I Like Work Better Than People

I like work better than people. There, I admitted it!  

It sounds funny, right? Maybe even a little antisocial. You might be thinking I’m a recluse who locks herself up in a room and has her food slipped through a hole in the door, or a Scrooge who just wants to hoard money.

Definitely not. The real reason is a lot simpler, maybe even a little boring:  I like being challenged in ways that I can track; I prefer tasks that have visible results.  I know what I’m getting with work, but the rules are not so clear with people.  There’s so much more variability that can make interactions frustrating or exhausting.  

I’m not alone in this. Many people get more satisfaction from work than from other aspects of their lives, including their interpersonal relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners.

High achievers are especially susceptible to being drawn to the metrics and instant gratification of work.

One thing that’s especially true for high achievers — aka the kinds of people who are drawn to entrepreneurship — is that they crave metrics, measurable markers of progress, growth, and achievement. They like to know how they’re doing and when they need to switch their strategy. This is possible at work, but not always elsewhere.

At work, you can often immerse yourself in a task, then see results, or at least know whether you’re on the right track. You know what you’re required to do and what the desired outcome is. Whether you succeed or have to backtrack and try again, you’ll know. Wins are more clearly defined, and you’ll often have data telling you why losses or failures happened.

It’s different with people. There are no metrics for friendship, successful parenting, being a good partner. You can sometimes put a lot of time and effort into relationships and not know if it’s “paying off”. People can be complex and unpredictable, which makes it harder to find clear indicators that you’re on the right track with them.

Studies show that people are happier and less stressed at work than at home.

Then there’s the fact that multiple studies have found many people to be happier and less stressed at work than at home. Researchers found that people’s cortisol (stress hormone) levels were often lower at work than they were at home. One of the reasons for this was that juggling responsibilities of work and home, or having to deal with home life after a long day at work, made home life more stressful. Our minds, it turns out, are not that good at shifting gears. And it can feel frustrating to come home from work and have to enter a mindset that we haven’t been in for almost the entire day. It can feel like we’re failing if we’re not ready for the barrage of completely different responsibilities and potentially difficult to gauge situations.  

We celebrate professional accomplishments more than personal accomplishments.

Another reason some find work more fulfilling may have to do with what our society and culture emphasize and prize. We’re often told that being successful means excelling at tasks, especially those that feed a career or job. But we seldom think of relationships that way. When is the last time you saw someone profiled in an article just for being a great friend or spouse? When we celebrate accomplishments, they’re almost always in the realm of work. We measure success by how far we’ve climbed in our careers, what deals we’ve made, what projects we’ve completed successfully, and so on.

We don’t celebrate people just for getting their kids’ lunches ready every morning, helping with the homework every night, spending quality time with spouses, maintaining a solid group of close friends. When people do get public praise for strong interpersonal relationships, it’s most often because those accomplishments are in addition to work wins or what’s perceived as a thriving work life.

Work is also seen as more difficult, and therefore doing well at work is more deserving of praise in the minds of many. The majority of jobs require some schooling or training, and we’re encouraged to keep learning and growing our understanding of our work, which underscores the belief that work doesn’t come naturally to us. However, traditionally, there has been less focus on interpersonal and emotional intelligence, with most of us receiving almost no training on how to be successful in relationships (with the exception of learning that “sharing is caring” in kindergarten), which points to a belief that dealing with others should just come easily to us.

People are just a different kind of work, worth investing in to be able to achieve more everywhere in your life.

Relationships can be complicated and we don’t always have all the tools to help us navigate them. We’re supposed to inherently know how to make them happen, without expending too much time or energy. When that proves easier said than done, it’s no surprise that we feel out of our depth.

The truth is that people are work, too. Just a different kind. A kind of work that can’t always be measured. Today the people in our lives might require or demand very little of us, whereas tomorrow we might be at capacity from meeting their needs. Work is often much more predictable. We usually know what the demands of our jobs will be from day to day, week to week. When something changes, we generally have a decent amount of time to prepare.

But, we can’t (and shouldn’t) go it alone. In the marathon of life, we can accomplish much more when we are supported and buoyed by others. Borrowing from the old adage: we can go fast alone, but we can go further together.

People will be there for us when things aren’t going our way at work, remind us of our value even when what we’re working on stagnates or we fall into a rut. They will support us even when we have major setbacks and failures that make us doubt whether we’re good enough to run a company or manage a team or deliver a product.

We need people. We need relationships. We need human connection. On a very basic, biological level. For instance, while it may be true that many people are less stressed at work, it’s also been documented that a good social life is correlated with less stress and better overall health. According to one study discussed in the Boston Globe, the more social connections one has, the healthier they are.

Plus, work often depends on people. No entrepreneur ever does anything totally by themselves or in a vacuum. The solo genius who builds a company from the ground up with nothing more than his own tenacity, vision, and sweat is a myth. Everyone is supported by someone and different perspectives are what help turn ideas into viable business realities. Partners, customers, employees, mentors, investors and many others contribute to the success of a startup, even if they aren’t front and center.

Investing in becoming good at dealing with people is paramount to being a good leader, founder, and innovator. And the easiest way we learn how to be good at people is through our personal relationships. That is where we can be most vulnerable and honest, even get it wrong from time to time, while maintaining the understanding that we’re all imperfect and human. We don’t need to build a facade or barriers around ourselves with the people we trust, who’ve shown they genuinely and unconditionally care about us. That’s a great boon as we navigate our relationships with those with whom we do business.

Not everything that counts can be counted. – Bruce Cameron

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that only things that can be measured or counted actually matter. But, as William Bruce Cameron wrote, “not everything that counts can be counted”. Even if there are no scorecards, spreadsheets, or analytics to tell us how we’re doing in our relationships, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest ourselves in them just as much as we do our more measurable endeavors.

Since one of the things that people find most difficult is the juggling act between work and people, I’ll throw my two-cents into how to make it doable. Always be present. When you’re making time for your friends and family, really make that time about them. Fully be there, avoid distractions from work and other areas of life, so that you get as much from each other as possible.

When you’re at work, be fully present there. Immerse yourself in tasks, dig in. Focus on what’s at hand and packing the most into your hours there. Make your time worthwhile and valuable, so you are less tempted to think about or do work while you’re at dinner with friends, watching a movie with your significant other, or playing with the kids.

Don’t be afraid to set boundaries around what you engage in when in work mode versus people mode. Boundaries are a busy person’s best friend! They can help you keep your cortisol levels down, ward off guilt about “not doing enough” in a particular area, and also make each part of your life more rewarding.

Ultimately, the real balance we need to strike isn’t between work and friends/family, it’s between the short term and long term. Work may at times be more fulfilling and energizing in the short term, but a singular focus on it at the expense of relationships is not sustainable in the long run. Besides, it’s less fun to pop the champagne after a big milestone just to drink alone at your desk.

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