ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Okay, everyone out there, raise your hand if you identify pretty strongly with the job you do. You can’t see, but my hand is up because if you ask me who I am, I think the first thing I’d say is a journalist, editor and podcast host. Of course, I’m also a mom and a wife, a Celtics fan, a cat lady, but my career is a big part of my identity. I suspect that a lot of you out there feel the same way. You put effort into your jobs and careers, you care about professional success and you often measure yourself by those accomplishments.
Is that healthy though? Lots of people argue that a job should be just that, a job, and that the really meaningful parts of life should happen outside of it. Work to live don’t live to work. And I guess I understand that perspective too, but it’s hard to not care about something we spend so much time doing. So the older I get, the more I want to find a middle ground. And that’s why I was so keen to talk to our guests today.
Simone Stolzoff is the author of the book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work. And he’s here to talk to us about how we can start to break free of achievement culture and better separate ourselves from our professions while still managing to be successful people. Simone, great to have you here.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s start with the basics. What exactly do you mean by a good enough job? Is it that we’re supposed to be just good enough at it or that we feel good enough about devoting time to it or both?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: So there are two origins of the phrase. The first is the good enough job relative to the dream job. So I’m about smack dab in the middle of the millennial generation. And like many of my peers, I was raised with certain scripts about what role work should have in our lives. I was told to follow my passion and that there was a dream job out there. And simply by pursuing it fervently enough, I would one day self-actualize in the workroom and the good enough job is a foil to that.
The second origin is an illusion to this theory that was devised by this British pediatrician and psychoanalyst named Donald Winnicott. Winnicott was a British man and the mid 20th century devised this idea of good enough parenting. He was observing how there was this growing movement in the UK and elsewhere for parents to really conceive of themselves as the perfect parent, trying to shield their kid from experiencing any sort of negative emotions or harm. And then when the kid inevitably felt frustrated or angry or sad, the parents took it extremely personally.
And so as an alternative, Winnicott thought an approach that valued good enough-ness as opposed to perfection would actually benefit both the kid and the parent. And so the parallel here is pretty obvious. Jobs like a crying toddler are not something that we can always control. And so I make the argument in the book that taking a good enough approach to work can actually help us not lose ourselves in our professional rises and falls.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So it’s that you shouldn’t expect work to fulfill you and you shouldn’t derive your self-worth from work.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, or at least not exclusively. I want to be clear that I think for many people, work is a fundamental source of identity and meaning and community and purpose. I’m not necessarily advocating for caring less about your job, but I want to caution people against the risks of treating your job as the sole source of identity and meaning in your life. It can be a narrow platform to balance on as so many people found out during the pandemic.
ALISON BEARD: I’m always struck that this is a very personal thing, right? Some people throw themselves into their work and some people don’t. And obviously, there are certain cultures or upbringings or types of professions that might push you in one direction or the other, but there’s a psychological aspect to it, right? Some people seem to buy into the idea that they’re only as good as their work outputs more than others do.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Totally. Yeah. I mean I think it’s the result for many not having a diversified identity or various sources of meaning in their life. Much as an investor benefits from having a diverse stock portfolio, we too benefit from having multiple sources of meaning. And the problem with a work centric existence is often for many people, their job is the only place where they’re getting the validation they crave and their only place where they can see what their worth is. And yet the research shows that people with greater what researchers call self complexity or different self aspects are not only more well-rounded people, but often better workers as well as they’re able to detach some of their self-worth from their work.
ALISON BEARD: How has technology played into all of this? It’s obviously made it harder to shut off work, but then also to tune out the achievement pressure since we’re always seeing the work that other people are doing, email and Slack, and also these social comparisons, how everyone else is advancing on posts on Facebook and Insta and Twitter and LinkedIn.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I mean I think social media is kind of ground zero for the comparison game. And it’s interesting how we parade our professional accomplishments around for the world to see and the world of, say, professional networking and our personal lives continues to blur. Just today I was on LinkedIn and I saw people sharing announcements about babies and getting engaged and personal milestones they’ve hit in their Ironman goals. I think there’s sort of a double-edged sword to this sort of whole person perspective of what we should bring to the workplace. On one hand there is a welcome kind of appetite for showing that we aren’t just workers, we are also siblings and friends and spouses and parents and recreational softball players. And yet each of these platforms also provides an opportunity for us to parade our professional accomplishments around for the rest of the world to see.
The other point that you mentioned about the growth of smartphones and some of these “productivity” apps that we all use is the boundaries between our work life and our personal life are increasingly non-existent. When anyone can sort of reach into their pocket and be at the office, it takes a lot more intentionality on behalf of workers in order to separate the time when they are on and off the clock.
