More than a century ago, the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand made the following observation:
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labour and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.
His words capture one of the most enticing ideas of modern working life, which is to find some way of merging our personal interests and passions with our careers. Some people I interviewed for my book How to Find Fulfilling Work were convinced that this was the key to career happiness. Others, however, believed it was a terrible mistake, raising the dangerous prospect of contamination. You might love building model trains, but starting up a company selling them online, with all the stresses involved, could drain all the joy from your passion and make you nostalgic for those rainy Sunday afternoons tinkering with engines, when you had no sales figures to worry about.
An interesting example of someone who decided to keep his work and his passions separate was the poet Wallace Stevens. By day he worked in an insurance company, eventually becoming vice-president of an established firm in Connecticut. But he was no workaholic: he returned home each evening to write verse, and is considered one of the great modernist poets of the early 20th century.
Stevens kept these two lives separate: he always felt something of an imposter in his day job; it was "like playing a part," he wrote. He regarded poetry as his "real work" — even if he wasn't paid for it — and never wanted to commercialize his art by becoming a "professional" poet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 he was offered a faculty position at Harvard that would have allowed him to write poetry for a living, but he turned it down to stay at his insurance job.
In effect, Stevens opted not to make his daytime career the main project of his life but used it as a foundation to pursue his wider ambitions as a human being. I think of this not as the pursuit of fulfilling work but an equally important aspiration, which is "to seek work for a fulfilling life."
Perhaps this is the ultimate realist option for the art of living: have a regular career that offers the benefits of financial security while preserving your leisure time for the freedom to unfurl your many other selves.
So whose side are you on — François-René de Chateaubriand or Wallace Stevens?
More from Roman Krznaric:
- What Is the Greatest Book on Working Ever Written?
- How to Find Fulfilling Work in 15 Minutes
- How to Write a Personal Job Ad
- Should We Aim to Be "Wide Achievers" in Our Careers?
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Roman Krznaric is an Australian cultural thinker and cofounder of The School of Life in London. This post is based on his new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life.
Books mentioned in this post
Roman Krznaric is the author of How to Find Fulfilling Work (School of Life)