Live to work, or work to live?
October 5, 2010 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Is it better to live to work, or work to live?

I've been thinking and reading a lot lately about what I want to do with my life, and read countless AskMes along those lines (to link just a few). However they always seem to come down to the same question for which there is no definitive answer: is it better to pursue a career in something you love for less money/stability, or settle for something which pays the bills and pursue your interests in your spare time? Simply put, is it better to live to work, or work to live?

I've read Grumblebee's fantastic "passion" comment several times (which falls heavily on the "work to live" side), but many other excellent comments have made a similar case for being paid to do what you love. Obviously the answer is different for everyone, but I'm interested to hear from people who've lived and experienced this, and what (if any) conclusion you might have come to.

To be a bit more snowflakey, I'm currently in a job which is both and neither: I don't hate it but my heart's not in it; it pays the bills (just) but leaves me too tired to do anything in my spare time. I know I need a change, but for various reasons I'm going to stick it out for the time being, and I want to use that time to figure out my next move.

I'm a highly creative and analytical person, but I'm afraid that if I try to pursue a creative career then the pressure to create will kill my productivity. I'm ok with not earning as much as other people, but I also don't want to have to struggle to make ends meet.

On the other hand, the thought of spending 40 hours a week for the next 40 years doing something I don't truly care about fills me with dread. I can't escape the thought that all my hard work is ultimately only making rich men even richer.

Perhaps this is a false dichotomy of sorts, and in reality it's better to find something halfway between the two - but I'm halfway between the two now, and I feel like I'm in limbo.

I'm going to stop short of actually asking "what do I do with my life?". Really what I'm asking is: how do you handle work/life balance, and what are the pros & cons of each approach?
posted by Acey to Work & Money (25 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
I would say from what you've written - particularly paragraphs 4 and 5 - that you are coming down on the live to work side of the equation.

Could you work part-time? Could you make ends meet on a part-time salary? If so that might give you the safety blanket to move into a new, creative career which might not initially make you much money.
posted by ninebelow at 7:06 AM on October 5, 2010

If you haven't found a career that sustains your lifestyle and that you also feel passionate about then there's nothing wrong with working to live. I spent my 20s trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I came up with bupkiss. So I got a job that will let me retire at the age of 50. Maybe by then I'll know what I want to do and can spend the 20 years after that doing what I love. And in the meantime I am taking up a LOT of hobbies.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:08 AM on October 5, 2010

It's better to get paid well and like the people you work with.
posted by anniecat at 7:10 AM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Pragmatism above all. We do the best we can in life, and it's usually far from perfect, but it still is (probably) good enough to allow us to live meaningful lives. Very few of us are going to be able to get through life so well that we would be able to claim sincerely, as Frank Sinatra did in the song "My Way" that while he had a few regrets, they were too few to mention. I have too many regrets to mention, rather than too few, but even so, I feel that I have accomplished some genuinely worthwhile things in my life, and my life has been worth living.

Your hard work is definitely not only making rich men even richer. Your hard work is giving you a viable life, which is the platform from which you can aspire to better things. It may take time to find the right opportunities, and meanwhile you have that time because you do have a job with which to support yourself. It is always good to seek opportunities for improvement. But until you find them, you survive.
posted by grizzled at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2010 [10 favorites]

This is such a subjective question. I prefer working more hours to fewer and I generally eschew vacations because they make me restless.
posted by dfriedman at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2010

Right now, you're working to work and skipping the entire living portion of the equation.

If you had a job that allowed you to really live - comfortably make ends meet, use your spare time - then you might feel differently about working to live.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:15 AM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't escape the thought that all my hard work is ultimately only making rich men even richer.

If you were following a passion, you'd still have to sell out and make the rich richer. That's even worse, because you get fooled into working even harder to benefit another person.
posted by anniecat at 7:16 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I always thought the noblest path was live-to-work and spent much of my energy pursuing that (or failing and moping about it).

Then I had a kid.

Now it's all about work-to-live. I don't care if I have to shovel shit: it's now all about making sure my little one has everything he needs, and that I have enough time away from work to spend with him.
posted by slogger at 7:18 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm voting for "work to live". Even my best, most favorite and loved job, cytogenetic technologist, got boring around year 6. My modus operandi has been to take a break, go learn another job until I really missed my favorite one, go back for a few years, get bored again, go learn something other etc. One does sacrifice career this way, but at least boredom was kept to a minimum. I just retired from my last job, which I kept for 8 years: the last two were absolute misery!

