What if our real life is our work life?

I doubt anyone who is a parent of a teenager has not been confronted with the knowledge that their teenager’s life revolves around their schoolmates and school activities. From dusk until dawn, children rise and engage one another in some institution of learning, engage in sports and clubs, and spend a majority of their time away from their parents and relatives. Then they do a version of wash, rinse, and repeat during college.

After that, they get a job (we hope). Somehow, between the transition of college to work, their “real life” suddenly becomes the life lived outside of that job (which we know to take up a majority of their time). Something about that doesn’t ring true to me – does it to you?

I’m not quite sure when we succeeded in hoodwinking ourselves, as adults, that work is not our “real life”. However, before I continue down that path, it helps if I define “real life” – and thereby can stop using it in quotes – because if you find the definition flawed then you’ll most likely find my theory equally flawed, reasonably so.

real life Ÿ noun  | The condition that distinguishes the time spent engaged in activities which enrich the soul (i.e. time spent with family, friends, and/or in recreation, sports, hobbies) versus time spent in activities which are for merely for the purpose of meeting essentials such as earning enough money to purchase food, housing, and medical care (i.e. work).

That’s not the broadest of definitions that I could come up with but it is enough to serve our purposes here. Real life is what you do because you enjoy it (or should enjoy it) versus the things that you do because you must. In some respects, what we do when we’re younger and under the hand of government which requires a compulsory education, could fall into one of those things we must do, irrespective of our enjoyment.

However, let’s dig deeper. Not all of us had wonderful teenage years, but all of us had them, and there is no question that those times are where we form the foundations of our personalities, our interaction styles, and relationship styles that we engage in as adults. I’ve said to my friends that we define our life challenges in high school; the rest of life is spent throwing ourselves up against them. We repeat those same patterns, situations, again and again – that’s not accidental.

Those patterns form against some type of environment, some backdrop. If we’re lucky, the environment is stable – there are any number of studies you can look up which discuss the negative impact of removing environmental stability and permanence during the adolescent years. So, we’re not going to touch that; let’s assume that to be a truth. Therefore, what environment, as an adult, can most resemble that environment that we had as an adolescent?

Our place of work. [1]

How much time do you spend at work, thinking about work, commuting to and from work? For a number of employees, that’s easily between 45-65 hours a week. How does that break down? It means, on average, eleven entire hours a day is spent on work. Add in an additional eight hours for sleep creates a total of nineteen hours. There are only 24 hours in a day, so approximately 68.75% of your Monday to Friday is spent on work. That’s more than a third of your time.

Feels more than a little real to me.

But, let’s dig a little deeper. I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at spending 40-60 hours a week with people I don’t like. While familiarity does breed contempt, before it gets to that point, familiarity allows people to get to know each other. When you get to know someone and you have things in common, some trivial (coffee), some less (sexuality, religion, politics), it’s easy to want to keep talking to that person. It’s easy to want to maintain that relationship.

It’s easy to want to date that person. [2] It’s easy enough to want to spend time with that person outside of work. [3], [4] It’s easy and far too reminiscent of high school / college to be discounted.

So let’s pretend this is our real life. That while many of us must work because it’s essential to gaining our means to living, we also work because it’s the place we go to hang out with our friends, to catch up on gossip, to socially groom each other, to test out our behaviors and styles and fashions, to grow. What if where we work is where we engage in our real life? How bad would that be?

Flip that around, what if the time we spend outside of work, with our families and our non-work friends, isn’t our real life? And there we need to hold our tongues and our tempers, and there we need to work at being engaged and interested, and there we have to explain what we spend the rest of our time, and there is where the inside jokes are minimal, the space can be a little suffocating, and your mind can’t help but wander back to what’s waiting on your desk for Monday?

(Let that sit on your mind for a moment. Let it marinate, seep in, if it doesn’t feel right, that’s because it shouldn’t).

Change the Story
For those of us who are parents you’re used to schools trying to engage you in kids lives. It’s not just checking on homework when they come home, but chaperoning school trips, being a part of the PTA, talking regularly to their teachers and counselors, knowing their coaches and their friends – parents are being encouraged to engage in a deep, meaningful fashion.

So, let’s make that catch up to our workplaces. Our formative years are being integrated, why not our adult ones?

I want to know my colleagues’ spouses, partners, and kids. I want to know how they spend their weekends and what gives them joy and pleasure outside of work. I want them to know that about me. I care, not just because I care, but because I need to care if I want the whole person to be there when they’re at work with me and that they can be the whole person when they’re not at work with me.

I don’t want an annual “Take Your Kids to Work Day”. I want a weekly “kids will be about the office, you’ve all been forewarned” environment. I want it to be okay if I work from home once or twice a week and that I step out to go jogging during my mid-day break and I don’t answer my phone because I’ll be up an hour or two earlier getting work done before the rest of my team has even stepped into the office. I want three-day work arrangements, I want regular sabbaticals, I want uninterrupted vacation time, I want it all.

Because maybe I wasn’t raised an environment where that happened; but my kids will be, and my coworkers kids are, and I can’t imagine how much of a shell-game they’ll have discovered if they get to the “real world” and it’s nothing like their real life. It’s nothing like their life, simply put.

I want my real life to just be my life. It’s not that way today for many of us, but it should be. This is not government; separation of church and state does not apply. We shouldn’t have to assume new personas as we shift between our weekdays to our weekends. We shouldn’t have to pretend, put on, or subsume, in whatever direction that may be.

We should just be able to live, in our work and in our play, as whole people. I can’t imagine any way that can be a bad thing.

Can you?


[1] Rest assured, the varieties of work arrangements (telecommuting, freelancing, et al.) gets addressed.

[2] Despite the taboo on office relationships, be honest, how many “company weddings” (or affairs, tete a tetes, dalliances) do you know of? I don’t have fingers enough to count.

[3] Happy hour is not a random or accidental thing. Its prevalence is because of its social value and importance.

[4] The same goes for office or corporate athletic leagues. If it didn’t have legs, it wouldn’t be such a strong market.

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