ALISON BEARD: Now, you mentioned that you’re a millennial who was sort of expecting to find his dream job. And I’m a cynical Gen Xer who definitely dreamed of being a journalist but didn’t think that it was going to be all end all for my life. Do you see generational divides around this issue?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Definitely. Yeah, and I think a lot of what we’ve seen recently in terms of some of the anti-work social media movements have really been driven by the youngest generations. Whether it’s quiet quitting here in the U.S. or social media movements like the Laying Flat movement in China, I think we are all raised under different sort of generational scripts. Even if you look at my own family, my family’s Italian. My grandma was first and foremost a woman of God. She was a Roman Catholic and went to church every day. And second, maybe she considered herself a mother and a grandmother and a sister or a fresh pasta maker or a member of her neighborhood or her community. She worked at a coffee shop and she loved what she did, but it was very much just part of who she was, not the entirety of who she was.
And then my parents, they both went into professions that allowed them a certain level of economic stability and security. They’re both psychologists and I think they both really enjoy their work, but very much treat it as a means to supporting our family. But there was this greater vision of a job as a way to be a productive member of society and to support a family.
And then I come along and some aspects of this are born out of a certain level of privilege. Even the question of, “What do you want to do?” is a question that someone with options can afford to ask. But I think this was also reinforced by a lot of the cultural scripts around me. We plaster, “Always do what you love on the walls of our co-working spaces.” And there’s such a deification of CEO celebrities and people who have side grinds and people who have made a lot of money.
And so growing up I thought, “Yes, work is the best means I have to self-actualize. If I do find that vocational soulmate, I will become a fuller version of myself.” And for many millennials and Gen Z folks in particular, that notion of work as self-actualization became falsified. The sort of dream of the dream job has been lifted for so many people.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, it’s interesting because as you were talking about privilege, I do think that even people who don’t come from privilege see work as a means to achieving the American dream, right? It’s not necessarily the dream job, but it’s providing for your family, sending your kids to college, putting them on a better path than you’d been on. So it does bridge a lot of socioeconomic strata, I think.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, definitely. I think even just the conception of a job as a calling or a vocation or an identity is something that helps obfuscate the fact that a job first and foremost is an economic relationship. It is an exchange of time and labor for a paycheck.
I was talking to one academic in research for the book and they were telling me how part of the reason why this affliction is so prevalent here in the United States is because so many workers really identify with the ownership class. They don’t actually see themselves as workers. They see themselves as one break away from being a millionaire or being the boss. And therefore, the sort of voting habits and lack of collective organizing is the result of thinking that, “Oh, I’m not a worker working in solidarity with other workers across the economy. I am just one lucky break away from being the boss.”
ALISON BEARD: So we tend to see aspiration as a good thing, but there are ways in which it can also be harmful?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Definitely. And it’s a shared numbers thing. We can’t all be CEOs of our little fiefdom. We have to think about realistically what sort of role that we have in society. When you think back historically at maybe the height of labor organizing in the 1950s, there was much more of this kind of collectivist identity. And today we just live in such an individualistic society where everyone has their side grind and their personal brand, it’s really hard to think about working in solidarity with other workers in different classes.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, okay. So you don’t love this idea of people being sort of intensely passionate about their jobs working all hours to be productive, but isn’t that sort of how progress is made, how vaccines and electric cars and lots of other good things are developed?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I mean I love this question and that’s really this fundamental question of the book. It’s how to pursue meaningful work without letting what you do subsume who you are. And I want to be very clear that I am not anti-work. I do think work is one of the best ways in which we can both make progress and feel like we are being productive and feel a sense of dignity and worth. I just think it is not the only means of doing so.
I think with the data that we’re seeing come out around some of these four-day work week trials, working all the time isn’t actually the best way to be productive and make the progress that we want to see made in the world. I think it’s a particularly American question, like is part of the reason why the U.S. has been such a hotbed for innovation, a result of the kind of work centricity and some of these cultural narratives that we have as a society? I’d say yes. It’s not the exclusive reason why America has progressed. If you think, especially in recent years as we’ve transitioned to more knowledge work as opposed to a more industrial economy, there isn’t necessarily a direct relationship between the hours of work you put in and the quality of work that you produce. If you’re working in a factory or producing widgets, maybe yes, there is this sort of direct relationship to a certain extent.
There’s actually been some really interesting research that until about 55 hours a week, there is a direct relationship between how much time you put in and your output. And then there are diminishing returns until I think around 70 hours a week. There’s actually no more productivity with each additional hour that you work. But in a knowledge economy, when more and more of our jobs are to come up with a creative idea or to think strategically, there isn’t this direct relationship between ours and productivity. And in actuality, by being able to diversify our identities have other sources of meaning, other sources of inspiration, some research has shown that we can actually be better workers as well.