I'm never bored at home.
posted by francesca too at 7:19 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It really depends so much on what type of person you are, and in my experience creative people seem to be more interested in living to work rather than working to live. I see my husband, an artist and musician, struggle with having what he calls a "day job", but what I would just happily call a "job", because my only interest outside of work is reading a lot of books and hanging out with my friends and family. If you feel drawn to spending your life in a creative pursuit, I think it will be much more difficult for you to feel fulfilled if you aren't doing that sort of thing all day long.
posted by something something at 7:33 AM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Well, I love my day job, which I usually spend upwards of 40 hours/week on, but even in my free time in the evenings I'm doing two other jobs (one for pay -- freelance writing -- and one as a volunteer -- running a high school science and technology competition in my area). After about three days of vacation I usually find myself bored and itching to have something to do. So I may be a workaholic, but I'm definitely a "live to work" person -- all three of my "jobs" are based around my passion, robotics, and I can't imagine not devoting tons of effort to it.

Then again, I'm a workaholic with lots of friends but no significant other, no plans for marriage/kids any time soon, and a dog I have to work really hard to keep up with. And I know that if and when SO, marriage, and kids do come in to the picture, I'll have to cut back. And that's really a rather terrifying thought.

Short answer: it depends!
posted by olinerd at 7:48 AM on October 5, 2010

It really depends so much on what type of person you are, and in my experience creative people seem to be more interested in living to work rather than working to live.

I agree with something something. I know a lot of people who have a boring but well-paid 9-5, and who use their nights, weekends, and vacations for all their hobbies and fun stuff. I admire them, it seems so well planned out and fulfilling for them, and they do get to do a lot of cool things when they're not at work. But I could never do it. I'd rather struggle to pay my bills with day jobs, temp things, part-time, whatever, as long as I can pursue my creative career most (or at least a lot) of the time. If that wasn't my main focus, I'd really feel like I was wasting my life.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:50 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

First, either way, read Hugh McLeod. Particularly his ideas on sex and cash.

I am a semi-creative person who always wanted a job I loved and assumed if you loved something, the money would come along. And for me, it did. I went from working in a creative field to another related creative field to managing creative people to heading up a practice in a large company. And, honestly, the entry level stuff that was more passionately creative? It's about the same net benefit emotionally as the management stuff. It was higher highs and lower lows, but it averaged out at the same place and the work I threw myself into, sacrificed nights and weekends for, it's all pretty pointless in the scheme of things. Also, I was pretty broke and my only friends were the people 12 desks around me because we never left.

Now I work doing a lot less of what I have passion for as tasks, but I'm working in a company where I really, really like the end result and it feels good -- even if my part of it is very small. I make enough money to have breathing room. I occasionally do creative stuff -- at work or on the side -- rather than every minute.

I also always thought it was the job that was making me work long, crazy hours. So I would find a new job. And it was great and I had short hours and long lunches and then I started finding things that needed to get done and, bam, long hours. So I'd switch jobs. Lather, rinse, repeat (minus an in-house job with low expectations and high budgets that went out of business a few months after I left due to total boredom).

So, either way, go into it like this:
- Are you the person who can physically, mentally and morally leave work at 5pm? Or are you someone for whom "we're so damn close" or "if you guys only did this, we'd be awesome"? I learned the hard way I will turn any job into overwork, so I'm in a job that rewards it and I'm working on boundaries.
- Your creativity waxes and wanes. It does. If you want to create, you will. It feels much better to blame a job than to realize that you aren't ready to do the hard work of creating something. I'm on Metafilter right now rather than drawing a comic or adding another page to a screenplay and I chose that -- but it makes me feel better to think to myself that I've used all my creativity up at my job today. It's OK to choose an "easier" or less emotionally taxing job so you can spend time for yourself -- online, with friends, with family. But unless you're disciplined enough and willing to structure creation into your life, don't assume that easier job = more creativity
- Invest in things. Whether that's the job that doesn't use any of your unique skills that you plug along in or the one that taps into your soul's uniqueness, don't expect the big cash payday right away. All those guys I know who went into IT after college because that's where the money was but didn't have passion for it? Still admins or help desk or unemployed. Still making what seemed like a lot of money out of college without any path to bigger or greater. The people I know who loved networks, or loved computer hardware, or coded for fun before they got paid to code for pay? They've moved up, gotten lots of money, have the cushier life and have stayed employed in the recession. People without any passion for something rarely do a good enough job to make it their own and everyone can see it. It doesn't have to be 90% of your soul, but 10-15% seems to be where it has to start.

