Is Your Work Too Important?

“One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdowns is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.”
- Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

When I worked at my previous job, I always felt like the things I was doing were vitally important to the success of the project. In one way, this was good – it kept me focused on making sure that things wouldn’t fail. Yet it created several additional problems.

For one, I was often really stressed out. I felt hugely responsible for everything that went on, even for things that I couldn’t actually control. Eventually, I became quite proficient at solving the technical crises that others were responsible for, often because they were completely oblivious to the disasters.

At the same time, I became afraid to push myself to try new things. Since I felt so strongly responsible for everything, I became deeply afraid of change. I already felt the stress of managing all of the things that were already in place – the idea of changing things or adding new things stressed me even more. As a result, I would often subtly resist such changes.

On top of that, the birth of my children caused my priorities to change, adding further stress. A big part of my job involved traveling to meetings and conferences and other such things. After my children were born, the travel responsibilities gradually went from an enjoyable part of the job to a burden. Instead of going out on the town with colleagues, I’d spend the evening calling home to see what my kids were up to and would often feel as though I was missing them grow up.

The real message underlining all of this? I was so caught up in how important my job was that it was stressing me out, affecting my personal life, and keeping me from innovating and taking chances at work. That’s a terrible mix for success.

Looking back, a much more appropriate perspective would have been to realize what my role was – to develop data interfaces – and do that to the best of my ability, ignoring the other things that were going on. If the database went down… well, I shouldn’t have seen it as my responsibility. Instead, my responsibility should have been to simply push the envelope and find new and clever ways to get people the data they needed. It wasn’t “important” work – it was creative work, work that should have been purely fun.

What did I learn from this experience? The moment you begin to think of your job as “important,” you become more stressed and less innovative in your career. Your health and energy fail you due to the stress. Your job becomes less enjoyable because you’re focused on maintaining the status quo instead of doing the best job you can. In the end, you simply become less vital than you were before you began to see your job – and yourself – as “important.”

This is an issue I see popping up even now with my writing career. When I begin to view what I do as “important,” I begin to be less effective. I write less interesting pieces that essentially just reiterate core points. It becomes dull – and I can feel that just as much as you, the reader, can.

Instead, I try to remind myself that what I do really isn’t all that important at all. When I feel that way, I tend to write more from the heart, no matter the consequences. I often get attacked when I do things this way because I’ll express things that are different than what’s “expected” of me, but it’s more enjoyable.

Here’s the truth: your job is likely nowhere near as important as you think it is. Sometimes, employers will try to convince you that you’re more important than you actually are because it’ll scare you into being a good worker – but it will, at the same time, prevent you from being a great one. In the end, most managers – who also think of themselves as more important than they actually are – prefer a workplace full of good workers who are afraid to step outside the box than an office full of a mix of great workers and bad ones who are constantly trying to innovate. After all, that same sense of inflated importance guides them, too.

Here are three things I often do to keep my sense of importance at appropriately low levels.

First, I imagine worst case scenarios in terms of the greater world. For me, that would probably be a lack of ability to continue updating The Simple Dollar. What would happen to the greater world? For the most part, very little. The Simple Dollar often adds a little “positive” to people’s lives on a regular basis, but if it went away, their lives would continue. They might find another web site that provides a similar boost – or they might not. Either way, it’s not a major crisis for the world if the worst case scenario happens.

Most jobs, if you peel them back to their true impact on the world, have very little real impact. Yes, there are a few captains of industry and top political leaders who really can affect a lot of lives. Outside of them, though, the worst case scenario of most jobs has little impact.

Second, I imagine the positive impact of just not worrying about it. That type of scenario frees me to try new things. If I realize that the worst case scenario really isn’t that bad, it becomes a lot easier to imagine best case scenarios for taking pretty significant risks. What if I write articles that are seriously outside the box on The Simple Dollar? I might chase away a reader or two, sure. But I also have the potential to grab the imagination and attention of a lot of people by doing that.

Again, the same holds true for most jobs. When you consider the absolute worst case result of a certain choice, then compare that to the potential positive results of making that same choice, you’ll often find you’re better off just letting go of the status quo and trying new things. Completely re-do your filing system. Do a presentation that completely bucks the rules of what typically goes on in your workplace. Write some interesting utility code that helps everyone by making some common tasks faster.

