Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
What if It’s Time to Rethink How We Value Our Lives?
Are we human beings or human doings? A reassessment of our values as they relate to life and work.
By Zoë Lintzeris and Shannon Mullen O’Keefe
Originally published for The Museum of Ideas on Medium
Image via Viintage
What if we’re the last generation valued for our skill sets and personalities as they relate to career ladders, money, and time for hire?
There may be other ways — new and better ways — to regard our lives and the lives of those around us as it relates to how we think about our human value.
First, let’s consider where we’ve come from.
In the last 40 years, corporations, organizations, and even schools have been geared toward cultivating all that is in us to serve a culture that values things like working hard, competing to win, individual achievement, and “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps” (so-to-speak). This could be labeled as a Culture of Value — except the values may be counterintuitive to being fully human.
By subscribing to values like independent achievement, hard work, and competition, we’ve believed we were working toward a good life for ourselves and also perhaps bettering the world. The incentives around us have underpinned these values: We work hard, we get rewarded with higher wages and promotions in the name of our contributions — right?
At least this is what our parents — now in their 70’s and 80’s — expected. They worked hard for us and believed that we’d in turn do the same and that this would mean great things for our lives. They wanted the best for us — just like we want the best for our own families.
And most of us don’t debate that working and achieving and winning matter. But we also need values that serve us more broadly to ensure full and actualized human lives.
This is because all that we are doing to achieve and win isn’t helping us to achieve our fullest level of being.
We can see this showing up in a number of ways.
Does how we do things make sense?
One way is that no matter how hard some work, pay still varies greatly. EMTs and teachers are among the professions debated about in opinion columns relative to their pay equity (or lack thereof.) They are among other professionals who sometimes take on additional jobs to make ends meet. They might not be any less hard-working or achieving, but it doesn’t seem to be paying off in the way we might have hoped it would for them.
Is this indicative of a greater problem?
In her book, The Power of Ethics, Susan Liautaud reminds us that even “best practices” and “standard-practice” may need to be re-evaluated in a changing world. In some cases, they can mean unintentionally partaking in the normalization of unethical behavior. So, our opportunity — she reminds us — is to ask questions to get around binary thinking on subjects, so that we can take a seat at the table together and consider “when and under what circumstances,” does the way we do things make sense?
Or, in some cases, it is important to ask, does the way we do things make sense at all, anymore?
If you think about it, Liautaud’s statement is pretty profound. None of our systems is ever perfected — because we’re human. So, the systems that we establish for ourselves are always fair game for us to discuss and to question. It’s always up to us to work together to make them better.
This applies to the cultures we live in and create too. No matter how strong our culture is, we owe it to ourselves to consider whether it is still serving us.
So, we might ask ourselves, are we getting the core underpinnings of our culture right? Like our values?
“American Temple of Time” taken from Emma Willard’s Abridged History of the United States, or Republic of America (1860) — Source: Author scan from copy at Penrose Library, University of Denver. Via Public Domain Review.
It’s not only that doing and achieving and winning isn’t paying off for everyone, it’s also that many are burning out.
Daniel Markovits, in his essay for The Atlantic entitled “How Life Became an Endless Terrible Competition,” takes meritocracy (advancement in society based on achievement rather than wealth or social class) as it stands today, to task. He suggests that only a “narrow elite” reap its true rewards, and as he sees it, it may not be working out as well as we’d hoped it might even for the elite among us.
Everyone is incentivized to aim for a “narrowly restricted class of high-paying jobs,” such as “finance, management, law, and medicine,” he says. But, these jobs are structured in a demanding way to “extract [our] value from [our] human capital.” He points out that “Americans who work more than 60 hours a week report that they would, on average, prefer 25 fewer weekly hours. They say this because work subjects them to a ‘time famine,’ that a 2006 study found interferes with their capacity to have strong relationships with their spouse and children,” among other things.
Markovits cites Stanford Law School dean Larry Kramer who “warned graduates that lawyers at top firms are caught in a seemingly endless cycle: Higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, and longer hours require yet higher salaries to justify them. Whose interests, he lamented, does this system serve? Does anyone really want it?”
The situation Markovitz describes puts everyone on the proverbial hamster wheel: more work, more hours, more money, more hours…
His article — published in September 2019 before the pandemic, and before the “Great Resignation” pointed out that “roughly two-thirds of elite workers were saying that they would decline a promotion if the new job demanded yet more of their energy,” and at the time “calls for work/life balance [were ringing] ever louder.”
Markovits called attention to this problem in 2019, but a July 2021 article in Financial Review reinforces this sentiment. “Nearly 70 percent of employees say they would consider turning down a job promotion in order to preserve their mental health, a survey of 1200 workers by professional services firm PwC found.”
And, what about another class of workers — the creatives? How are they doing?
Consider The New York Times article about “The App With the Unprintable Name that Wants to Give Power to Creators.” The article is about a young creator, who realized that she had been undervaluing herself for her work and became determined to change it. She launched an app for creators entitled F*** You Pay Me.
