Live to Work or Work to Live?

Vintage library work

I love my job; more importantly, I love my profession. More than half of the staff I work with love their jobs and their field of work. It is temporary work for some – they plan to move on to another career. The ones who dislike their jobs, but stay in them long-term, are the same kind of people who grumble about their jobs everywhere.

At university, I did an arts degree. I studied theatre, English, philosophy and Russian literature. The usual path after a B.A. was to complete a B.Ed. and go into public school teaching. As a student, I had a lot of experience working with children, as a babysitter, recreation leader and swimming instructor. But I was a quiet person and I didn’t have confidence I could deal with classroom management and parents. Halfway through my theatre major, I knew I didn’t want to spend my career moving from town to town, working on plays, one contract at a time, with no home and no job security.

I thought about my interests – working with children, books and reading – and decided I would become a children’s librarian. I had also done theatrical performances for children and I thought that would carry over into storytelling and puppetry at the public library. I found out that library science was a graduate program for which a bachelor’s degree was a prerequisite, so I could finish my arts degree, and then apply. Perfect! So, I met the qualifications for becoming a librarian at age 23.

After working as a children’s librarian for two years, dealing with children’s behaviour in the library, and managing cranky adults as part of public service, I realized I could have succeeded as a classroom teacher. But by then I was convinced of the mission of public libraries, and I saw a lot of potential in my career path in libraries. I never seriously considered changing professions.

In retrospect, I was enticed to stay in the field by opportunities for promotion. I became a specialist after two years and a manager after three. Directors respected my work and valued my contributions. Without that support, my choices would have been limited. I also found out I was keenly competitive where job advancement was concerned!

Another big realization was that I loved autonomy in the workplace. I could work 40 hours a week as a librarian, carrying out a program of activities determined by managers. Or I could be the manager.

As a manager, I work the same number of hours as a librarian, and have much more control. Of course, I have to take on hiring, training, supervising, and responsibility for results. I welcome the trade-off. I found that supervising staff one-to-one or in small work teams was within my capabilities.

Many years later, staff training and supervision are my favourite activities. Because public libraries have such a “worthy” mission, it is wonderful to be able to encourage it among staff. I find the grumbly ones are those who focus more on their working conditions than on public service, or those with personal circumstances that make work a lower priority in their lives. For my part, this requires attention to workplace conditions, and actually trying to improve the environment. It also calls for lots of personal support and damage control.

What I love about my job:

  • The value of the work itself (promoting books, reading, education, technology, etc.)
  • The management – which trusts me to plan and carry out my own work
  • Autonomy – I mostly determine what I do and how
  • Supervising and supporting staff – ensuring everyone has what they need to do their work
  • The staff themselves – we are like-minded, and it’s wonderful to discuss books and movies every day!
  • Public service – I really like meeting with our customers and helping them out
  • Variety – I have lots of different projects and tasks
  • Working conditions – a clean, warm indoor work environment with reasonable hours, breaks, vacation time and pay
  • A female-centric workplace – in which teamwork, negotiating, compromise and consensus are the norm, and these practices are effective and productive

I meet so many people who either hate their jobs or are somewhat discontented and would rather be doing something else. Among people my age, it is harder to change jobs or careers because of age bias in hiring, or too great an investment in one’s employer retirement plan. I know people my age (early 50s) who spend a lot of time daydreaming about retirement. I expect a lot of them will get fed up with their jobs and take early retirement, choosing their freedom over a higher income in old age.

I also live in an economically depressed area in which many people have high educational levels, can’t find work in their field of study, and refuse to move away. There are a lot of under-employed, bored, and angry adults. But also a culture in which no one is judged by their career or financial success, and there is lots of time to “have a life” outside of work.

I have some questions for you.

  • How do you feel about your work and your career? (including working at home)
  • What do you love or hate about it?
  • How long do you expect to stay in your current job?
  • (If applicable) What is the likelihood that things will get better for you?
  • (If applicable) What prevents you from making a change?


  1. Debbie V.

    Your first paragraph exactly describes my situation as well.
    I don’t have a “career” but my job suits me. I’m an office assistant for a university advising office.
    I like the university environment and my immediate coworkers. They seem to care about my welfare and provide a social context for me. I’m challenged mentally by various job assignments. I have a lot of flexibility if I need to take off time for appointments or travel. I have great medical and other benefits. It’s just 10 min from home.
    The only down side is the university is steeped in formal ways and I am casual and like to try new things.
    I plan to stay until I am 70 in 2021 (until I can collect a small pension in addition to Social Security.) It’s possible I won’t make it that long for various reasons, but that’s the plan.
    It’s possible things could improve where I am. I’m interested in moving into journalism or marketing and tuition is provided for classes.
    I think there are enough options where I am to provide opportunities if I choose to do something else.