Finally, I try things that are way outside the norm. Sometimes I’ll end up using these things that I create. Other times I won’t. In either case, I usually find something worthwhile.

What really makes this stand out, though, is that it’s fun. Trying something completely new and different adds an element of fun to my work that simply isn’t there if I’m overly careful and just follow the status quo. That sense of fun keeps my work in the area of things in my life that make me happy instead of things in my life that drain me.

In the end, my advice is simple: let go of the sense of importance you have about your work. It’ll be the best career move you’ll ever make.

One final note: if you have your financial ducks in a row, it’s even easier. Paying off your debts helps your career because it reduces the importance of your job. Your need for a salary is much less if you have your ducks in a row, which in turn opens the door to greater success because you’re no longer tied to such a sense of importance.

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40 thoughts on “Is Your Work Too Important?

  1. I am someone who is stressed constantly by little things, but work is not one of them. You could have written a post about people who have the exact opposite problem.

    Sometimes I feel like my job is not at all important and that I’m just a piece in the system. Sure, there’s little stress, but there is not as much motivation to be a great worker.

    Neither end of the spectrum is very useful and we have to find a nice balance.

  2. Rosa says:

    When Wisebread ran a piece about taking vacation time, people came out of the woodwork to say that if you could take a long vacation without being missed, you’re not very important.

    It seems like the opposite to me: no business should rely on just one person per position. It’s dangerous to the business not to have backups. I had a friend who lost his job last year when the founder of the company died (of a heart attack that debilitated him for several months first) with nobody groomed to replace him – it was a loss not only to his family (they didnt’ get to sell the business, it ran out of money while he was ill) and to the 20 or so people who lost their jobs.

  3. leslie says:

    I agree with Daniel. My job is only “important” in the sense that having a paycheck is important to me right now.

  4. Rachel says:

    This may be the best article I’ve ever read on here. Right on, Trent.

  5. Johanna says:

    I can think of a lot of people other than “captains of industry and top political leaders” whose jobs have real impact. Doctors, for one. Back when I was a fan of ER, I used to like to remind myself that at least when I had a bad day at work, nobody died.

    Even setting that aside, I don’t think that the line of thinking here applies to all jobs. It sounds like in your old job, your “worst-case scenarios” involved taking risks that could either turn out extremely well or extremely poorly. In my job, on the other hand, all the worst-case scenarios I can imagine involve me simply not doing the basics of what I get paid to do. So I don’t feel like I have to give up the safety of being a good worker in order to have a shot at being a great worker. And I do find that when I consciously think of myself as important, or even powerful, it actually inspires me to do a better job.

    The real meaning of all this? That you can’t generalize.

  6. Rachel says:

    @Johanna:

    I gathered that the point of this was that if you constantly believe your job to be hugely important, it can cripple you and cause you to shy away from taking risks which could turn a safe bet into a great bet. Humility does more to foster true creativity than having a big ego, but in the case of doctors and other professionals, I’m not sure how much creativity is warranted–there are protocols and procedures involved that were formulated after someone else’s creativity and thinking outside the box (i.e. the researchers who discovered/formulated the treatments) reached the point at which it became–one would hope–a great idea.

  7. Bill in Houston says:

    I also agree with Daniel (#1).

    That being said, I also USED to think that my job was a very important part of the project. It was, in that I was writing the instruction manual for every new product we sold, but it wasn’t a deal killer.

    What changed my outlook? A heart attack at age 38 was the first. The second change was getting married for the first time at age 45.

    While I still get torqued in traffic jams, I wind down a lot easier than I used to.

  8. Karen M. says:

    I have to disagree with this a little. My husband and I both have “important” jobs– he is US Marine and I am a paralegal in a Legal Aid foundation. The jobs themselves ARE important. What we aren’t is irreplaceable. The world would go right on turning if either of us ceased to work in our positions. There is always someone who can do the same job. Always.

    Writing is an important job. Writers themselves are replaceable.

    I also think this article conflates two different ideas: importance AT your job, and importance OF your job. Believing that the office would cease to function if you didn’t come in, and therefore you never take a vacation, is self-important and (usually) wrong. However, most people/ families need a job to survive. I personally don’t know anyone with a trust fund.

