I recently read a very poignant post by Mark Suster on his blog Both Sides of the Table in which he described how he only had 7 more trips left as a nuclear family before his oldest son goes to university. He talks a lot about the work-life balance, and sometimes the way in which many people prioritise work instead of taking time to enjoy life and I think that is one of the many things that Americans and Asians alike both struggle with.
We come from a culture in which we are taught the value of hard work, persistence and ambition, and the European way of enjoying life is something that is foreign to these cultures in which every waking moment is filled with work, the semblance of productivity and not enjoying the time we have to explore our own curiosity or spending time with the people who are important to us.
Boys, aged 7-12 years old who worked at a fish cannery in Maine, United States (circa 1908-1912). These boys worked from 7am to midnight most days, and earned between 75 cents to 1 USD per day. During the Industrial Era, the majority of children in the United States and Europe were employed at a young age until child labour laws became enacted.
Since the beginning of the history of the United States, child labour was a widespread practice and during the 1800s and early part of the 1900s, parents sent their children to work for 12-16 hours day in a factory. Despite the fact that a lot of literature during this era focused on the leisurely life of aristocrats as shown by the impressionist painters such as Monet, the reality was that the majority of people, including women, and young girls and boys, often worked very long hours under the harsh conditions of factory life during the Industrial Era. It wasn’t until the leadership of Queen Victoria in the UK, that she enacted laws protecting children from labour and British union leader James Galloway advocated the 8 hour work day, which would eventually become known as the 9 to 5 working lifestyle that would influence other European nations and the United States. During the Industrial Era, it was common around the globe for people to work up to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. The idea of an 8 hour day + 8 hour recreation + 8 hour rest was revolutionary for its time during an era in which people valued and prioritised work over life.
What I have noticed that is common within both American and Asian cultures, is that from a very young age, people are taught the value of work, and are inundated with images of desirable material objects, and told that success comes in the form of the attainment of money, status, and material objects. In our contemporary era, sites such as YouTube are filled with videos of people unpacking their prizes on shopping expeditions and soft sell advertisements teach us that more is better. Social media reinforces our culturally learned values so that we may now show off all the things we own or want to own, to find validation in others, but rarely do people take time to write long letters, contemplate nor analyse the information we are constantly inundated with.
The lost art of letter writing: Instead of communication with each through thoughtfully written, introspective letters, in our contemporary era, we communicate with “likes” and text messages that only relay a partially interrupted thought process.
To fit into our society’s values, and to an extent, for some to perhaps get away from an undesirable home life - many people hide themselves in work. There’s always another deadline looming, another bid for a client, another project to finish, and the endless inundation of detail that can fill up our minds, and work becomes a way to hide from our lives. I have witnessed many people in which half their life is work, and the other half they are in a drunken stupor, only to repeat this sequence day in and day out. Of course, I think work is important; however, how many of us are fulfilled by the work that we actually do? I think most people want to feel like they are making a difference in the world, but many of us still simply resign to merely “existing” as opposed to living, just to pay the bills.
The revolutionary novel by Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857) changed the way modern society viewed debt. It used to be that before the 20th century, debt was considered a crime, and many people went to prison if they were not able to pay their debt. Through this intricately detailed novel, Flaubert began the dialogue that would alter our societies to no longer view debt as a crime which ultimately created a change in laws to protect people in debt.
To counteract these feelings of merely “existing”, our culture has also taught us that the way to fix these problems is not through analysis nor contemplation but by taking pills or drugs to alleviate the alienation people may feel from being disconnected with their peers in an era in which the paradoxical situation caused by too much information has lead to short-attention spans. In his blog article, Mark describes an article written by the wife of a high profile lawyer in Silicon Valley, "The Lawyer, The Addict", in which she discovered her husband’s drug addiction too late.
