When work is your life: career as commitment

One of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path is “Right Livelihood.” Right Livelihood means that we think carefully about the impacts of how we make our money, and we challenge ourselves to make a career that is compassionate, ethical, and wise. Buddhists shy away from occupations that cause explicit harm to others, and tend to pursue the helping professions, like counseling, medicine, and nonprofit work.

I would argue that another component of Right Livelihood is the right amount of livelihood – work-life balance. Being compassionate in our career means understanding how our work affects those in our lives, and respecting that we have a responsibility to privilege our relationships over money when we can.

However, as Buddhists, I would also argue that we have a tendency to believe that everyone must pursue the same path of work-life balance – meaning that everyone must put relationships over career. This, just like overwork, is a dangerous precedent to set, as it presumes that everyone is put on this earth with the same talents. Some of us are natural healers, here to bring harmony and warm the soul, while others are natural innovators, here to find solutions to the world’s problems and make a better future for us all. Right Livelihood means respecting that everyone has a livelihood that’s right for them, and that each person has a special harmony of work, relationship, and play that brings them the most joy. In seeking the Mystic Law, we will all find what rings true for our own Buddha nature.

While driving back from Chicago with my mom once, we were discussing my career goals and my hesitance to have children, bordering on a firm “no.” I have many reasons why I don’t want children, and at 26, I’m pretty certain that those reasons aren’t going to change or diminish. Any biological impetus that I feel isn’t strong enough to overcome the valid concerns I have regarding parenting, from worries about the environment to the belief that I don’t need to be a parent to make a positive impact on the next generation. I’m four years away from 30, the point at which most people have already had children, and given that being a parent still gives me the shivers and the idea of marriage is still a “in a few years,” children aren’t likely, ever.

My mom, in playing devil’s advocate, told me that having children had given her a sense of purpose and “given her a reason to come home.” Fair enough. Going further, she detailed the story of her coworker, who hadn’t been home in months (they are consultants and travel for work) because, being single and childless, she didn’t have a reason to. My mother told me this as if it were a deeply sad thing, and then said, with a sigh, “I look at her and realize that would have been my life if I didn’t have kids. Maybe she’s happy, but …”

This really got my goat.

Come back!!! That coat is expensive!!

But it also made me think, and consider: in a rush to define “work-life balance,” what about those whose work is their life? Why have we vilified a dedication to work, when those who are strongly dedicated to their work have often produced some of the most important contributions to humanity? Is it fair to be sanctimonious about “having a life” or “not being chained to a desk” if someone’s focus on their job is what makes them happy?

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical of a society that views individuals by their capacity for work, or demands constant access to its workers, or expects people to be on call all the time. And people who do want “work-life balance,” who want a more relaxed pace so that they can spend more time with family or dedicate time to outside hobbies and activities, shouldn’t be shamed or judged for that either. But it’s also not fair to suggest that someone is lesser, or a sad person, because they want to focus all of their energy on their job.

Some people simply have a consuming passion for their occupation, and that is more important to them than raising a family, or hobbies, or other activities. Someone who chooses not to have a family or to marry because they’d rather commit more energy to their job isn’t lesser because of that. They have found their true life’s purpose, and are helping to further the human revolution through creating new technology, or making art, or simply expanding their business. We should celebrate all people who have found joy in their daily life.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of this too. Someone close to me is very intense about his work. He regularly works very long hours, of his own choice, because his work is his passion. I’ve been critical of this and told him that he needs to have a better “work-life balance,” but is it any of my business? Not really. Unless he’s dropping dead of overwork, I don’t get a say in how he spends his time. If I care about someone, that means supporting what makes them happy, and as long as they are taking care of themselves, we’ll meet in the middle, organize time to see one another, and that will be that. I don’t have the right to tell someone how they should live their life. If their work is their priority, that is their choice.

Life is about choices and compromise. If someone wants to focus most of their attention on a career, then they’ll have to decide if it’s right for them to marry and have children. Is it fair to subject a spouse or kids to a life where they’re not getting a lot of attention because you’re dedicated 100% to your research? Probably not. Maybe you’ll have to forgo that. Or you’ll have to ease back on the work while the kids are young and then devote more energy once they are more independent. I guess, in a way, that is a form of work-life balance too, by minimizing outside life distractions and maximizing the effort on work. Regardless, it’s your life to live, and whatever you decide, no one else really has a say in it unless it directly impacts them.

May we all find our own inner harmony, the secret to joy for our own Buddha nature.

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