  9. Johanna says:

    @Rachel: “Humility does more to foster true creativity than having a big ego”

    I guess my point is that for me, and my particular job, it doesn’t work like that. My job does involve creativity (sort of – it involves writing and editing), but what really motivates me is not creativity for creativity’s sake, but thinking about the effect that my work has on people. If I think, “This isn’t very important, because very few people are actually going to read it,” I am tempted to slack off and just do the minimum possible to get by. But if I think, “There are thousands of people out there who love what we do, and I’d better not let them down,” that’s when I really get into the “zone.”

    As for taking risks: Honestly, I can’t think of a risk that I could possibly take that had the potential for a worse outcome than just doing the minimum. As long as I have the minimum covered (like making sure I’ve got all my facts right), the worst thing that could happen is that I waste some time or expend some energy unnecessarily (say, by pursuing a story idea that doesn’t work out). And since I tend toward laziness, it’s hard for me to motivate myself to make that extra effort if I think it’s not so important. But if I think it is, then I will.

  10. Amy says:

    I have to disagree a bit with ‘it shouldn’t be my responsibility so let the network go down’ – why not innovate to fix what’s making it go down, or develop a tool to let the folks who should be responsible be able to monitor it instead of you preventing the crises? Abandoning a problem that is not officially yours doesn’t get it solved, but suggesting a solution or making others aware of this out-of-scope work so they can do it is the sign of a great employee.

    I absolutely agree that innovation and making work less hard/more productive is key in today’s business world, and worrying less about your job at home is also a great goal. But a great company wants everyone to innovate and shouldn’t tolerate the ‘bad workers,’ rather replace them with more good ones who innovate too. And every job is important to do well enough to have the luxury of not worrying about it after leaving the office. If we innovate well, the extra hours and worry shouldn’t be needed.

  11. Tatiana says:

    I agree with Karen M to a point. The job might be important, but the person doing it can be replaced. In ideal. I work as a psychologist in a small specialist psychiatric unit. The people I see suffer from eating disorders. If I don’t treat them, nobody in this area will (they will be offered unqualified support but that’s it). The other position on the team is not filled at the moment because my collegue left, mostly due to overwork and stress she was feeling. If I get pregnant/get sick/want to take a vacation the line for treatment will just get bigger. This is a self-perpetuating situation where people don’t stick around because work load is so huge, which means we need to hire someone new all the time, and the patient line just grows. The syndroms I work with are in some cases life-threatening, and in the rest of cases affect both the patients life and the patients family lives profondly.

    So, yes, thankfully most people can be replaced. I can be too. But there is a huge cost in human suffering and I’m constantly aware of it to the point I’m scared to take sick leave.

  12. John says:

    Aren’t you worried now your third child will require more money? Do you regret leaving your stable job?

  13. Shakela says:

    Tatiana, I completely understand what you’re going through. I was a case manager for a while. But you have to take some time off, or you’re going to get sick. Yes there’s some human suffering temporarily while you’re gone, but if you don’t eventually it’ll wear you down and you won’t be able to work. :(

    If you’re sick, take the leave. Life-threatening stuff is scary. But, people are responsible for their own choices. You can do a lot more good when you take care of yourself.

  14. Diane says:

    Right now I’m doing a job that is not impressive and whatever importance the job may have has nothing at all to do with me or how well I do it. It is nice I do a good job, but lots of others can do a good job too. The lack of pressure on me is wonderful. I’m happier now than I ever was when I was considered a “rock star.”

  15. Kai says:

    I would replace the word ‘important’ with ‘critical’. It’s not been a huge issue for me, but I can see how seeing your job as a life and death matter can cause excessive stress.
    On the other hand, I think that if my job isn’t *important*, then why am I doing it?
    I would replace the stress with existential issues. For me, it is very important to feel like the work I am doing is important. Not in the critical ‘life-as-we-know-it-will-collapse-without-me’ way, but that it is worthwhile, and makes a difference to at least someone’s day. I do my best to keep unimportant things to as little of my life as I can.