    • Only 4 more years! It’s great that you have interests you want to pursue after that. Although it’s a long way off, I can’t quite imagine not working – I can picture staying home and taking it easy for a while, but not as a whole lifestyle. I know everyone says that changes. I picture myself making a transition, maybe into contract work.

  2. I enjoy my job. It’s a crazy mixture of tasks. At times, it is mindless, repetitive data entry. (I discover a lot on YouTube during those tasks,) At other times, it requires creativity and research – real heavy brainwork. The nature of my job can change in an instant. No day is the same. And, at the end of the day, I walk away and leave it all behind until the next day.
    I’m older than you. Baring layoffs, I’ll be here until I retire. There is a non-professional side and a professional side to my group. I’m on the non-professional side. My company assists people in getting their professional certificate. I prefer where I am. My boss obviously wants to move me into more of supervisory role. In previous jobs, I’ve been a lead and I’ve been a supervisor. I hated being a leader. I prefer where I am.
    Because of the changing nature of my job, I am constantly learning something new. And, the more I know, the better off I am.
    I never imagined I would be where I am. I landed this job through a set of circumstances based on my belief in doing what needs to be done. I have no idea where I’d go after this job, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. If this job goes away, I’ll find something else – whatever it is.

    • I like your attitude, Paul! Doing what needs to be done, going back and forth between the creative and the mundane (with checks for accuracy, I’m sure), and learning all the time – sounds good to me. Would you consider yourself a specialist or a generalist?

      • I am a generalist. This, I think, explains my reluctance to go for the professional (specialized) side of my job, and my constant desire to learn more.

  3. Someone once advised me that there are jobs you love, jobs you’re very good at, and jobs you can make a lot of money doing, and to be happy you should pick the two that are important to you (i.e. skill and money, or love and money). I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve always remembered it. Your job sounds though like you’ve hit the trifecta: love, good at, and enough money.

    I’m not working any more – other than substituting before we moved to Hawai’i I haven’t worked since 2006 (I taught beginning ESL to immigrants and refugees). I loved what I did and where I worked, but in academia someone always wants to change things, to make their mark, and I left when our department was combined with another and “reorganized.” As it turned out, I left at the right time – most people from our former department were driven out by staff in the other department. When I returned as a substitute I was glad not to be working there again other than to step in when needed – the new department goals had changed so much, and there was an unhealthy dependence on using textbooks versus focusing on communication which made it easier for the instructors but was not as good for the students (IMO). I’m happy these days to be retired.

    • I suppose that with technology and other changes, it’s hard to leave a legacy any more – everything is “overwritten.” I’m sure you remember the impact on your students. Maybe returning to substitute was a good way to phase out of the workplace: it must have helped you feel you’d made the right choice when you did, but also allowed you to withdraw gradually from your valued work with students.

  4. SP

    I love my job, for many of the same reasons you listed (although my job is totally different from yours). The small aspects that frustrate me are when I need to try to work within the bureaucracy that exists outside my normal “work bubble” – that may be similar to working within a library that is part of a government, actually.

    I wouldn’t mind retire from his job, but I’m young enough that this seems unlikely even if it is desirable. I’ll be here as long as I can or as long as nothing that is a better fit comes along. The latter seems unlikely, but life is unpredictable!

    I think things will continue to get better, and my main concern is getting sucked fully the management route, where more of my job would be dealing with bureaucracy rather than spending time on the work I love more. I found one of the most important management roles in this job is to shield staff from the BS, and I’m not sure how much I love being that shield.

    • My job is relatively low in bureaucracy and BS; I am two levels removed from having to deal directly with city government. Our procurement/finance system can be tedious to deal with, and our hiring process is very slow. I am often privy to information I’m not allowed to share with staff. But most of my time is split between working side-by-side with staff, and being able to use whatever influence I have to help them.

