of meaning and identity in your life, you’ll actually take some of the pressure off of your job to fulfill all of these roles for you. Much as an investor benefits from diversifying their investments in their portfolio we too benefit from diversifying the sources of meaning and purpose in our lives. And so my advice to Leslie would be to think about how she might be able to channel some of that energy that she so badly wants to give to her job, to other aspects of who she is.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I think this is definitely a case of someone who wants to like, walk the walk and is realizing it’s harder when there’s actually less job there to funnel herself into. This is kind of calling her bluff a little bit. And for me, you know what, what you said just now is a far more eloquent iteration of my refrain of like, get a hobby. Get a hobby actually sounds like that, I think sometimes people are like, that’s frivolous, right? Like, who has time for a hobby? Leslie does. She can still do a really good job at her job and start thinking about other things that give her joy and give her life meaning that will complement the job. That’s what I think sometimes when we have these conversations. And I imagine that you have had to field some of these questions in your press leading up to the book of like the way to care less about your job is to treat your job as like making widgets all day. You’re just like mindlessly turning something. You turn off your brain for 8 hours or something. And no, it’s instead, the proportion that we cared about our jobs was so large that we’re just trying to like right size it a little bit and then add in a little bit of space to have other parts of our identity and the way that we relate to others into our communities that make everything feel more balanced.
Simone Stolzoff: Totally. There’s like a healthy level of detachment that I think would behoove so many workers and the world. And if we’re not sort of attaching our self-worth to our output, and riding the roller coaster of our professional accomplishments. The irony is that I think we become better workers, too.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.
Simone Stolzoff: It allows us to decouple some of the emotion that we put into our decisions and the stakes that so often feel so high about every little thing. And when you’re able to just zoom out a little bit and say, okay, like what is the function of this job in my life? Like, what is it allowing me to do? It makes it easier to understand that, you know, not all of us are heart surgeons. [laughs] You know, some of us have jobs that are more of a means to an end and an end in themselves. And there is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make the work any less noble.
Anne Helen Petersen: So I think our advice to Leslie would be like, you’re doing a good job. It’s not weird that you suddenly feel more aware of your job and feel like you care more about it. But take some of that energy and instead of checking Slack all the time, like there’s a way you can have Slack on in the background while you do other hobbies too you know what I mean? [laughs] Like take some of that time and funnel it into figuring out, or maybe she’s already figured out other things that are really meaningful to her, at least for the time being. We’ll see. You know, maybe she’ll get more there’ll be more work added to her plate, but maybe she’ll, at that point have made those other parts of her life more robust. Right. So that it it kind of balances out a little bit.
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. Who knows? In six months she might be having the opposite problem.
Anne Helen Petersen: Right.
Simone Stolzoff: I think, like there are so many people in the economy right now and the kind of teachers in particular that would care for Leslie’s problem.
Anne Helen Petersen: Right.
Simone Stolzoff: But it shows that, like, you know, these things are not one way or another. Everyone has a different relationship to their work. Some people are doing what they love. Some people do what they have to do for work so they can do what they love when they’re not working. And we shouldn’t revere one approach above the other.
Anne Helen Petersen: So for our closing thoughts, what would you say to someone who is worried that their desire to right size the amount that they care about work is actually a sign that they’re lazy or that they’re bad at their job?
Simone Stolzoff: I think that person should take some time off too. I don’t know. I think for me, the periods in my life where I have been most aware of the unhealthy relationship that I had to work or my job, where when I was too close to the work to see how my mindset was actually harming me.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Simone Stolzoff: It wasn’t always a function of my manager or my workload, but the lack of perspective that I have. And I think that’s why people that go on sabbatical or people that live abroad or take time in a place where work isn’t so central to their lives, often feel like it is this accelerant of their personal growth and development. It’s they’re able to see that there are other ways to approach work. Apart from this sort of hyper capitalistic grow or die, climb the ladder, win the game approach that so many people take in the US, and I think part of the foundation for writing the book for me is that, you know, my family is Italian and there’s just such a different approach to work in Italy where, you know, the small town in Puglia where my family’s from, then in San Francisco where I live, and just being exposed to different ways and different approaches of how we can relate to our livelihood can be really illuminating and help us develop a more sustainable relationship to work in the long term.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I think those different experiences make the American understanding of what work should look like strange, because it is strange. There’s nothing normal. It’s not how things have to be. And so to question and destabilize that status quo is really powerful. The other thing I would say to someone who feels like I’m being lazy by doing this, like that’s the [laughs] that’s like capitalism whispering in your ear, right? Like, that’s your internalized capitalist who’s saying, if you’re not working all the time, there is something morally wrong with you, right? Like you are. Somehow this goes back to like very Calvinist understandings of like the elected people being chosen and Protestant work ethic is very deeply drilled into us. Whether or not you are Protestant or not, that like the desire to work all the time is somehow indicative of your moral worth, and that is a lie. So that would be my other advice [laughs] to people who feel like this is somehow, you know, them being lazy. And if the voice is also coming from like older people in your life or people in your family or people on Twitter or, I don’t know, op eds or whatever. Like those people, that’s their internalized capitalist too. Like they don’t have some sort of, like, wisdom or knowledge about the actual value of working all the time that other people don’t. They just are deeply inculcated into this system. So it’s okay to push back and find out what feels good and right and sustainable for me, while also being, you know, I want to make enough money to care for my family. But that doesn’t necessarily have to mean working all the time. So this has been fantastic. Like, I could have a conversation with you about this stuff all day because we you know, we have a lot of the same sources and we think about a lot of the same stuff all the time. And I feel like we’re like a chorus, you know what I mean?
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah, let’s get more people singing, you know [laughter] join the gospel.
Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Thank you so much for joining me today. Where can people find you if they want to hear more from you?
Simone Stolzoff: Yeah. So this is my debut back. It’s called The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work. And it comes out on May 23rd, but you can preorder it now and everything you need is at TheGoodEnoughJob.com and I’m @SimoneStolzoff s i m o n e s t o l z o f f, on Twitter. And @the__pizzabagel on Instagram. [laughter] It’s because I’m an Italian Jew and so there’s the pizza and the bagel.
Anne Helen Petersen: Ah. That’s amazing.
Simone Stolzoff: I’ve contemplated trying to be a professional but actually think its—
Anne Helen Petersen: No.
Simone Stolzoff: It’s like a tattoo you get when you’re 18 it’s like a vestige to an old self.
Anne Helen Petersen: It is your tramp stamp.
Simone Stolzoff: Exactly.
Anne Helen Petersen: It’s amazing love it. All right, before we go, a heads up that there’s a new merch collection in the Crooked Store, Matriarchy or Bust. It’s inspired by those awesome nineties airbrushed t T-shirts and the moms we begged to buy them for us. The design makes me feel like I’m on a fun summer road trip with no traffic and no patriarchy. [laughs] This collection has tees, tumblers and bumper stickers. Something for everyone. Check it out at Crooked.com/store. Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we are here for you. Submit your questions at WorkAppropriate.com or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. You can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study AnneHelen.substack.com. And if you like the show, leave us a little performance review on your podcast app of choice. It really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music plays]