“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This is a question we hear time and time again, starting almost from the moment we learn how to speak. For many of us, the answer changes — I know that for me, it has. When I was five, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my parents and be a teacher. Then I wanted to be an archaeologist until I found out what exactly archaeologists did. Over the next few years, my answer bounced from diplomat, to lawyer, to social worker and finally to my current answer: I don’t know.
To be candid, I came into Dartmouth thinking I would easily figure out exactly what I wanted to be. I worked hard all of high school to be here; Dartmouth is supposed to be a place that sets me up for any career I want and helps me make a name for myself in whatever profession I desire. Except, in the past year, as I have attended classes, participated in extracurriculars and all the while thought about my future, I have realized that the career that makes me most passionate, what makes me most excited to be alive, is none of them.
Coming to this realization was puzzling for me in many ways. For one thing, the hyper-capitalist society we live in puts an expectation on us, consciously or unconsciously, to work 40 or more hours a week, to label ourselves by how we spend that time, and to derive a lot of our worth as people from this work. And yet, this norm is a relatively new one. In hunter-gatherer societies, people only worked roughly 15 hours per week — meaning that for 95% of history, people worked no more than 15 hours per week.
Furthermore, this norm is not one that has been proven to increase happiness. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: As a recent Forbes article highlights, a recent study found that higher-paying, more prestigious jobs often come at the expense of important relationships and creating memories — and, thus, happiness. The Atlantic, in a similar recent article, noted that based on studies conducted by professors at UCLA and Wharton, working people need at least two and a half hours a day of leisure time to feel fulfilled in their life, although they note that people can still be busy during this time.
Working excessively is also associated with numerous health issues. These include fatigue, stress, cardiovascular problems, negative mental health effects, increased dependence on alcohol and drugs and more. Prioritizing a time-consuming and stressful career is, in many cases, not worth the trade-offs in physical, mental, and emotional health.
Working also often means that we are, in effect, selling our time for money. Even if we love our jobs all of the time, we are still spending the bulk of our waking hours thinking, producing and creating for other people instead of ourselves. As a result, we neglect our hobbies — activities that give us time to think, produce and create for nobody but ourselves. Many of these hobbies, such as reading for pleasure, playing a sport, or creating art, are associated with better mental and physical health outcomes. There is thus value simply in doing something for no other reason than that you want to.
I am not arguing that people should not work, and I am not saying that I myself will not work and find a way to support myself financially. However, what I am arguing is that we should recognize the deleterious impacts of a culture that emphasizes work above all else and causes us to neglect our personal interests and relationships.
So I come back to the question: what do I want to be when I grow up? Here is my answer: I want to be someone who questions everything and works to make change to create a society I want to live in. I want to be someone surrounded by a community of people I love, whom I can trust to be there for me. I want to be someone who is creative every day, who engages in art for its own sake. I want to be someone who chases adventure and tries new things for the thrill of it. I want to be someone who is excited to explore the world I live in, who is grateful to be alive.
I do not, on the other hand, want my life to be shaped entirely by what I do for a living, and I do not believe that I am losing out by choosing not to have my life to revolve around work. Our lives should not have to be defined by 40-hour plus work weeks, by bosses, emails and deliverables — and, most importantly, by an extreme lack of leisure time. I would like to see a society that not only recognizes such a philosophy but openly celebrates it. Taking the time as a society to deconstruct our norms regarding work — questioning the labor laws that contribute to overworking, revolting against career education being prioritized over artistic pursuits in schools, and examining the priorities we have in our own lives and how they relate to our own contentment — can only lead to a happier world.