  16. JJ says:

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with how Trent wrote this piece. I think he’s trying the say, “chill out, the fate of the world does not depend on how well you do your job.” That’s a fair point, but it’s not fair to phrase it as “your job just isn’t that important.” Yes, I get that people should focus more on family and friendships and so on. But not all of us have families! I’m a 28-year-old single female, and I work in a very creative field (I’m a theatrical costume designer). As an artist, my job IS important, because no one else can do it in the way I would. And, without a family, I’m free to let a lot more of my own self-identity depend on my work life. Why should I take the time to remind myself that what I do with my life isn’t that “important?” What I do IS important. What I do has value. I’m not short-changing anyone else by spending time on it. And it doesn’t make me stressed out. It’s okay to get wrapped up in what you do, when you don’t have a family.

  17. leigh says:

    i have had to learn to prioritize. marriage is more important than job. so when i’ve finished cranking out the day’s data, i go home and spend time with my spouse. i draw lines between work and life.

    my job is demanding, and it doesn’t pay as much as i’d like, and i’m in the middle of a fairly critical career-developing phase. i will totally fail if i don’t take care of myself and my life before my work.

    that’s not to say i’m all that GOOD at work-life balance, yet.

  18. Great article! I think you are absolutely right…our jobs AREN’T as important as we make ourselves feel about them but I think we do this as a way of feeling good about ourselves at the same time. In the US, our status is based on our occupation. Usually the first question out of someone’s mouth after asking your name is “What do you do?” It is as if your career defines you as a person, which I strongly feel is a poor method to determine a person’s character. If I had answered that question with “I work in a factory,” whoever I am talking to might never think that I also love to travel, have been to a few different countries, want to work on improving soil fertility in areas where land has been degraded due to slash & burn agricultural practices (Amazon), or that I write a blog about goals, money and motivation. Instead, they would stereotype me as being a non-descript person who stands at an assembly line doing a mindless job. In reality, my factory job was challenging, very thought provoking at times but ultimately not something I wanted to do with my life. When I was laid off, I decided to pursue school full-time to pursue my dream of working on environmental issues around the globe. Now I am about a year and a half away from beginning graduate school & 2.5 years from beginning a 27 month commitment with the Peace Corps (if all goes as planned).

    Your job does NOT define a person. It is about the content of your character and realizing that your job isn’t so important is the first step in figuring out what REALLY defines you as a person.

  19. guinness416 says:

    We are all totally replaceable and pretty damn quickly, whether we`re accountants, formwork carpenters, prime ministers or bloggers. That doesn`t change the fact that until the day we quit or are laid off, for most of us in understaffed workplaces there is nobody to pick up the slack, prepare the reports or send the proposals when we`re not around. It just piles up. The trick is learning not to care too much :)

  20. James says:

    This is by far the freshest idea I have been introduced to through a blog in a long long time. I love it!

    Thankyou.

  21. Susan says:

    Congratulations on the announcement of your third child. We have three children and truly there is little additional cost for the third child. While childcare costs will be a factor, you will already have the ‘infrastructure’ to provide for his/her needs. While I cannot understate the work involved in raising a family, the rewards of family life are tremendous. My children are either approaching adolescence or there already and I find that I enjoy them more and more as they get older. While I am not their friend, (I am their parent)they provide special companionship and we share experiences and memories. As an educator who has seen many different parenting styles and strategies, my pearl of wisdom would be to give them everything they need but not everything they want. Parenting is truly the only ‘job’ where you cannot be replaced or are expendable. Work to live, not live to work.

  22. Another thought provoking article.

    Apologies, but I have difficulty with the basis for the article. For most people their work is important because they rely on it to support themselves and (often) their families and cannot be assured of being able to easily find a replacement job for similar pay should the need arise. Given that this is the norm for most of us, stating that work is not important is dangerous. If I turned up to the office each day with the belief that my work is not important, my productivity would slip and my career prospects would quickly follow.

    That said, for most of us, recognising that work is not the central purpose of our lives, dodging the stress bullet and keeping ourselves mentally and physically occupied outside of the work force is very necessary to make life enjoyable.

  23. My work used to be probably “too” important in my life, but that’s when I was single.

    Having a child and getting married changed everything.

    It is definitely in perspective now.

