The Rebel Minority is Chinese-Canadian writer Diamond Yao's monthly column.
Two of the words I despise the most in the English language are “work-life balance”. Just thinking about them is enough to make me construct entire rants in my head. They are wielded as a weapon by the wellness brigade over workaholics and slobs alike. “Stop working the way you do!”, screams the brigade, admonishing people who will never attain the elusive balance - which is to say, everyone. Work-life balance is a strange capitalist myth that makes everyone unhappy and is allowed to persist to completely avoid any complex discussions about labour.
For diasporic people, work is inextricably tied to the immigrant experience. It holds the key to immigration visas, to the right to leave dangerous situations and stay in adopted homelands, to a possible exit out of poverty into financial security, to increased respectability and to keeping so busy that there is no time to think about intergenerational diasporic trauma. In capitalist consumer societies, where work is often bound with prestige, worker oppression, productivity, achievement and money, we often forget what is the reality of many in the immigrant community - that work can be a path to freedom.
Like many children of immigrants, I have spent a lot of time in my life thinking, doing, and stressing about work. Due to mixed messages and a lack of constructive dialogue on the issue, I have mightily struggled throughout my life to find a vision of work that resonated with me. When I was a kid, whenever I had questions in class or wanted to improve at school, instead of helping me, my White teachers would repeatedly tell me, “Don’t work so hard and stress so much, you’re fine. Go play!”. I resented them for doing their jobs poorly and curbing my will to learn in the name of work-life balance.
I was so enraged at my teachers for putting roadblocks on my ambitions that I performed well out of spite to reclaim a bit of my freedom. Not that it took much effort on my part since the curriculum at my school was one year behind standards. I enjoyed torturing them by excelling, just so I could watch their surprised expressions as they asked themselves, uncomprehendingly, how come the Asian girl, whose parents barely spoke any Western languages, was top of the class in French, crushing everybody else whose native tongue was French?
As I got older, a different narrative around work surrounded me. Other people and financial precarity told me to “WORK HARDER!!!” even when I was on the verge of a mental collapse. This time, I resented them for ignoring my multiple explicit pleas for help and not caring about my well-being. There were many things I was willing to work hard for. The dubious honour of becoming a human sacrifice on the altar of capitalism was not one of them. I knew this because it seemed to me that the more conventionally successful I became, the worse I felt.
I received my own successes and good news with the coldest indifference. People flocked around me to tell me how happy they were for me and how amazing I was. I secretly wondered whether they truly cared about me or if they were just there because of my work. I wondered how many of them would still be there for me if I had failed, because they truly cared about me, not just my work. Not many would, even though I wanted that so much more than I wanted to be successful.
It made me bitter that the only reason for being productive was just so people would pay attention to my work, and never really care about me as a person. So I resented them for forcing me to fake wide smiles at my own successes I didn’t feel, to fake joy for those who would be the first to reject me if I failed, for making me internally distressed at not being happy at occasions that were supposed to be happy. When they got wind of my true feelings, I got invalidating earfuls about having better work-life balance that entirely missed the point. I couldn’t believe that this pointless carelessness was what my family immigrated for. Far from immigrant notions of working your way to freedom, I seemed to have worked my way into a trap of meaninglessness.
These dissonant emotions triggered an existential crisis. If conventional success wasn’t the foundational block of existence in capitalism, this would’ve been a comically overblown reaction. A society with these values equates success with positivity and happiness, and failure with negativity and sadness. It has no good answers to offer people who are successful and miserable, or failing and happy. That void threw me in a confused loop for a long time, until I realized that the only way I could feel a genuine sense of pride in my accomplishments was to excel at something that was meaningful to me, on my own terms, as I was supported by a community that truly cared that I was well, not just that I did well. Capitalistic benchmarks of success - money, material consumption, achievements, awards, recognition, prestige - were absolutely meaningless to me. No wonder I felt like an out-of-place piece of trash at my own successes!
In order to be free, we need to, as a society, reject capitalism completely and evaluate work on its own merits.
I found some answers in an unusual place - by researching the working habits and mindsets of craftspeople. Craftspeople learn a specific skill set, mastering every intricate detail over long years of practice. In many cultures, traditionally, craftspeople took great pride in their trade and passed it on from one generation to the next. Their trade would often form a core part of their personal identity, make them a part of a support network of similar craftspeople, and be one of the most meaningful facets of their life.
Today, many artists, artisans, small-scale farmers and cooks can be considered modern craftspeople. These professionals develop difficult skills over time crafting items that hold great significance to them, often on slow time scales and in ways that are incompatible with the current economic market. It is not surprising that these professions also face greater risk of precarity - they fall outside of capitalism because the craftspeople who practice them recognize that masterful hard work does not necessarily equate to peak efficiency, to monetary gains, or to high external achievements. Eschewing capitalist notions of working purely for survival at something meaningless, craftspeople find great joy in working hard at something that is important to them and in defining success on their own terms alongside like-minded others. Too often, in the process, they also have to forego financial security.
In a society that is intent on making us divorce our work from our lives by dehumanizing us in the process, these craftspeople remind us that work is not a separate entity we need to balance with the rest of our lives. In the craftspeople’s mindset, work is inextricably bound up with other facets of life in a way that is uniquely meaningful and uniquely suited to each individual. The labour of craftspeople is a testament to the notion that work is actually a fundamental part of what makes us human, no matter how hard capitalism tries to convince us otherwise, and that we need to structure our society accordingly.
Under the current political system, it is nearly impossible to imagine a vision of work that is not inextricably bound with survival and achievement. Many of us have become so alienated with work and with our own desires that the desires of capitalism have also become our own desires in life. We struggle to develop our own value system of what constitutes worthwhile things in life without having it poisoned by a capitalist value system without our consent. We are still stuck with the idea that “work” is a survival necessity that, depending on our economic circumstances, we either embrace, reject or are forced into on a spectrum. But in order to be free, we need to, as a society, reject capitalism completely and evaluate work on its own merits.
We need to stop asking ourselves how much we should work, how little we should work and what amount of work constitutes a good balance. These are the wrong questions, as they are still rooted in a capitalist understanding of work. Instead, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about what is, for us, the definition of a life well-lived, develop a compelling vision of a work life that fits within it (which will be different for each one of us) and build a society that supports everyone (not just a privileged few) in accomplishing that vision. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that wondering about it is already a gigantic step, as many aren’t even asking the question.
After all, it is a far more radical proposition than aiming for work-life balance. Our immigrant ancestors, who worked and fought so hard to give us secure freedom, would have wanted it.