Can you find a joe job that captures 10% of your passion (enough to make you successful) but leaves you with 90% to create? Can you create a discipline and structure to make sure you create/enjoy/fulfill the other 90%? Are you willing to stick with it -- both the creation and the joe job -- to reap the rewards? And are you the kind of person, if you've invested 10% of yourself in, that can walk away at 5pm and say, "It's OK if it's not perfect. It's done enough."?

Only you know. Hope it helps.
posted by Gucky at 7:52 AM on October 5, 2010 [9 favorites]

Interesting question, especially so for a New Yorker who has made his home in Europe since 1997. I'll tell you how I played it:

Started out in banking in early 80's. Never got caught up in the spending side of the lifestyle, but was seriously into the working side. Generally 60+ hours a week, and 100+ hour weeks weren't uncommon, seven days a week, of course.

Saved aggressively, invested well, achieved financial independence (defined as when cash flow from passive investments is sufficient to cover all living expenses) about ten years ago but still worked so I could save and fund the life I wanted. Worked my way up the corporate ladder, put my business life before my personal life, sometimes flying over 200K miles a year and spending absolutely NO money of my own, 'cause it seemed I was always in a hotel someplace on biz. At my peak I was saving over 80% of each paycheque. Bonuses either paid down mortgage debt or were invested into the market and additional, cash flow generating securities.

Left banking about two years ago, took another Masters (MBA this time), and now I'm teaching finance part time at Universities in London and a some other European cities, and writing market commentary to a few banks and funds which I get a big kick out of as I used to write market commentary while employed by banks; now I get to sell it to them. But all of that is just for fun, as I seriously love talking about the markets and helping folks understand not only how the global financial system works, but how they can make it work for them.

I'm also writing a book on finance and generally looking about for other challenges.

And now I got the life I wanted: my money is working so I can live, I still work myself but mostly for fun, and none of it would have been possible if I hadn't focused intensely on my career early on, in other words, lived to work.
posted by Mutant at 7:59 AM on October 5, 2010 [13 favorites]

The good news is that this angst and this pressure and this dread of the thing you know you don't want will drive you in a direction that is better for you, because it will motivate you to take risks on uncertain alternate directions. The bad news is that you will have to live with it to varying degrees for a while.

Back to the good news, you don't have to answer this question for your whole life today. At any given point you can make course corrections based on how you feel right now. Since it's different for everyone, you can't really choose incorrectly unless fear keeps you from choosing at all. As your life morphs and changes, you may find that your answer to this question changes as it did for the person above who had a child. Let it, because it will be right for you at the time.

Part of the angst behind your question is feeling like you need an answer that will set the course of the rest of your life. But you don't have to answer that question and it may not have an answer. Life is long and you can't predict how you will see things 5 or 10 years from now. While you want to make good and strategic decisions, don't let your soul starve for too long. It's easy to wake up and 20 years have gone by with nothing but stupid work to show for it, and you wish you had carpe'd that diem, but those years are gone.

Be here now, as the sages have said in one form or another throughout history. Live now. The only moment you ever live in is the present one. Be good to yourself in it.
posted by Askr at 8:28 AM on October 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

I and my friends are pretty solidly in the upper-middle-class income bracket. I don't know a single one of us who is currently employed in the pursuit of our "passion." If I pursued my passion, I'd be making nothing writing musicals or growing orchids.

In my experience, this site tends to lean pretty heavily towards the "live to work" concept and it is like that all over the Internet, weirdly.

Hardly anybody really gets to be what they want when they grow up, but having money to do fun stuff really eases the sting. You have to derive your sense of accomplishment from something you do at work, and for the most part, that onus is on you and the way you approach your situation. Except for the obviously horrible jobs, like, I don't know, an armpit-sniffer or something, it's never as bad as some people make it out to be.