    A day at home playing with my son beats any kind of day at work any day of the week.

  24. getagrip says:

    I think part of the problem is that as described, Trent didn’t see only his job as important, he saw things “outside” his job as critical, others unable or unwilling to fix them, and began to extend himself into those areas and take on those responsibilities for the sake of the company. It’d be like the emergency room doctor trying to treat a patient without any administrative help to check them in, nurses or other staff to assist in diagnosis and treatment, and orderlies to roll them to another room (e.g. operation) after stablizing them. The stress is when you begin to take on the responsibility of the entire program while trying to run the show for people who don’t seem to care and don’t care to learn to do their own jobs better.

    In one way Trent was showing his creativity by solving others problems and helping the team. In another he lost out because he didn’t eventually demand compensation or recognition for those efforts, especially as they became more expected. Doing this right has the potential to move you up in an organization, doing it wrong causes you to feel the entire organization will go down in flames if you’re not there to watch everything. Being a team player is fine, trying to do every job on the team is not.

  25. Janet says:

    I really saw the truth in this article. I use to work for lawyers as a legal assistant. I always thought i was indespensible and had to do everything so they could see just how indispensible I was. Funny thing though, when I finally had enough and left for another job because I was so stressed – they carried on without me. My husband on the other hand, loves his job, goes to work, putters at his own pace, gets the job done and is highly thought of in his field as a welder. His bosses thiink he is fantastic and he gets regular raises. I am now learning from him.

  26. Tammy says:

    Last Christmas, my husband left a good paying job after two years of non-stop stress and self-induced anxiety. It began with him not wanting to take his vacation because he was worried about the workload that would greet him when he came home, because of course, no one else could cover for him. (His supervisor basically forced him to take the time off). Next, it was monitoring the computer servers from home. Next, it was freaking out when his work pager went off. Next, it was full on panic and anxiety attacks, ambulance trips to the ER, thoughts of suicide.
    He took 8 weeks of short term disability, tried to go back and panicked again. We opted to try to start our own business instead of sending him back to that misery machine of a company, which thank God has been successful so far.

    Incidentally, after he left, it took 5 people to cover the work they had heaped on my husband.

    No job is ever worth your family or your sanity, no matter how important and irreplaceable you consider yourself to be.

  27. Work should not be placed before health, happiness, and our families.

  28. Emily says:

    I think the older you get and as your family situation changes – add spouse, kids, etc. You realize how unimportant work is. I am so thankful that I’ve have a manager who believes the same way. Family always comes first – no matter what. As the old saying goes – when you’re on your death bed it won’t matter how much money you made or what you did at the office – but what you did for your family and friends will. Life is too short to have your priorities with WORK at the top.

  29. Jen says:

    I understand where you are going w/ the “not important” thing…however…I think if you are looking for advancement in your job you need to believe you are important to the bottom line. If you are interested in a promotion, maybe you should be fixing that data server, or other problems…in my case I showed that my place of employment had other teams w/ 4 people that did my job. I was able to show that I deserved a raise because they would have to replace me w/ 4 hires. If I had not shown interest in the other areas I would not have this experience. However, I wouldn’t go after areas you aren’t interested in growing in. For example I have no desire to be a manager, so I wouldn’t ask to manage people/project flows other than my own.

  30. Eileen says:

    Trent,

    Sometimes I think you and I are walking some sort of parallel path in the universe;-). I’m in the process of starting a company and have to CONSTANTLY remind myself I’m doing this for the joy of it and the challenge and the journey, not just for the end product and I want to avoid the stress aspect. Your article could not come at a more timely juncture.

    I wrote on my blog not long ago how helpful your book review of Never Eat Alone has been. I met the CEO of Posi-Pair for coffee to start building a network and she herself said the most helpful thing she’s done is setting a goal of three meetings a day. She had a lot of other advice too, but having just read the book, that perked up my ears. And her comment might not have had the impact if I hadn’t read it, and I never would have found it if you hadn’t reviewed it. So Muchas Gracias!

    Eileen
    P.S. I also forwarded your article to my husband, an A type corporate lawyer who I do sometimes have to remind should he stay home a day sick (he has not done this in our 10 years of marriage) somehow the firm would struggle on;-).

