I tell my students, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” —Toni Morrison

My friend Hannah went back to work after a year of maternity leave. Things had changed, new people had been hired. She felt distressed by the changes, her role not as relevant as a year before. While her husband advised her to enjoy the fact that the pressure and spotlight were no longer on her, she felt sidelined. Her identity felt undermined. “You are not your job,” I reminded her, and the comment seemed to resonate with her. So here’s a little mantra for all of us, running around in the humanitarian fast lane, overwhelmed by meaning well, doing good, soul-searching the world for meaningful work and ultimately unable to keep up and falling apart:

I am not my job

For centuries people have worked to live and not lived to work. Technology promised we would be free of clocking in. True, we can now work 24/7, seven days a week from the comfort of our holidays too, and in service work there is no such a thing as off time. I can hear some people say “service work is not ‘just a job,’ it’s a vocation!” which makes for the perfect excuse to hide behind work any time of day and night and let our organization bully us into absurd requests, as if working yet another weekend really saved the world. D., an emergency manager in her forties, shared her paradoxical experience when she took some time out from work: “On one hand, I feel like I have totally lost my identity without having a ‘real’ job, and more important or oddly, I’ve lost the people who knew me through those jobs. And on the other hand, I’ve gained this incredible, stable, stress-free life, while surrounded by people who absolutely love me for everything but my job. My son and I are spending an inordinate amount of time among family—some weeks we rarely eat a dinner at home because we are at a family member’s house.”

We can’t live as if every day were an emergency. We won’t know until we try it, but at times just spending an inordinate amount of time with those we love, surrounded by what we care about beyond work, may be just what we need.

We may get off this bandwagon, hoping that the next will be better, that Human Resources will treat us fairly, that our boss will be more humane, and the weather not so sticky. Maybe it will. Maybe not.

We always hope.

Maybe instead of hoping we need to appreciate that it’s our choice to buy into the burnout lifestyle or to be free. Choosing life over burnout often is a two-letter word: no. Saying no to overcommitment, hyper busyness, and undignified relationships. What if changing the world started from within? What if “you were not your job?”

- Extract from The Idealist's Survival Kit