ALISON BEARD: So let’s say that I want to move closer to your good enough job model. How do I do it both at work and outside of it?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think my favorite thing about the framework is that it’s intentionally subjective. So I define a good enough job as a job that allows you to be the person that you want to be. Maybe for you it’s a job that pays a certain amount of money. Maybe it’s a job that has a certain title or is in a certain industry, or maybe it’s a job that gets off at a certain hour so that you can pick up your kids from elementary school each day.
So I think that’s really the first step. If we want to diversify our identities, we have to carve out space in our days, in our weeks to do things other than work. And then the second step is to do just that. It might sound a little simplistic, but if we want to have other sources of meaning in our life beyond work, we must do things other than work. We must have active forms of leisure in our life. Not to say there’s anything wrong with turning off your brain or watching Netflix or bingeing a TV show, but it’s through our behavior, through our actions that we’re able to make meaning. Whether it’s getting involved in your local neighborhood or community or being a good partner in carving out space for a weekly date night or seeing your friends at a regular interval. It’s through that investment that we get the return of more meaning.
ALISON BEARD: And how does this work for people in management positions? Could a CEO, for example, be a great leader hitting financial target, supporting the team, developing a new strategy while also thinking about the job as good enough?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Not only do I think it’s possible, I think it’s necessary if you want to cultivate a workplace where people stick around, where people want to work and where people aren’t burning out. So often when we think about issues of overwork and burnout, we put the onus on the individual to set a boundary or to practice self-care.
But the problem with these kind of individually imposed interventions is they often break. You can have an intention to work less, but if it’s the end of the quarter or your pay is tied to how many hours you work or there’s a culture of overwork in your company, good luck trying to maintain those personal boundaries against the freight train of economic incentives and motivation. And so I think it’s really incumbent on leaders, on managers to model the type of workplace culture that they themselves preach to others.
I’m really inspired by certain companies that, for example, have mandatory minimum time off requirements or companies that have really clear norms around communication and when people should be expected to respond to emails or teams or Slack notifications. If the boss is replying to emails on their vacation or available on Slack at 11:30, you’re really setting a standard that all of your employees underneath you are going to inherit for themselves. And it’s not actually a formula for long-term productivity. Certainly there might be seasons or days or weeks where it’s necessary to go above and beyond or finish up a big project before a deadline, but without modeling those behaviors and putting those structural guardrails into place, individual interventions can only go so far.
ALISON BEARD: But still if you’ve taken on a CEO or say a C-suite or say even a senior management role, you’ve sort of signed up for a lot of work and being really invested in your job. So how do you say to your employees, your customers, your investors, “I’m going to create this separation because I regard this role as a good enough job”?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I may think it’s common to read good enough as a sort of negative connotation or synonymous to slack enough or not trying to produce excellence. You know, good enough is not trying to do the minimum or trying to just kind of skate by on what is the bare requirements for any particular project. Good enough can mean setting a high standard of excellence. And part of what allows companies and individuals and teams to do excellent work is if those expectations are explicit.
I actually think that a more transactional approach where workers and managers are very clear about what good work looks like and what the economic conditions of this contract is can benefit both employers and employees. I think employers will be able to set clear expectations for what good work looks like and have that be part of what they’re talking about in their quarterly OKR meetings or their one-on-ones with their direct reports. And it allows employees to, for example, talk about pay and compensation without thinking that it somehow undermines the best interest of the company and more importantly to treat work as part of, but not the entirety of who we are. I think it’s often lost in conversations like these that managers are people too, and though they do have a fiduciary responsibility or a managerial responsibility to their company, they will perform better as managers if they are able to fill up their own cup as well.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I do think that particularly in U.S. capitalist society, there’s always the worry like, “Okay, we’re going to do this in a more manageable, sustainable way,” but then you’re up against competitors. And this is true even for cross-national competition, right? That our competitors are going to keep being so invested in their jobs and working really hard and that’s going to make us fall behind.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I think that’s a very common argument. And maybe in certain industries that’s true. I think the data is increasingly making the economic case for the value of working less. If you look at, say, the study at Microsoft Japan, productivity actually increased when they reduced their working hours on a weekly basis.
