Living to work or working to live?

Living to work or working to live?

By Janas Priya


“THE gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” (The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus)

In his writing about the absurdity of human existence, Camus believed that human beings were not supposed to be living in this world. He used Sisyphus as an example of how life is imagined. Sisyphus’ efforts at pushing the rock up the mountain are, according to Camus, similar to the challenges of life. He goes on to write that even if we work really hard to achieve goals, we may achieve nothing in the end. So, if life has no meaning, does that mean life is not worth living? Are we living only to work, mirroring Sisyphus’ own struggles—or are we working to live?

Humans have always worked to survive: hunting animals and gathering fruits and vegetables. In this scenario they worked to live. As society evolved and industrialized, the premise of working for survival (hunting) shifted insofar as work became a commodity that could be rewarded and traded with money. Then, in the 18th century, the industrial revolution marked a major turning point in human history. Nearly every aspect of daily life including agriculture, manufacturing and technology was influenced in some way. The industrial revolution spread from the U.K., through Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world, dramatically increasing the availability of consumer goods. In the words of Nobel Prize winning laureate Robert E. Lucas, Jr., “For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth. Nothing like this economic behavior has happened before.”

In the middle of the 20th century, people began to buy products with little regard for the true utility of their purchased goods. As consumerism continued to evolve and society created the concept of materialism, people started to “live” to work. Multi-millionaire businessman James Caan has said, “No one can survive for long if they are completely obsessed by work; that route will only lead to increased stress levels and can ultimately be count- er-productive.”

Consumer behavior is similar around the globe, even in places such as Bali. However, in the past, the Balinese perspective about work differed from today; it was always related to religion and culture. The Balinese traditionally believed that work was bound up with duty and dedication to their gods. For example, a farmer’s work- day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. Under these conditions, a farmer may rarely complain and may harbor little desire to become rich.

In the past, a powerful concept among the Balinese – from the lowliest farmers to the high-ranking kings – was swadharma*; they didn’t work to live, but to fulfill their swadharma. If a farmer believes strongly in this notion, he may keep that belief in mind as he works. Over time and until today, this belief in swadharma has been slowly disappearing.


Work/life balance

Think about how much time you have spent working and how much time you have left for the ones you love, friends, family, and also yourself. Is it balanced? If not, what can you change?

Mohamed El-Erian, the chair of Microsoft’s Investment Advisory Committee recently wrote on the subject:

“One day, my daughter asked me to wait a minute. She went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. When my daughter pointed out all the special events and things I was missing, I realized that something had to change. The list contained 22 items: her first day at school, first soccer match of the season, parent-teacher meeting and a Halloween Parade. I felt awful and got defensive: I had a good excuse for each missed event! Traveling, important meetings, and urgent phone calls, etc. But it dawned on me that I was missing an infinitely more important point. My work-life balance had gotten way out of whack, and the imbalance was hurting my very special relationship with my daughter. I was not making nearly enough time for her.”

Another important aspect of a healthy work-life balance is how you actually view your job. Step back and ask yourself: Am I happy with my life as it is right now?


At the end of his book, Camus writes that Sisyphus realized he would continue to face challenges despite no chance of success. Once he accepted the misery of his condition, Sisyphus also recognized that life was nothing more than a struggle of absurd proportions. When people accept their fate; accept who they are and what they are capable of, they may find genuine happiness. This is really the essence of swadharma. Once we know more about ourselves and accept it, we can live with greater joy.



*Swadharma is the idea of acting according to your skills and talents, your own nature and that which you are responsible (karma).


Janaspriya Das graduated from the University of Indonesia with a degree in French Literature. He now lives in Denpasar and works for his family business making organic incense.






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