A friend of mine, who formerly worked in politics, and I had a conversation about this kind of phenomenon over the years, of people becoming burnt out from their jobs, and who use pharmaceuticals or drugs to alleviate the sense of emptiness. He aptly called it a widespread bourgeois phenomenon: “everyone is always on something.” I think this is one of the ways in which our health care system has failed us. Everyone is inculcated to take pills for something or another as opposed to focusing on nutrition, psychological self-awareness and exploration of our natural landscape.
Finnish children spend half their day outside, learning about the environment around them as part of their education. Their students are rated as one of the top students in the world in every subject.
I think about nations such as Finland, who have top students in every subject, in which children have short school days and they spend half their time outside, exploring things, following their imaginations and creating their own projects. They are in touch with the aspect of nature in which many people in our generation are not. I also think about nations such as South Korea, in which students are in school from 8am to 10pm or sometimes even up to 11pm or midnight, 6 days a week, in which they have top students in math and science, but also one of the top teen suicide rates in the world.
Students in South Korea do not move from their desks for most of day and are in school from 8am-10pm Monday to Saturday. Individualism is often punished and students are taught to be solely focused on doing well on multiple choice tests. South Korea has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the world.
It is unnatural to sit for 12-16 hours in front of a computer monitor or a TV screen or at a desk. There is a missing part of American and Asian education in which curiosity has been collectively ostracised, reprimanded and stomped out, and instead replaced with multiple choice tests.
The simple fact is, life isn’t a multiple choice test; it is a meandering path, sometimes with many different outcomes, and to expect people to follow the same path is something that is directly derivative of the Industrial Era, when people were expected to work 16 hours a day to solely create profit for the companies that instilled this philosophy.
The Slave Market by Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888) depicting the slave trade in Ancient Rome. The exchange of money began with the slave trade in Ancient Civilisations. From Babylon to the Ancient Egyptians to the Romans, the Middle Ages and early European and American history, slavery was a way to commoditise and force the values of “money” over human life.
One of the books that I have read that changed my view on work is Randy Komisar’s The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating A Life While Making A Living. Randy is a former corporate lawyer, turned venture capitalist and a partner at Kleiner Perkins. He may sometimes be spotted riding on his motorcycle around town. I think to understand our post-Industrial Era, there are two things people need to understand so that they may be freed from the confines of “work”: what drives us and what sustains us, and then we must learn they are not mutually exclusive.
When I talk to so many people around me, from young to old, they tell me their goal is to attain as much money as they can. I do not think money in itself is a goal, as much as it is a symbolic means of trade. I am quite frankly disturbed by the way some members in my generation place value on money, but not on people and quality of life. There are many people in our society who talk of a retirement they might never have time to enjoy, investment for a future in which they are not fully living in the present and focused on the attainment of material objects. Of course, there is nothing wrong with building a beautiful home, and creating a sense of stability for our families, but do we really need all that endless stream of advertised stuff in our lives?
The Monk and The Riddle (2000) by Randy Komisar asks us to question the life in which we are told that the end goal is retirement.
In my short time as a volunteer at a hospital when I was a teenager, I saw endless wards of elderly people slowly dying in their hospital beds, being fed on drip medications, with no signs of their family ever visiting them, and I wonder if this is the retirement they had all saved up for? Randy’s book asks us to question the life in which we are told that the end goal is retirement.
So in my opinion, it’s OK to be perceived as a “loser” as long as people follow their own path. Our societal values place undue significance on a life of materialism, but perhaps we do not place value on the people now who will ultimately affect our lives. Mark Suster writes: “If you find yourself today or in the future at the same life stage as I am, find a way to truly check out. You don’t get these days back. So I’m going to make the most of my 8 trips and 4 years.” I wonder what would happen if people began to think in terms of time, in years, what an object is worth to them instead of in monetary terms? What is the value in terms of years is it worth to work for a certain company or to buy a house? In the end, I think that people should choose their own path, not because everyone else expects them to, but because they are compelled to take it.