Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s brilliant approach to work-life balance

Writer Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, and she worked hard to get there, starting by cleaning houses when she was a child. The experience taught her a lot about putting work in its place, which she wrote about in a recent piece in The New Yorker.

Morrison’s brief essay discusses her father’s way of encouraging her to keep her priorities straight and made sure her supportive home life was the center of her world. It’s a necessary read in our workaholic era in which vacation days are rare and work martyrdom is rife.

You’re either working on your own dream, or someone else’s

Morrison’s essay illustrates how important it is to stay grounded in your self-worth and to remember what you bring to the table when things get tough for you in the working world.

She recalls her experiences cleaning a woman’s house to earn money for herself and her mom as a child in the 1940s.

Morrison enjoyed making money for herself, but more so because of how she could help her parents out: “The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest,” she wrote, also mentioning that the affirming gestures from the grownups seemed to say that she was “adultlike.”

But as she improved, the housework got harder, and even though she wanted to say something to the woman, she was scared of being let go.

Indirectly citing the work martyr concept, Morrison told her dad about the issues she had getting the work done one day when they were in the kitchen.

In a moment of tough love, he said, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

Morrison went on to present what his words meant to her in a numbered list, but the points can also be backed up by research.

Commit to self-improvement

The first message Morrison got from her dad’s words was:  “Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.”

This applies to tackling new skills for personal gain.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of the HBR Single Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, told the Harvard Business Review about identifying the learning style that best suits you in a 2012 article about nailing a new skill.

“Reflect on some of your past learning experiences, and make a list of good ones and another list of bad ones … What did the good, effective experiences have in common? How about the bad ones? Identifying common strands can help you determine the learning environment that works best for you,” she told the publication.

More importantly, external pressure will never push you as much as your own desire for growth and purpose. As musician Pharrell put it in a recent speech, don’t do things for the applause.

Your work is not your entire identity

The second message Morrison got from her dad’s words was: “You make the job; it doesn’t make you.” The fourth message Morrison got from her dad’s words was: “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”

But these two go hand in hand— you are bigger than your job but as easy as it is to think that your job truly defines you, there’s a whole lot more to you than what goes on from 9 to 5. More importantly, if you want to get succeed, you have to see your own worth as determined by something other than your performance reviews, your raises, or encouragement from colleagues.

Gallup reported in 2014 found that 55% of Americans said they “get a sense of identity from their job,” compared to 42% who said their work is simply something they do to make money.

But this concept wasn’t new in 2014— the organization added that “these results have been consistent throughout multiple Gallup polls since 1989.”

So no matter how hectic things get for you in the office, stay grounded by thinking about who you are, what you want, and what makes you unique. Jobs come and go, even the great ones, but our spouses, kids, parents, and friends aren’t going to remember us by our excellent meeting memos or slick PowerPoints.

Create a life outside work

The third message Morrison got from her dad’s words was: “Your real life is with us, your family.”

Don’t confuse your day job for your whole life— remember what people who mean a lot to you bring to your experiences outside of work, and try to draw a boundary separating work life from home life as much as possible.

A 2015 international EY survey of people in eight countries found that 33% of respondents reported that managing work and family life got tougher over the previous five years.

Two of the top five reasons were: 49% of participants reporting that “my salary has not increased much, but my expenses have” and 48% of them reporting that “my responsibilities at work have increased.” Other factors were: an increase of things to manage at home, having one or more kids, and clocking in more hours.

Yet, as work demands more of us, we have to find ways to retain our own sanity — not just after work, but during it. Use lunch breaks to connect with colleagues, sure, but also try to touch base with family or friends during that time, in texts or emails. Make future social plans during 15-minute breaks through the day instead of bouncing around social media. Schedule picnics, concerts, and activities that make your time off richer than a few more hours on the couch. The more you have a sense of yourself within your family and community, the less you’ll depend on work to give you everything. That’s clearly advice that has served Morrison — one of the most talented and successful American writers — well.

This article was first published on May 31, 2017.