I also think a lot of this can be solved by simply hiring more workers. Some of what makes the work unbearable and unsustainable at companies is when there aren’t enough people to do the work. Yes, that might mean taking a little bit less profit off the top, but ultimately it will pay off in ways of retention and recruitment of being able to hire people and for not burning your employees out to the point where they can’t work anymore. I think there’s a great analog when it comes to treating sickness. In the workplace, we often think, “Okay, I just got to push through. I’ve just got to take a break only when my tank is completely empty.” And yet that approach is what ultimately leads people to burn out and not be able to work at all. But when we are actually taking breaks before we need them, before you have nothing left to give, that’s what allows you to be sustainably productive over the long term.
ALISON BEARD: So in talking about people working less, that doesn’t necessarily mean they care less about it, right? So is the idea that people should definitely cultivate these outside interests, et cetera, but you want them when they’re in the office to really still feel the passion and the investment and be all in because research has also shown that people who care about their work deeply are also very productive.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Totally. Yeah, I think it’s a false dichotomy that often gets set up. It’s like either you’re working all the time or you are really balanced. And on one hand you are a good worker, and on the other hand you’re just trading work as a means to an end. I’m not advocating for people to necessarily care less about their jobs. There’s this great study that I often return to from these two researchers, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski, I think her name is. They study how people make meaning in the workplace and specifically in particularly taxing work environments.
One of their most famous studies, they went into a hospital and studied janitors in a hospital, a job that you might not necessarily associate with being particularly meaningful. They found that the janitors roughly broke down into two categories. Group one saw their work as not particularly high skill. They didn’t really interact with many people over the course of their workday and were ultimately pretty unfulfilled and thought their work was pretty meaningless. Group two, on the other hand, thought their work was higher skill. They went out of their way to interact with the patients that they were helping as well as their colleagues. But the biggest thing was that janitors in the second group saw their job as part of this greater system of healing. They attached their work to this higher purpose, which made some of the more meaningful aspects of their job more manageable.
So all this is to say is we each have the ability to craft within the jobs that we currently have to determine what is the value that our work is giving to our lives. Some people work doing what they love, some people work doing so that they can do what they love when they’re not working. I’m not here to pass a value judgment on either approach, but I do believe that both can be true.
ALISON BEARD: So for older listeners who want to make the kind of change you’re suggesting, maybe they’ve been victim to workism, embraced workism even, but they want to make a change, what’s one thing they should do tomorrow to start?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I like this question because there is a surprising demographic of people that I think my work and research has really resonated with, which is people that are on the verge of retirement. Especially folks who have been career individuals who have maybe worked at the same company for 20, 30, 40 years, it can be equally as unnerving and nerve-wracking to leave a career and an identity that they’ve associated with their job for so long. And so, one of the biggest things that I found is that our identities are really reinforced by the people around us. And part of the reason why a workplace is such an attractive place to identify with and to kind of wear the company swag, so to speak, is because your identity as an individual worker at that company is reinforced by all of your colleagues.
So I think one of the biggest things that people that are either leaving the workplace or just want to diversify their identity can do is to find a community of folks who don’t care about what you do for work, whether that is people in your neighborhood that can participate in a book club, or you can join a local bridge game as my grandma plays, or find some other group of people that can reinforce your identity beyond your ability to produce economic returns or produce output for a given organization.
ALISON BEARD: And for younger listeners, what advice do you have about how to enter the workforce in a way that sets them up for a good enough career?
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think so often when you’re just starting out in your career, you treat work as the central hub of your life. You think, “Okay, I’ll figure out my job and the rest of my life will fall into place.”
I actually advocate for an inverse approach of actually starting with what is your vision of a life well lived and then thinking about how your work life can support that vision. So for some people, maybe their vision of a life well lived necessitates a six figure salary, it necessitates being in a very high pressure, high stress environment. And good for them, go chase that job in the big city. Go find that industry where you can rise up the ranks and potentially earn a lot of money to support yourself for the ones around you. But for other people, maybe their vision of a life well lived is living in a town or place where the cost of living is less high or treating their job as a paycheck and really deriving a lot of community and identity from their hobbies and communities outside of work.
I talk to many people who actually by leaving a profession that they thought was their calling or was their sort of life’s work allowed them to find other aspects of their life. I’m thinking of one person in particular who derives a lot of meaning through politically organizing and very much treats her job as a means to an end. I think it’s very easy for us to revere people whose identities and their jobs neatly align the sort of social entrepreneurs or the painters or the astronauts in our world. But I think one thing that young people can really take into account is the other way of living, of treating work as fundamentally a means to support your life outside of it is no less noble.
ALISON BEARD: Well, thank you so much for all of that advice. I will endeavor to take a more good enough approach to my job. I think I’m halfway there, so hopefully you’ll get me all the way.
SIMONE STOLZOFF: Thank you so much for having me.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Simone Stolzoff, author of the book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work.
We have more episodes and more podcast to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.
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