Working Smarter

Work Identity and Self-Worth: What's on Your Life Card?

Posted by Joe Robinson

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EUROPEANS SAY they know only two kinds of Americans, college kids and senior citizens. They are the only Yanks they see traveling in Europe. The vast demographic between those two groups is a mystery. Of course, we know why. From mid-20s until retirement, heads are down, immersed in the scrum of career, family, and mortgages.

Yet those are not total life-breakers, if not combined with another bigger issue: identities wrapped up in one side of the work-life hyphen. We define the self through labor in the U.S., unlike in many other lands, so self-worth tends to get tied up in what we do and identity with what’s on the business card. Yet what we do for a living is only a part of who we are, known as a persona, a social handle for others.

The real you is much more than the work I.D.—it’s a mix of your enthusiasms, interests, friends, family, humor, creativity, a whole bunch of things that come from the life side, your actual experience of living, in other words.

QUALITY OUTPUT REQUIRES QUALITY INPUT

Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with the productive side. I lead productivity trainings, so it’s something I’m partial to. The performance/accomplishment component is essential for our core need of competence and is one of the keys to well-being.

It’s just that we get so one-tracked that we can wind up missing out on the living we are making for ourselves. When all worth comes from output, there’s no value in input, which is also bad for work—no recharging, stress relief, new ideas, plenty of negative affect. We wind up defaulting to the only worth we know, performance, skip an engaging life, have trouble getting a life on the agenda, and forget who we really are.

A former casting director I know in Hollywood opened up a side business as an identity detective. He helps professionals, such as doctors and lawyers in particular, retrace who they are/were before the career. They dig back through high school yearbook comments, old love letters, and sports activities to try uncover the essence of who they were before they became known as their job. 

We need some evidence too of our own lives. I suggest a business card for life. In my work-life balance trainings I have folks create their own life cards, on which they describe themselves by an interest, hobby, something they used to do but shelved, something they always wanted to do, like learn a musical instrument.

They could be a "travel enthusiast," a "dog whisperer," a "gourmet chef." When we have an identity outside the job, we are more apt to take part in it. Many, though, have trouble coming up with anything, because they have been told there's no value outside the office.

When we don’t participate in our life, we quickly lose touch with the skills and goals of play, curiosity, and exploration that make a fulfilling life happen.

The life side takes a different skill-set than the work mind. The goals are intrinsic, meaning we act for no payoff or result. We try something fun for the sake of it. The output goal is so rote, though, that we may skip a softball game or a vacation. What am I going to get out of it? 

The need for an instant payoff makes it hard for adults to learn, try something new, or stick with a leisure activity long enough to learn it. The double-whammy of not acting for an external reward and worrying that you might make a fool out of yourself by doing something you haven’t tried before keeps many adults sidelined from fun and stuck in spectating after work hours.

REVALUING TIME OFF-THE-CLOCK

Even the words “play” and “fun” seem unworthy of adults, slackerish. That’s because we never learn the value of stepping back from performance mode. Idle time is the devil’s time. Or is it?

The University of Maryland’s Seppo Iso Ahola has found in his research that recreational activities reduce stress. They operate as a stress buffer, taking our mind off problems and building up our resilience. No matter what’s happening at work, you can climb on a bike or jump in a dance class, and the positive emotions soon crowd out the negative that drive tense work thoughts. Iso Ahola says that the more engaged leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction. That doesn’t sound too devilish.

It's time to revalue time off-the-clock from notions that are antithetical to the whole point of the work and counterproductive to quality output, since engaged leisure activities provide the recharge our chief productivity tool, attention, needs to get work done with less effort and stress. These fun outlets vitalize mind and body, allowing us to bring a positive frame to the office.

Researcher Laurence Chalip at the University of Texas has found that engaged leisure activities increase positive mood through more self-control and social support. Overwhelm and stress on the job make us feel out of control. At ease in activities we like to do, especially those that can advance our mastery skills, we bring control back to our day. We also tend to have fun with others, so we get an internal payoff for one of our core needs, connection with other people.

HOW TO ADD EIGHT HOURS OF JOY A WEEK

And it gets better. The University of Montreal’s Robert Vallerand has discovered that having a passion, an activity that you do on a regular basis that you love, can add eight hours of joy to your week. Vallerand’s research shows that we internalize mastery activities, and they become a part of our identity. “I’m a runner." "I'm a musician.” 

These self-images serve as bulwarks of our real identity and are not subject to other people’s approval, so they provide ongoing self-esteem and root us in positive events that inform our memories, our ongoing status report, that we like our life. How important are these off-hours attributes of identity? Play scholar John Neulinger called passionate play pursuits none other than the “central life interest.”

Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey says when you’re engaged in activities of personal expressiveness, ones that are self-chosen and that advance your life goals, you are operating from the “true self.”

So far from being a waste of productive time, recreational activities, play, fun, and hobbies are the road to who we really are. Getting a life I.D. as well as a work I.D., then, is essential for the complete picture of self-image and unlocking the experiences that tell us we are doing what we are supposed to be doing here—determining the content of our lives through participation in it. 

No doubt, this is why a study out of Princeton led by Alan Krueger found that of all the things on the planet, what makes humans the happiest is participating in engaging leisure activities.

Engagement with life is a proactive affair. You are the entrepreneur of your life. No one can make it happen except you. You have to put leisure activities on the calendar for after work, on the weekend, and make sure to take every day of your vacation. Take your life calendar as seriously as work appointments, because these are events of the highest order, your appointment with life.