  5. NicolaB

    I like my job- the people are nice and last week when I had an impossible amount to do everyone rallied round and helped me out. I’m an administrator and have a reasonable amount of autonomy to organise how I get things done (which has been a bit of a steep learning curve as I only started in September). It’s not really a career, although I can see that there might be opportunities to progress. I am not sure that I want to manage or supervise though as I think I would get stressed out by the responsibility. I have never had a clear idea about what I want to do as a career so I tend to do something until I am sick of it and then find something which suits me better (in the case of this job, I get weekends and school holidays off, yey!)
    I don’t have clear plans as to how long I will stay in my current job- a few years depending what changes at work and out of work.
    My fantasy to create a business doing something with knitting- I’m not sure whether I am held back by the thought that I might spoil knitting as a hobby if I did it as a job; fear of failure if I actually tried hard to design my own patterns; or something else! At the moment I like the security of a 9-5 job and the social aspect of it so I have no major push to do anything else.

    • Phasing yourself into a knitting business sounds great! What I like best about management responsibility is that I get to act based on everyone’s input, and come up with a “fix” that also meets the library’s goals, so there’s a creative aspect to it. When it works, everyone is happier. When it doesn’t – I am usually forgiven 🙂

      • NicolaB

        Perhaps I have never had any really good managers to show me that management can be fun; or maybe they have all been in situations where they couldn’t really change anything and just had to take all of the crap from those above and below them!

        I think perhaps I need to have a proper go at following a design idea through from start to writing a pattern up that someone else could follow, putting it into a PDF and then on to the internet! Then at least I can decide if the process from start to finish is fun enough to repeat 🙂
        The other issue is that I have so many things I want to make from other people’s patterns already! There is just not enough time to do all of the things I want to do..

      • Doing a design from start to finish would be a great experience – you could see how motivated you felt to follow it through.

  6. Fiona

    It shines through in everything that you do love your job. And the importance of your work and enthusiasm you have for it definitely rubs off! It is a very good argument for following your passions and not narrowing down life choices too soon.

    I really do love my job…so much so that I think my colleagues and I take a perverse pleasure in our grumbles about work conditions at times. If I could quit tomorrow I genuinely wouldn’t want to!

    • Fiona

      (Cont) I love the development we see over 12 months in kids…so incredibly satisfying. I love trouble-shooting with both staff management and kids. And I think I’ll stay indefinitely in this job. All a bit surprising when my goal 3 years ago was “just earn money and pay the mortgage!”

      • I have enjoyed hearing about it as you grew into your job! What a change in 3 years. You are so passionate about French language and culture, as well as child development and a good school/classroom experience. There will always be growing pains and grumbles, but it seems like your life has expanded out so nicely. I like to think of you staying – lucky kids and admin!

    • When I took an arts degree, I had no idea what I would do with it – a luxury that not many have any more. I am so grateful I had a chance to study what I liked, without it being linked to a career outcome. It gave me a longer time to decide. Now university is so expensive, it’s rarely an option to take “a few extra years” !!

  7. 1066jq

    I’m retired. I was a bilingual teacher in California and truly loved my job. Every day was different and there was freedom, within limits. to teach as I saw fit. Prior to teaching I had been a classroom aide and I quickly discovered that if I was going to be in a classroom that I wanted to be in charge.
    My husband became a teacher after 21 years in the military, he found teaching much more stressful than I did and thought it was too female orientated and that was why boys often struggled in school.
    We both know we wanted early retirement and planned accordingly. I don’t miss teaching, but I love the memories.

    • It’s good that you agreed about a retirement date, but too bad your husband didn’t get to feel the love of teaching you did. It must have been hard for him to transition to civilian life and a new career at the same time. I’m glad everything worked out for you.

  8. Timely! I unexpected went for an interview today and it wasn’t what I expected, it was better, much better, much more money, “mandatory car” ( where oh where would I park that thing? In the canals?), I was a perfect fit and I just don’t want to…. (add childish whining here) Careers are soul destroying!

  9. EcoCatLady

    This post sorta made me chuckle today – mostly because of the timing. I’ve been trying to set up a new server for my businesses (websites) for many months now, and it’s been a comedy of errors. But finally today was the big day that I went live with the server. Honestly, I spent most of the day feeling like I was gonna puke, you know, wondering what horrible thing will go wrong this time… but so far, so good. 🙂

    But in general I LOVE working for myself. I LOVE the freedom of working when I want to. I LOVE not having a boss. I LOVE my business model, which allows me not to have to deal with clients or advertisers. I LOVE the artistic part – taking the photos and designing the graphics that I give away on my websites. But alas, I have a love/hate relationship with the technical stuff. While I enjoy learning things and figuring it all out, I hate the panic when an intractable technical problem brings everything to a halt and you have no idea what’s wrong.