  31. kristine says:

    I am a teacher, and as such, I DO feel my job is important. More important than my family? No. But what I say in a good mood or a bad mood can alter a child’s exerpience to either like or dislike school, feel good about himself or not. And of course, we are responsible for what they learn, and how it helps or does not help them succeeed. We see your children more hours of the day than you do.

    I believe it every teacher’s duty to KNOW how important his job is. And as soon as it is your child in school, you will be glad most teachers feel this way about their job. It’s a calling.

    The school administration also has a duty to respect the values of family when it comes to staff, and remember that the children of the staff are just as important as the children we teach. That is the case where I teach, but not in most schools- teachers are harried and stressed out, trying to keep a balance. That’s fine for most professions, but you don’t want YOUR child’s teacher being stressed out and worried, as your child is stuck in a room with them!

  32. psychsarah says:

    Tatiana-I hear ya loud and clear. I am also a psychologist and I am in charge of a lot of people’s care, both directly and indirectly. I am currently struggling to let go of work, because my husband won a two week vacation to the Caribbean. We actually had an argument about whether I could go and leave my patients for that long. I know my coworkers will cover for me, and thankfully none of my patients are currently actively suicidal, which will hopefully continue, but it is nerve-wracking. That said, it is sooooo important to take care of yourself-it sounds like you could be at huge risk of burnout, like you’ve described in others who have held your position. When I have gone away for one week (my max comfort level currently) I have come back in a much better frame of mind, and was able to much more effective. Not to say this is an easy choice, just to say “Amen Sister”! I hope you’re able to find some down time to recharge your batteries sometime soon! I waffled reading this post, as I thought, in some ways, although I’m technically replaceable (like you said you were), most psychologists are so specialized, it’s tough to find someone else to do what you do in your area should you leave. Tough call-good luck to you!

  33. chacha1 says:

    I spent 8 years carrying the weight of an entire firm and making myself miserable. Finally left and the firm had to hire two people to do the work I’d been doing. But was it important? Not in the least. I’ve worked as a legal support professional for years, and most of the work is typing and filing. Many firms see their support personnel as interchangeable pieces of office machinery and absolutely do NOT want their employees to innovate. Yes, it’s important to Me to have A Job. But using the perceived importance of The Job to run my life for a long time didn’t really help anyone in the end. The extra money I made all got spent and the firm’s owners never did (and never will)understand the role they need to take to constructively manage their business. What I get out of this article is affirmation that there’s only so much you can (and should) do.

  34. Shanna says:

    Best article in a long time, Trent! I grok it all, but also agree with the comments differentiating irreplaceable (importance AT the job). Because there is also great satisfaction in aligning your work with the greater good.

  35. Kai says:

    @Steven (#18)
    I am with you on the idea of jobs and identity.
    I think it is strange, and perhaps a bit sad that so many people define their very being by their employment.
    Perhaps it would be ideal for all of us to work in an area where we would happily define our work as something that we believe in strongly, and which makes us who we are. Realistically, many people do not have such a job, and it’s not a realistic expectation for everyone. I have a job which is not what I wish to do for my whole life, but adequate, pays me sufficiently, reasonably enjoyable, and satisfactory. I am happy enough with my job, but it is not who I am. Perhaps similar to your factory job.

    I take my distaste for this culture further though.
    I find it very silly that so many people (you included, based on your statement) hear the question ‘What do you do?’ as ‘What do you do for wages?’ I find it interesting that people consider all the things you do as inferior to the one thing you do which pays money.

    I reject this. When people ask me ‘What do you do?’ I answer with the things that I do believe define me as a person. I say that I hike, and I climb, and I live for the mountains. If I were someone else, I might answer that I raise two children, or that I study soil issues in the hopes of working someday to restore its fertility. Or that I travel and try to broaden my understanding of as many cultures as I can.

    I get some strange looks from this practice, but I also generate some interesting discussions – often far deeper than if I had simply answered ‘I’m a lifeguard’ or ‘I’m a student’. If people really want to know what I do *for money*, they’ll have to ask me that directly.

