Do You Work to Live or Live to Work?

Back in 2008, I asked a group of graduate students I was teaching the following question:  Do you work to live or live to work?  It seemed like a straightforward question.  Obviously, we work to live – to enjoy the finer things in life, by which I mean time with family and friends and creating new and memorable experiences.  But the graduate students were baffled.  Some of them said, we live to work.  That work and career and professional achievements were our focus.  

Now, granted, they were full-time graduate students, many of them fairly young, ambitious and with little real-world work experience.  They were at a point in their lives where they were focusing on their future careers and imagining themselves achieving things that their bosses would praise them for. Most of them were not married nor did they have children. Success was their focus. I remember myself in their shoes with a bit of nostalgia.

The question is, when do we leave that behind?  When do we stop prioritizing work over the rest of our life or at the expense of the rest of our life?  When do we stop working late and on weekends?

I ask this question because I recently did something that 40 percent of Americans no longer do.  I took a vacation. It was a glorious vacation with my daughter in a beautiful place “away from it all.”  We slept in, stayed up late, ate things we know are bad for us and didn’t worry about any of it.  The week that we were away, I did not check in with my day job.  I barely answered texts from my husband. When I got back home, I couldn’t remember my computer password.

On my morning commute back to work the day after I returned, I checked my work blackberry for the first time.  I didn’t count the number of emails, but they just went on and on and on. When I remarked to a co-worker that I almost missed my bus stop because I was going through my emails from the past week, she asked,” You don’t check your Blackberry on vacation?”


No.  I don’t even take my Blackberry on vacation.  

This was met with a mixture of awe and low-level fright by my coworker. Then I asked her, “Do you?”

And her answer stunned me.  

Yes, she does check her Blackberry while she is on vacation – while she is somewhere nice, with her family – just to make sure that nothing comes up that needs her attention.  I might have been able to shrug this off as an anomaly had it not been for a conversation that I had with my boss before he left on vacation, where he casually said, as if it were the most normal and usual thing to do,”I’ll be checking my Blackberry in case anyone needs to reach me.”

Maybe I could have shrugged that off too, but then I had lunch with a co-worker, and he said that he doesn’t even have a Blackberry.  Finally!  Something refreshing!  But before I could get too excited, he went on to say that he spent his last vacation working two full days because someone had called him and asked him to prepare something that only he, in his infinite wisdom, was able to do.

What. Is. Going.On?  Do we think we are indispensable? Do we think that the world will stop spinning on its axis if we are unavailable to our jobs for a week?  

What have we become?  Back in the 1970s, 80 percent of Americans took vacations.  Now  40%?  And what portion of that 40% is actually disconnected from work during their time off?

Vacations are expensive.  If you are lucky and can drive somewhere, you still have gas, lodging and food to think about, not to mention entertainment (mini golf, anyone?).   Then there are vacation days.  These are not free, people.  You are paying for those to.  That is salary out of your hands.  Why would anyone pay all of this money to work during their vacation?

Two of the most common reasons? Only I can do it – only I can answer that question.  Or – and this one is a beauty – I don’t want to come back to a pile of work to do, so I will do some of it while I am on vacation.

Well, here’s a shocking revelation for you.  If you are doing work on vacation, then you are not on vacation.  You are working remotely. Every time you check your work email, you are transporting yourself back to your desk, your boss, your co-worker and all the accompanying stresses of your job.  So what if there is a mountain of work for you to do when you get back?  Is that any different from the mountain of work you were doing before you left?  

Living to work means that your work – the job that you do and the time that you spend there – is more important than the non-work part of your life – the people who you live with and the things that you do to enjoy yourself.

Everybody needs a vacation.  Take one and leave your work phone behind.


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