    And back when I ran the music school, I loved many, many things about the job. I loved being surrounded by creative people. I loved feeling like I was making a contribution to people’s lives. I loved being surrounded by music all the time, and really getting to use all of my musical knowledge. The hardest part of that job was that the organization was always dancing on the hairy edge of financial ruin, and most of the musicians who worked there were also constantly broke. So it was very stressful feeling responsible for the financial well being of so many people – and it was just emotionally difficult because at times I was half boss, half social worker trying to help musicians find ways to keep from starving.

    Which brings me to a question. I have a number of friends here in the states who are librarians, and basically, funding for libraries is being slashed right and left. Many are having to close their doors or lay off staff, and it’s been quite devastating to the profession in general. I wonder how libraries are funded in Canada, and if you’re facing the same sort of budget cuts that libraries in the US are.

    • Happy server-ing?! You have definitely experienced the highs and lows of both types of work. Canada didn’t experience the same level of recession that the US did (partly because of mandatory mortgage insurance) so public services were not affected much. There is one province whose public libraries are now under review, but the rest are doing OK. They are mostly municipally funded and have a high level of public support. My library system was not affected at all, and they opened a grand new central library in 2013.

  10. I love my career and feel like it’s a good fit. I generally like my job. Occasionally I love it and sometimes I hate it, but I think it balances out to like.

    I work in communications at a university. I love it when I get to write news and feature articles and especially when I’m doing a great interview and learning new things. I love it when I write an article I’m proud of. But that’s about a third of my job. There’s another third or so that involves a lot of project management stuff that can feel like busy work. Sometimes that’s a nice change from having to be creative, but it often becomes tedious, especially when I have to nag others to meet their deadlines. 😕

    Though it’s not perfect, my job also comes with great benefits, a comfortable work environment and decent pay. I won’t be moving on unless I find something better and the older I get the more picky I become about my definition of better. I’m also not interested in management because it seems that managers have to spend most of their time managing and I’d much prefer doing the creative work. Sometimes there is pressure to always be looking for that next step up, it can feel like you’re looked down upon if you’re happy where you are!

    Side note, I started my career doing communications at a public library. I have always loved libraries and been an avid user of them. It was a lovely place to start. Then I worked with academic libraries for several years. It was a nice change to write about something else when I came here. So I’m also curious about EcoCatLady’s funding questions!

    • Sounds like a good job and working conditions. Most of my colleagues weigh their job options carefully, and are more interested in job security and work/life balance than pay and promotions. I’m glad you liked your time in libraries!

  11. I love my job – it is a change of career – I was in fashion before and had my own wedding dress business – now work in Legal Aid administration in a Solicitors – I have to know a lot about the law without being a qualified Solicitor and a lot about accounting without being a qualifed accountant – suits me down to the ground. I am reducing my hours down but only as I have a passion to do more gardening and sketching. Perhaps my next career will be as a landscape gardener – who knows.

    • I didn’t know about the wedding dress business. I have a healthy respect for fashion but I don’t think I could cope with the bridezillas of today (surely there are nice brides too?) Your current job sounds like a great mix. I can definitely see you landscaping/gardening, though!

  12. – *How do you feel about your work and your career? (including working at home) *I love my work, and hate it just as much in the same breath! hahaha! I have a team as diverse as 49 – five direct reports and the reset supposedly indirect (but not!) In addition, I feel like there’s a lot of areas in my business that were historically technical experts, but there’s been a large exodus, and I find ‘new’ staff in procurement and other areas rely heavily on my memory and experience. In the same breath, my job title doesn’t see me as an expert, so others won’t ask, or won’t listen to feedback proffered. That’s tough. – *What do you love or hate about it? *I love working out how to get the best out of people – most work, happy, working collaboratively. I hate my boss overstepping me, making me feel redundant. He and I have been working together for two years now, and I’m ready for MORE trust and more autonomy. I initiated the conversation about that yesterday (specific to staff performance management) and hope we continue. I know his boss has fair more confidence in my ability to do things, so it’s can be a (frustrating) challenge – *How long do you expect to stay in your current job? *Agh! Dad asked me this around break up/moving and I politely told him to hold off on suggesting any big life changes for me! He’s changed career and that’s kept him busy! A date asked me too, but we agreed, two years in the role isn’t ‘that’ long. I think the longer i spend in this role, the better the experiences and knowledge will serve me. So I’m in no hurry (though I did want to quit yesterday!) I don’t have a plan, but I am comfortable to see out another year, plus or minus. – (If applicable) *What is the likelihood that things will get better for you? *Well, perhaps my ‘quit’ yesterday was that I don’t SEE things improving. We are an ‘old’ entrenched, unionised work force and with it comes so many hurdles. Personally, for me, things aren’t bad. But I cannot handle the whining and whinging from above and below, about things beyond my ability to control. Above want higher productivity, which would come with less leave days etc. Below want more overtimes, but all the leave entitlements they have, and cannot see if we have productivity targets, why we can’t work all the overtime to get it done. – (If applicable) *What prevents you from making a change? *Good question – I am comfortable – literally – chair etc. Know my patch, know my people. And I’m not clear on what job would interest me and challenge me as much as this. I need to work that out first!