Hate your boss? Pay your dues, build your resume and move on. Job is boring? Take the initiative to find a weakness (read: opportunity) and train yourself to become the expert at that.

Often I find the chorus of complaining about the "soullessness" of office jobs to come off a little bit like the creative class's sour grapes for realizing it turns out they're not going to be the next Faulkner.

My and my husband's "soulless" office jobs just scored us some amazing, mind-blowing scuba diving in the Red Sea. My passion would never been able to afford that.

Work to live, man.
posted by mckenney at 8:46 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is interesting becuase even though my dad told me at a young age to work to live, not live to work, I never considered the money aspect. Sure you need some money to be able to live, but you really just need enough to get by.

I always viewed it in sort of an "hours of my life committed" type of way. For example, if you are paying me for 40, then you get 40. After the 40 I'm just donating my "life" time.

You are either dedicated to living or dedicated to working. It doesn't matter how much you are getting paid - you are either doing what your job wants you to be doing or what you want to be doing at any given moment.
posted by Big_B at 9:01 AM on October 5, 2010

Work to live vs. live to work isn't about "following your passion" or not or "artist vs. office job" but rather about whether you are the sort to cultivate serious hobbies or not. People who work to live, in my experience, are the sort who have 40 hr/week jobs and then spend their evenings and weekends breeding dogs or doing community theater or running the local neighborhood association. People who "live to work" might be artists trying to "make it" or they might be corporate lawyers who work 60-80 hrs/week who spent their time at home checking to see if clients have called in. That's their focus, and then maybe that drive gets channeled into planning nice vacations and figuring out what the best school for their kids is.

The question is whether you want to pick a job that will consume you, or whether it's just a means of paying the bills so that you have some time to coach the little league team and help out with the volunteer fire department and make time for your bowling league.

And I don't think there's a simple answer: everyone has a different personality.
posted by deanc at 9:17 AM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think it truly depends on the person.

I was raised to be a live-to-work (and love your work, and have a career you care passionately about) kind of gal, but I married into a family that has been decidedly work-to-live. My in-laws have fantastic hobbies, a great social life, are very active in general and enjoy themselves. It has been an eye-opening experience and brought me a long way toward appreciating that different things work for different people, and that there are as many ways to live as there are folks on the earth, probably.

So -- do you think you are the type of person who needs an overarching passion to throw yourself into to be happy? Or are you more the sort that needs lots of varied interests and who has a big life outside of work/career?

My parents are live-to-workers, and both got into careers they were passionate about. They each have a few hobbies, but they are all things that mostly keep them at home, and my dad's hobby is a direct offshoot of his work! They are keep-to-themselves kind of people, they like staying at home, and the live-to-work kind of suits them. Though I have wondered if they would be more happy or fulfilled to at least experiment with the other way.

The way I consider it personally, I basically am going to spend about 1/5-1/4 of my working years AT WORK. That's a lot of fucking time. I want it to be something I care about, that holds my interest, that I enjoy.

That said, I've had jobs that were just jobs, and it was rather nice to be able to not put so much of myself into it.

All this rambling and equivocating just to say: you should probably try it both ways. See which you prefer, if either. You might end up liking some mix of the two.
posted by Ouisch at 9:18 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Very interesting question.

Perhaps this is a false dichotomy of sorts, and in reality it's better to find something halfway between the two - but I'm halfway between the two now, and I feel like I'm in limbo.

I'm in the same spot you are. I have a two-pronged plan:
- small shifts in the day job toward something more and more fulfilling
- save all my pennies so I can increasingly make decisions based on passion and not on pay

If you had to choose, I'd say make your job your passion, but choose a route to get there that is sustainable and does not involve too much starving. So, I believe your question is a false dichotomy. Some great writers and artists developed their skills partially out of the pressure to pay the bills (what is this loss of productivity you speak of? wouldn't it be more productivity?). The professionalism I develop in my day job feels just slightly at odds with a truly idealistic approach, but actually the discipline developed, the opportunity to work with a community of experts, and the commitment to performance and delivering what was promised all are very valuable.

