I don’t know anyone who has worked for a traditional business and hasn’t run up against our cultural notion of what journalist Brigid Schulte calls “the ideal worker”—the perfect employee who, without the distractions of children or family or, well, life, can work as many hours as the employer needs.
Ideal workers don’t have hobbies—or even interests—that interfere with work, and they have someone else (usually a wife) to stay home with sick children, schedule carpools, and find decent child care. Babies aren’t their responsibility, so parental leave when an infant is born isn’t an issue; someone else will do that. The ideal worker can jump on a plane and leave town anytime for business because someone else is doing the school pickups, making dinner, and putting the children to bed.
In terms of sheer number of hours on the job, most working parents can’t compete with these ideal workers. Still, it’s easy for us Americans to aspire to the archetype. But our fixation on the ideal worker can lead us to hone only one strength: the ability to work long hours.
Unfortunately, honing that one strength won’t get us very far. Why? The ideal worker is not necessarily ideal. Reams of research suggest that people who work long hours, to the detriment of their personal lives, are not more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours so they can have families and develop interests outside of work.
So why do we continue to believe that the longer and harder we work, the better we’ll be?
The ideal worker archetype was born more than 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the factory system in the late 18th century marked the first time that a clock was used to synchronize labor. Once hours worked could be quantified financially, that created a new perception of time, one that saw the amount of time on the job as equivalent to a worker’s productivity.
This notion of work (and time) is particularly problematic today when we factor in all the fancy technology we have. You know, the stuff that lets us work ALL THE TIME. We can check our email before breakfast (and while we wait in line for our lattes), and make calls during our commute. Most of us can keep working straight through lunch while we eat—how wonderfully productive is that? And after dinner, we can log back in and KEEP WORKING when our grandparents back in the day might have been, say, conversing with a neighbor or spouse or child. Or perhaps reading a book. For pleasure.
The truth is super hard for us to hear: Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. For most of the 20th century, the broad consensus (among the management gurus) was that “working more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive—and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot,” writes Sara Robinson, a consultant at Cognitive Policy Works who specializes in trend analysis, futures research, and social change theories.
Moreover, according to Robinson, more than a HUNDRED YEARS of research shows that “every hour you work over 40 hours a week [will make] you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.” Really! Even for knowledge workers!
Why? The human brain did not evolve to operate like a computer that gets switched on and can run indefinitely without a break. Just as a fruit tree does not bear fruit 365 days a year, human beings are only productive in cycles of work and rest.
So if we are to be our most productive, successful, and joyful selves, we must create a new cultural archetype for the ideal worker. One that is based on the biology we actually have, and the way that we actually are able to work. That is exactly what I aim to do in a series of upcoming posts.
This idea will be threatening to the people around you who still strive to be ideal workers. But sticking with the status quo—a life of unrelenting work—will break your heart slowly, as one of my clients so aptly put it. True happiness and fulfillment, it turns out, are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.
To develop our multiple talents, we must stray from the herd of our cultural archetypes. This can be terrifying and disorienting—after all, humans are deeply social animals, so our nervous system sends distress signals when we break from our group. But we will not find our groove by conforming to unrealistic ideals or outdated stereotypes. We’ll find it by allowing ourselves to be complex and divergent—our most authentic, balanced selves.