Self Worth and Work – I Can’t Tell The Difference

It donned on me last night as I was starting to spiral in to a pit of depression exactly why not workings over this break is taking a toll on me personally.

I spent 5 years in graduate school and followed that with 2.5 years of post-doctoral research (more of graduate school work, you just have a degree that none of your coworkers really respect). Most people will never really know what it is like to spend 7.5 years in a graduate school-like environment. Especially in the sciences. I’ll try to explain it, but I’m sure that I’ll do a poor job of trying to illustrate.

In graduate school your worth is defined by two things: How much you produce and how hard you work. Some people excel at one or the other, most do a combination of the two. We were expected to work 70+ hour weeks in graduate school. We were expected to work Saturdays. We were expected to work at least 12 hour days. We were expected to not take days off unless absolutely necessary. There was an underlining competition between the graduate students/post docs to work more, harder, more productively than everyone else. There was the reinforcement of this behavior by our bosses who cared about us not as human beings but as cheap labor to support the work addiction that they’d been in the cycle of since graduate school themselves. It is a never ending circle of work more, work harder, nothing else matters.

In graduate school, in 5 years, I took 7 weeks of vacation off. Three of them when my brother died – not exactly vacation. A week in New York. Three weeks in Hawai’i. In graduate school, in 2.5 years, I took 3 weeks of vacation off. My 20 day vacation in Europe with my grandma.

I was indoctrinated with the belief that if I’m “home” I should be working. If I’m on “vacation” I should be somewhere else.

Fast forward to today. I’ve finally escaped the research institution indoctrination that work is all that matters. I know work at a place that believes in balance in life. That our day jobs are just part of who we are as individuals – not all. The problem? I haven’t developed the rest of my person. I’ve spent the past 7.5 years of my life stifling who I am, trying to push down all the parts of me that don’t add to my work self worth.

This is why sitting around my apartment with nothing to do is driving me crazy – if I’m not working and I’m not “somewhere” on vacation – I don’t know who I am anymore.

Now that I have a job that encourages me to develop who I am as a person I really need to find this out. What else do I enjoy aside from working and vacationing? This seems like a pretty good goal for me to do in the next year – explore hobbies, activities, groups that I enjoy – to find out once more who I am outside of just a “professor”.

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11 Responses to Self Worth and Work – I Can’t Tell The Difference

  1. psychsarah says:

    Interesting observation. I had a similar experience when I finished grad school and my licensure exams. There’s something about grad school that breeds a feeling of constant guilt that you aren’t doing enough, even when you are working insane hours. I had to fight the urge to fill all my hours with work-related activity. I do clinical work, and then I felt I “should” be doing more research too, as this was a huge part of my training. Forget the fact that noone would pay me to do that-it would be my stressful and time-consuming “hobby”. I also thought I “should” be doing volunteer work related to my profession, pro-bono work, and and and…I figured I should be able to do all the roles that people in my profession do (but not all at once!) DH was very helpful in this respect-he reminded me that we work to live, not live to work. After spending a few months not doing much after work and going a tad stir crazy, I thought about the stuff I liked to do prior to grad school, and made an effort to start doing them. I joined a choir, a running group, and started reading more fiction again. It took a while to resolve the guilt that I was “wasting” time, but now I think I have a pretty good balance most of the time. I would say it’s a great goal to work on over the next year-when you find the balance, you wonder how you lived without it.

    • SS4BC says:

      Thanks for the encouragement Sarah. I guess I really just want someone to pull me back from the deep end every once in a while and say “Hey, you have to LIVE a little!” like your DH has done for you. =)

  2. Red says:

    Interesting post! I was talking to someone about a week ago about how I wish our identities weren’t so wrapped up in what we do for 8 hours a day. I wish, when people asked “who you are,” it didn’t mean what do you do FOR WORK. Because I work for the money and don’t associate much of myself with work. When people ask me who am I, I want to say “personal finance blogger!” or “obsessed with clutter!” or “animal lover!” or “hippie wannabe!”

    I think it’s great that you want to explore who you are when you’re not at work. Don’t be afraid to get out there and try new things. You might discover something great! I plan to do the same thing in 2011, heavy on the outdoors component. I would love to explore our area more! 🙂

    • SS4BC says:

      Sounds exciting! Too bad we don’t live closer so that we can explore the outdoors together! 😉

      It really is a shame that our identities are so wrapped up in our career. I feel like I am so much more – but even if the world doesn’t appreciate it I still want to feel like I’m complete inside.

  3. I feel like that this is something that can be found across all fields. Some people just don’t appreciate that a job should be just that: a part of your life. A small part of your life. Good luck with finding out what really makes you tick and trying to incorporate that in your life more often!

    • SS4BC says:

      Thanks Newbie! You’re right, I’m sure that it can be across fields. It is just so super concentrated while in Graduate school. I’ve even had some of my former boss’s tell me that I don’t have time for hobbies – hobbies for when you’re finished with grad school/post doc/tenure. I’m sorry, but I can’t be THAT intense about one thing (and only that one thing) for that long without going crazy!

  4. eemusings says:

    I have enough hobbies to keep me occupied, but I generally feel similar – why waste my holiday time sitting at home? I should spend it going away! Especially as I have so much travel I want to do.

    In four years, this 8 day break I’m on is the longest stretch of time I’ve had off. Granted, I was undergrad and the hours were nowhere near what you’ve described, but still – I guess the point I’m making is while my student friends enjoyed their semester breaks, I was always at work, ya know, working to pay the bills (they all lived at home.) Now I’m working and have 4 weeks of a leave a year, but I’m saving it for the bigger trips I want to take later on in 2011.

  5. Getting outside of the habit of defining yourself by your work is an admirable goal! I can’t help but think that in this uncertain economic climate, it is a really good idea to separate your worth as a human being from your employment/work. I ran into this after law school, too. I think it’s really common for professionals to feel like this. I also think you are just getting into the FUN of life as an adult. You are more than pages published, students met with, grades delivered, and curricula developed!

    I would humbly suggest that you seize upon your instinct to help others and think about what ways you can provide service to your community. One thing I’ve been thinking about is becoming a conversation partner for an international student – a cool way to meet new people and maybe a new language to boot! I think teaching people personal finance or math is incredibly worthwhile — your local domestic violence prevention center might have a need for your help.

    Then think about what nurtures you. Your intellect: You mentioned pleasure reading and travel. Well, the reading is easy to accommodate on a budget thanks to libraries, travel is a bit more difficult! Travel reading, though, is a can do! Your body: You have also mentioned running, which nurtures your physical body. You could also look into what sort of fitness opportunities are available on campus — yoga, pilates, etc. Your spirit: whatever your religious persuasion, figure out a way to engage in that realm.

    If you think in terms of those areas — intellect, body, spirit–you’ll be able to sort through all things you could do to find things that really make you feel more like yourself. 🙂

  6. This is one of the reasons I’m hesitant to pursue a PhD. I really don’t want to get lost in my work. I think graduate school can be really difficult butnit also depends on your supervisor. Mine is pretty cool so far — I’m definitely not doing 50hr work weeks.. But maybe I’m just not into it all yet lol

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