So, I'd fix this situation you're in from both ends: find a way to end at 5 pm and not be exhausted (challenging, I realize, and I don't know if these apply to you, but in my own life, the psychological journey to let go of over-working and/or compulsive over-achievement has had rewards in its own right), find after-work pursuits that address the rest of your passion, and identify how your day job could be more fulfilling for you.
posted by salvia at 10:09 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

It is healthiest to work to work, and live to live. If you try to cross the streams then bad things happen and you'll get neither. Enjoy the work for the enjoyment of work. Enjoy living for the enjoyment of living. I am not just saying words. When life and work is divided, one is always necessary to earn access to the other. When the prospect of getting to work, or getting to live is conceived of as an exchange then you will always be in the process of trading what you don't want for what you want. But this leaves you always holding what you do not want. Life and work are continually set aside as something that happens later, elsewhere, or never here. There is no asymmetry here. This is a fact the procrastinators can attest to. But this all changes if a simple and old observation is made. The observation that there is a quality to working for the sake of working. There is something there that is more than either. To do a thing for its own sake, without contingency. What is that thing? It is obscured by a common modern fear. The fear is that to work for work will enslave you to it. The fear that if you simply dedicate oneself to some task for a period, or a lifetime, you will never get what you want. That to work to work will forever bar you from that life you wish to trade for. In contradiction to the fear, the case is that to work to work returns back the life you have set aside, to live to live does just the same. But not as you would imagine, not as in that you will sacrifice your hours to the job at hand and in some fantastical karmic response you get to live the life of luxurious freedom, or more absurdly if you live it up you'll find yourself more productive than ever before. No. It is less and more than that.

There is a meditative quality in all things done for their own doing. There is a freedom in choosing to do one thing, even as simple as making the bed in the morning, and then sticking to it not as a choice or because it is good or bad, but because it is to be done. To do something for its own sake is liberation, and rarely in history was it so clearly possible. When something is done to be done it only matters that it is being done and it only matters to you. It does not enter the picture whether or not it was your choice, or if it was a wise choice, or that you would rather be somewhere else, or that you are only doing it to pay the mortgage, or that all your friends are doing so much more than you. If you must have something in return to justify the gambit proposed, then it is this: the practice of effort for its own sake makes every labor less an effort. But there is no need for such a thinking for this proposition is nothing foreign. To do x because it is to be done, is quite familiar to you already. You already do this every day in your own small personal ways. It is these things you do because you do them that makes you you. To add a few more merely extends it. Make all of your life yours. Dare to do without reason, without exit. You will discover the life in your work, and the accomplishments in your life.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

How about instead of work to live, or live to work, think: live for no regrets. Work is a part of life, not separate. The question: how do you want to spend your entire life?

I think it's a really huge mistake to think that one should work long hours in hopes that one day they'll be free from the work and be carefree for the rest of it. One, they'll be old and won't be able to do what they used to. Two, they'll have no knowledge of what to do, since they wasted their youth working. So they'll just continue to work, because that's what they know how to do.

The older I get, the more I see this happen. People my age are already saying, "impossible", when they should just say, "let's go!". They're starting to give up. Their perspectives are very narrow.

If you don't know what you want to do, I really suggest doing something you never thought you could and before its too late. Please.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:10 PM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

"It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?"

-Charles Bukowski
posted by allseeingabstract at 12:49 PM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: This is all excellent, thanks everyone.

I'm certainly no workaholic, so I think based on what's been said I'm leaning towards work-to-live. That said, I'm also a perfectionist, and a lot of what TwelveTwo says about work for work's sake also resonates with me (and has done since reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). I've taken what little creativity my job allows me and embraced it, and got a lot out of it. I think there's a lot to be said for a compromise.

I've always been interested in a variety of things and most of all I think I lament having time to do it all. All part of adjusting to working life, I guess. It's daunting to see those endless years of full-time work ahead of you, and natural to freak out a bit.

Lots to think about, thanks again.
posted by Acey at 1:53 PM on October 5, 2010

I can't escape the thought that all my hard work is ultimately only making rich men even richer.

I used to feel this way too. When I was laid off during the last recesssion in 2001 I decided to volunteer abroad on a Peace Corps-type thing for a year. The year spent in rural Kenya (where I was teaching on a local non-expat salary) brought a lot of clarity about what was really important (books, nerds for company) and what was not important (possessions, job titles, salary, rat race) to me.
posted by thaths at 1:17 PM on October 7, 2010

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