    I encourage you to give this a try. Next time someone asks you what you do, tell them the things you do that define you. See where it goes. :)

  36. Rachel says:

    @ Johanna:

    I can understand that, and it sounds like you have a good, healthy mindset. I found this post valuable personally because my superiors at work often try to magnify the importance of what we do as a department to the point where few people are willing to take vacation days, since we’re constantly told how important it is that we provide good service (and we can’t do that if we’re not there). It gets ridiculous sometimes, so I appreciated the reminder that life will go on and most people would be just fine if, for whatever reason, I failed in some capacity at work. I find that when I push the envelope a bit at work (which only happens when I feel a little “devil may care” about the weight of my influence at work), I often find better solutions and am able to go above and beyond what is expected. You’re right, though, that knowing people are counting on you is a good source of inspiration to do your best.

  37. emma says:

    I think politicians and captains of industry are among the least important figures on a day to day basis… unfortunately (in the case of the politician). I’m still on the fence about if those jobs in general are important, but perhaps I’ve been listening to too much NPR lately and am disheartened.

    In my experience there are researchers developing vaccines, working with stem cells, engaged in struggles against viruses and nature – etc. – who as individuals would be a loss to the world should they disappear. Some people carry special skills in the way their mind processes information and are very rare. The world would still turn, but we would feel the loss globally whether we knew them personally or not.

    I’m certainly not of that caliber, but I wonder what it would be like to be one of them. Would you be happy each day that you are one of the few who make an impact on human life as a whole, or would the weight of knowing that each vacation day you took set some kind of ‘pause’ button just undo you?

  38. JW says:

    Like Kristine, I am a teacher and I believe my work is incredibly important, but in a different way than I did when I began teaching 13 years ago. At that point, I was very “type A” -concerned with how much material we covered each day, concerned with getting through as many chapters as possible, concerned with being able to say that I had taught my kids X, Y, Z. I didn’t take sick days because I felt that would be a “wasted” day, since in my area of teaching (French) it is almost impossible to get a sub who can cover the content area. I was constantly stressed out, and I am sorry to say that I snapped at the kids when they didn’t keep up with my ideal pace.

    Luckily, after years of teaching, I realize that the real importance of my job lies not only in how many verbs my kids can conjugate (especially since most of them will forget that a few years out of high school anyway), but at least as much in teaching them about multiculturalism, tolerance, responsibility, and respect. I rarely raise my voice to my students now because there are few things that are important enough for me to resort to that. (I will admit to sending “I’m watching you, and I don’t really like what you’re doing” looks, when necessary.) I smile a lot more. My students are happier, and they learn just as much, because they are comfortable asking questions and telling me when they don’t understand. Interestingly, I take a lot more days off now – although still not excessive, by any means. I’m not trying to complain, because I love my job, but teaching does take emotional energy. Sometimes I know that I am going to be a cruddy teacher if I try to push myself to go to school when I’m on the sick side, even if I’m not bed-ridden, so I stay home, rest a lot, and go back at 100% instead of trying to tough it out at 60% capacity.

    In other words, my job is *so very important* that it deserves 100%, not 60%, not 70%, not 80%, and I now try to make sure that I am capable of giving 100% to my students, which means that I have no choice but to take care of myself and stay home when I’m sick.

  39. Evita says:

    I so disagree with you, Trent! In my experience, people who do NOT think that their job is important are depressed, resentful and afraid to be shown the door, not stress-free! And people who do think that their job is important, and that they are important to their employer, are more motivated, productive and happy. It is well-known that the most successful businesses are those where the employees feel important!
    The fact that you left a job which was obviously a bad fit for you does not mean that you can utter: “this it the truth” or “the moment you begin to think of your job as “important,” you become more stressed and less innovative in your career”. Not true! This may be Trent’s truth but please do not feel that it applies to the rest of the workers!

  40. T says:

    Really interesting article.

    As a doctor, I’m in the camp with the psychologists mentioned of feeling a little ambivalent about how much this actually applies to us. (“What’s the worst that can happen if I do a shitty job today?” “Oh, well, several people could die….”).

    I’ll keep mulling it over, though, because I agree it’s got a lot of useful thoughts in it… I was certainly excited when I started reading, and a bit disappointed when I didn’t see it fitting as well with me! Perhaps there’s room for a follow up piece or two?

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