Giotto’s Charity, Envy, and Justice frescoes (1304–6) — Source. Via Public Domain Review
The founder, Lindsey Lee Lugrin, is certainly creative — consider the name of her company — and perhaps a little “cheeky,” too, and in many ways demonstrates what is great about our culture: Young entrepreneurs can work hard and do good things for themselves and others. But, all in all, the problem she addresses in her own way — by founding her company — says something significant about our values overall and the structural problem that exists. What does it say about our culture on the whole when we don’t tend to value creatives? Even when they are working hard, and when we are not paying them well for what they contribute?
There are others to wonder about too. What calls us to value the work some do so minimally: $7.25 an hour in some cases?
Our opportunity to re-evaluate our work and life
The rise of the popular subreddit community about ‘anti work’ may be a turn-off to some leaders — people can get pretty grumpy about their workplace experiences there — but it may also be a place for leaders to uncover how people are experiencing work. The community “for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles,” offers some insight into what perceived workplace struggles are.
But we know from Arthur Brooks’ research about happiness that work — especially meaningful work — is one of the four key pillars to happiness in our lives. The opportunity is for leaders to imagine and inspire new futures in which people might feel more valued rather than feeling devalued or even worthless.
It seems to matter that we aim to get the recipe for work right.
Part of the answer might be, as we re-evaluate our overall values, to imagine that work is an important part of our lives, but not our whole life.
Brooks’ research about happiness suggests that in addition to finding meaningful work, spirituality — (whatever that means to us, perhaps awe-seeking is a better way to state this) — and family and relationships matter too.
These may be just some of the clues for us to consider as we re-evaluate our values moving forward.
So, let’s ask ourselves:
What if our aim was to help each human find meaningful work? (Aiming to eliminate barriers such as poor pay for certain types of work?)
What if we lived in a society where striking might rarely or even never occur? Where 10,000 employees rather felt valued, instead?
What if employees were viewed as “vessels of potential?”
What if we cooperated with each other endlessly?
What if mental health illnesses weren’t on the rise? But what if we were mentally more healthy than ever before?
What if our country wasn’t sicker than ever before? But healthier than ever before?
What if drug overdoses rarely happened?
What if creativity underpinned everything else? Would everything be more beautiful?
What if our time was our most precious asset, above everything else — even, perhaps, money?
What if a PDI (Personal Development Index (potential realized) replaced GDP as the primary measure of our society’s success?
What if loneliness disappeared?
What if awe-seeking mattered again?
It might be rather simple.
Rather than value the goods and the profits, most, we might rather value the people: you, me, us. And all the ways in which we contribute to everything based on who we are.
In our consumer society, we might realize that we need to value ourselves as consumers of life first.
In a recent post in his newsletter "The Convivial Society," L.M. Sacacas called to mind the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work who wrote on the practice of the Sabbath: “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
Later in that same newsletter, he pondered Marc Andreessen’s claim that ‘time’s up for reality,’: “Reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people.”As a response, Andreessen is building “online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone.”
Although the world that Andreessen is aspiring to build sounds interesting, we don’t believe “time’s up” in the real world. We think it is possible to be better here — still — and to raise the bar for all of us.
Perhaps we can imagine a new kind of prosperity.
One that might make us — all of us — the end and most important result.
As two creative workers living in the United States, we find ourselves in conversation about values and their linkages to key outcomes in our society. Our hope is that our exploration may give all of us pause enough to reflect on who, what, why and how what we value matters to all of our lives.
Zoë Lintzeris is a visual artist, Arts in Health specialist and creative consultant. Founded on her previous work in journalism, her artwork explores the human condition and the emotional psyche within urban and rural environments throughout the world. Her work has been showcased on feature shoot, Silk Road Review: A Literary Crossroads, The Stuttering Foundation, and more. She has worked with 500px, and regularly collaborates with other artists and creative entrepreneurs. Her pieces reside in private collections throughout North America and Europe, and have been exhibited in group installations at several galleries and creative spaces in the United States. She has also contributed to The Huffington Post and Americans for the Arts’ ArtsBlog.
In 2020, she received her Graduate Certificate in Arts in Health from Lesley University, and teaches art-making techniques that unify creativity and wellness in personal sessions and group workshops, on-site and online.
She is a virtual resident of the House of Beautiful Business and a member of the Freelancers Union and Americans for the Arts.
Shannon Mullen O’Keefe curates ideas. The Museum of Ideas houses her independent research, writing, thought leadership, and content contribution projects and collaborations. Previously she led consulting, coaching and research teams for years in a global professional services firm and recently served as an Interim Executive Director for a non-profit organization for which she now serves as the Board President-Elect.
From The Museum of Ideas: Conversations on the Blue Couch Series
Photo of the Grove Juicery Couch by Shannon Mullen O’Keefe for The Museum of Ideas: Conversations on the Blue Couch Series