    • I don’t think I could manage your work environment, Sarah! Occasionally library staff attend mandatory training sessions with other city workers such as transit, fire protection, building trades, etc. I am always taken aback by the attitudes of the workers. Male-dominated culture, a lot of off-colour jokes, put-downs, complaints about women and minorities. But maybe only the workers who are like that get sent on courses to improve 🙂 I’m sorry to hear your boss doesn’t give you much scope. I would guess you have more to accomplish in your job and you could gain experience there for a good while yet, if you choose. But I also wonder what will be next for you!

  13. Hmm. I don’t love my job. I’m good at it though. And I have a strong work ethic so when I’m doing it… I’m really doing it. I even stay later to complete tasks. My current job I only started a year ago. So I’ll likely stay for a few more months before I start looking again. The pay is fine. I just wished for stuff that’s a bit more challenging.

    • Be careful what you wish for! I know what you mean, though. If you are going to put in a full day’s work, it might as well be productive, interesting and challenging, rather than just putting in time.

  14. jbistheinitial

    This was such an interesting read and I’m bookmarking it to come back when I have more time, to do some self-reflective thought based on your prompts. But briefly, I love my job – I work with, look at, read, and talk about books all day, get on well with my colleagues, there’s variety to my work but not so much that makes it hard to balance, and after 12 years in teaching, just being out of the stressful school environment is lovely – but it offers very little in the way of advancement and that’s something that, for me, gives it an expiration date.

  15. What an interesting post Dar, and what interesting questions you pose. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear how much you enjoy your work in libraries. Libraries have featured in a major and very positive way for me throughout my life (my mum joined me at 2 years old, as her brother had joined her up aged 3 years old) – a treasure trove to explore; a haven from home when things there were tough; a public service open to all – so dear to my heart.
    As for your questions, well I count myself fortunate to have been able to have a succession of linked but very different careers, each a progression from the first. I read jurisprudence at university and went on to qualify as a solicitor. My first job was specialising in legal aid representation mostly for women experiencing domestic abuse. Next I was Welfare Rights Officer supporting single parents for a year or two. Then back to working as a solicitor, specialising in representing women fleeing abuse and cases involving children. I was able to support several lesbian women through their custody cases at a time when lesbians were routinely disbarred from getting custody.
    That job led to running a publicly-funded local service providing social work representation for children going through care and adoption processes, which I did for about 10 years, until the service was ‘reorganised’ (for which read ‘ripped apart’) by central government to make it into a national service, and I moved on to the final part of my (paid) career, which was working for a local authority working with all the local schools on their child protection work.
    I am privileged to always have been able to do work which I loved and truly believed in. Though paid far less than I would have been if I’d gone into commercial law, I earned enough to live reasonably comfortably and have had he satisfaction of feeling that some people’s lives are at least a bit better than they might have been otherwise. And each thing has led to another rather different thing that was only possible because of the earlier things. No pre-planning would have produced this result!
    The really, truly sad thing is that each of the things I’ve worked at have been pretty much destroyed by government cuts of one kind or another over the past 7 years. Especially legal aid, which barely exists for those women I worked with way back then. So, many of the same battles will have to be re-fought.
    Sorry Dar, this has turned out to be a major trip down memory lane!

    • Hi Deborah, I loved hearing about the kinds of work you did. Such high value. I am so sad that the budgets have been gutted for good work. I hear a lot about libraries with limited hours, run on a shoestring, and I feel bad about that too, especially because it disproportionately affects the poorest. More and more, it is a home away from home for people who just need space and an organized environment (with no pressure to buy anything).

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