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Tags: get a life, getting a life, self-worth and work identity, play,, positive mood, work and life identities, work life balance and play

The Lost Key to Happiness and Real Work-Life Balance: Leisure Skills

Posted by Joe Robinson

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There's a word on the other side of the work-life balance hyphen that seldom gets much attention in our busy lives, but is essential to understanding if we are to spend time outside work in the most gratifying way, whether with family, friends, or on your own. That word: Life. It's thing we're working for, so why not spend a couple of minutes examining how we can get more quality time at it?

There's no work-life balance without life, and no life without skills many of us have long-since forgotten. We've got our life cut out for us.

The importance of life activation was brought home to me in an interview with Stanford's Mark Cullen, who studied retired executives. After lucrative careers in the financial world on Wall Street, these men walked out the door to retirement, and in days felt worthless. Their identity was tied up solely in output, and Cullen told me, "they had no leisure skills." They didn't know what to do with themselves in retirement. Some were dead within a year.

INTERESTS MAKE LIFE INTERESTING

We can get back to life by zeroing in on interests and affinities we used to have. Remember? Show me someone with a lot of interests, and I’ll show you someone who finds life interesting. Experts say it’s the range of activities you’re exposed to that gives you the best chance at a thriving life beyond work.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

When you get stuck in a rut—kids with soccer, video games; adults with golf or poker—you limit the universe of what can really excite you because you limit your play and life skills. That’s important, because if you have a passion, researchers say you can add eight hours of joy to your week, which is one of the best stress management weapons available.

Finding potential passions is like wine-tasting. The idea is to sample many kinds of activities, some of which grab your liveliness buds, while others may not quench your thirst. Where do you find the vintages that hit the spot? Start tasting, beginning with things that: 

• You used to love but dropped

• You’ve been wanting to try but haven’t

• Make you happy

• Look intriguing

• Look fun but you think you can’t do

• Are affinities and areas of interest

• Are out of left field, but you want to try

THE PROBLEM WITH ADULTS

Adults weren't always so clueless about getting a life. We lose the leisure skills we had as kids and rule out most anything new because we don’t want to look like fools. So we stop learning, something our brain neurons hate because they want novelty and challenge.

We have to get reoriented to stepping in to the spice of life—jumping into things we don’t know how to do. How? With a fabulous tool we had as children: enthusiasm. Be eager about trying new things like you once were, since that is where we discover things that make us excited to be alive.

That’s easier to do when you don’t use the work mind to try to access your leisure life. The work mind is about results and outcomes, The life mind is about intrinsic, not external goals, about being in the experience for the sake of it, the fun of it, not where it’s going or how well you do it.

If you let the work mind ask: What am I going to get out of that bowling night or pottery class, the answer will be nothing productive, so you drop it since there’s won't be any instrumental gain. The “only” thing you get from recreational outlets and hobbies is the life you’re working for.

Your new mantra, then, for disconnecting in off-hours is do it to do it. Eagerness comes with the anticipation of learning something we want to know or experience. We all knew that as kids. Back then, it didn’t matter if you knew how to do the activity or what people might think of you if you didn't, or if you were going to make a fool of yourself, you just plunged in.

THE MEANING IN LIFE OF SALSA

Richard Weinberg, a highly successful businessman in Chicago, went out one night with his wife to a Mexican restaurant. After dinner, waiters removed the tables, opened up a dance floor, and the salsa music started. His wife tried to get him out on the dance floor, but, being an adult American male, he wasn’t having any of it. No way was he going to make a fool of himself.

His wife had so much fun dancing with the waiters, though, that the next day Weinberg reconsidered. He decided to take a dance lesson at a studio called Chicago Dance. Then he took another one and another. Six years later, at the age of 55, he was dancing professionally in 14 different dance categories, and he won a national competition.

Weinberg told me something that is a wakeup call for all of us. “Until I discovered dancing, I didn’t know I wasn’t really living,” he said. “Now that I have dancing, I feel like I have a purpose in my life.” This is someone who has achieved the American Dream and has no concerns for money. This is how important the life side of work-life balance is.

HAPPINESS = INTENTIONAL ACTIVITIES

With 50% of our potential happiness due to genetic inheritance (sorry about that; you’re stuck with what you got) and 10% due to circumstance (the state of your health, environment you are raised in), you have only 40% you can control. It falls into a realm known as intentional activities. Research by Kennon Sheldon and Sonia Lyubomirsky shows that the two keys to sustainable happiness are initiating intentional activities and sustaining them.

So searching out and initiating intentional activities are THE place to start activating life and happiness. Where to look? Identify which of the following genres of R&R fit your interests. Which are you curious about? Which offer the most fun, challenge, or interest?

• Hobbies and crafts

• Creative arts

• Games

• Sports, fitness

• Dance

• Outdoors

• Music

• Science, mind play

• Volunteering, service

Once you have identified genres you like, then open your Internet browser and start digging in to the activities within them to sample. What would be the most fun? What would you really like to learn?

Having an enthusiasm that connects with you at a core level gives you something to look forward to and provides meaning that can transform your life. The surfer checking the weather report every morning, the artist who can’t wait to get home and paint a canvas, the table tennis player hooked on Sunday pickup matches at the local college—they have an extra gear or two of aliveness when a favorite activity becomes an extension of who and what they’re about. They’re excited to be here.

You will be, too, when you find an activity that unleashes your own mastery need, one of the most powerful stress buffers and the ticket to satisfy your core needs of competence and autonomy. Repeated effort through practice operates as a self-propulsion agent, leading to improved skills and further interest until the activity is internalized as part of your being and begins to define your identity.

Passions pay off in so many ways. They increase positive emotions and optimal experience during the activity and boost positive mood and decrease negative feeling and stress afterward. But that’s something you already understood—when you were five years old.

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Tags: happiness, life balance, work-life balance and leisure, passions, leisure activities and happiness, intrinsic motivation, recreational activities and stress relief, get a life

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