Work To Live or Live To Work?

That is the question.

Gabrielle Ulubay
5 min readAug 25, 2021


“A Painter at Work,” Paul Cezanne, 1875

In the beginning, I told myself I’d do all sorts of things. I’d overachieve on my goals at work each day and devote my evenings to writing. For every five calls I made, I’d do fifteen squats or thirty sit-ups. I’d wake up at 6 AM each morning for a run, and I’d finally read The Artist’s Way and, spurred on by its central tenets, I’d write five full pages of genius before I signed into Slack at 9. I’d watch all the movies on my watchlist, including the silent ones, and planned to have read every book on my shelf by the end of quarantine — back when the end of COVID seemed like an event rather than a zig-zagging journey.

Not a single day of quarantine has looked like that. Almost two years into working from home, and I’m exhausted just imagining accomplishing any of the above.

But back then, it was important for me to think that I could do all of these things. And it’s important to me even now to believe, on some level, that I might still be able to start such a routine tomorrow, Friday, or next Monday. I need to believe that I am a superhuman — capable, somehow, of emerging from this pandemic-induced cage more fantastic than I was before. Galileo and Shakespeare each achieved professional marvels while quarantining during bouts of plague, so why can’t I?

When I was getting my master’s, I was enrolled full-time in classes and kept up a stream of film reviews while editing a blog that I founded for my students, whose class I taught weekly. I went to the gym every day, worked on three separate films, audited two optional courses, and entered several writing contests, two of which I won.

“Do you ever sleep?” the head of my department asked, and I laughed.

Now, the effort of responding to an email makes me want to collapse. I get out of bed at 8:50 each morning and haven’t exercised in months. I hit my goals at work through sheer force, and write in short, intense bursts of inspiration that often descend on me between 1 and 3 AM, setting me up for another day of miserable lethargy. When I’m hard on myself, my mother reminds me that I’m not a machine, but I can’t help but wonder what happened to the work ethic that so many former professors and employers once praised me for.

Once, I asked a man I almost dated about what he wanted out of life. He said that he wanted a job he was content with and that “makes good money.”

“What are your dreams though?” I pressed. “Your ambitions?”

He held me a little closer, and I thought he was going to reveal some lofty, unexpected aspiration. Maybe he was secretly a classically trained pianist (like one of my exes), or maybe he wanted to start his own business (like another ex). I’d just assumed that everyone had a purpose; something beyond clocking into their 9 to 5 jobs.

But, to my shock, this man said, “I just want to make enough money to support my future wife and children.”

I thought he was joking, and he was probably a little offended when I laughed. I thought his response was uninspired; pre-rehearsed. Like something his grandparents or his priest told him to say. But when I told one of my friends about the conversation, citing it as evidence that this man wasn’t right for me, she asked, “Well, what did you expect him to say?”

“Something more interesting, I guess. Something he’s passionate about.”

“Some people don’t have passions, Gab,” she explained, a little impatiently. “Some people just know that, in life, their fulfillment is going to come from their relationships instead of their jobs.”

I’ve never viewed relationships as my sole path to happiness. Too many friendships and partnerships are ephemeral, skin-deep, or even volatile. I’ve long concluded that my path to fulfillment lies primarily in the creative pursuits that I aim to make my full-time job soon.

“That’s not for me,” a college friend told me, when I described my plan to her. “I don’t want to live to work — I want to work to live.”

I found her outlook depressing — that binary, as though living and working were mutually exclusive.

But recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about her comments for an entirely different reason. Some of us have been fortunate enough to keep our jobs, but we’ve all been deprived of our ability to live, haven’t we? All the things I’d use my earnings to save up for — vacations, drinks with friends, concerts — have been halted. Even shopping for clothing has become depressing, because each time I buy something I wonder, morosely, when I’ll finally get the chance to wear it.

All our jobs have been stripped down to their most basic tasks. Denied the ability to chat with our colleagues, take lunch breaks, eat office snacks, or dress up for the day, we’re left to merely go through the motions. In these conditions, it’s easy to feel more like a cyborg than a human.

It’s ironic, really, that when I was finally given the monotonous, hyper-focused conditions that would reduce me to the efficient machine I once strove to be — and that my mother warned me not to be — I sputtered and broke down. It’s also ironic that after all this time I’ve found myself doing precisely what I swore I would never do: Working for no reason other than to pay the bills, performing repetitive tasks alone in a room with little to no inspiration or social stimulation.

Even writing feels close to impossible after I’ve already spent over eight hours sitting in front of a laptop. Without pre-pandemic levels of exposure to the real world, my enthusiasm for everything from my day job to my creative pursuits has dwindled. I’ll find myself wanting to do nothing but read and watch movies — to passively consume rather than to create.

I’ve been trying to find the lesson in all of this, and the obvious one is that, in spite of my best efforts, I’m not a superhuman. The less immediate realization I’ve come to is that the most productive, machine-like times in my life — both the beginning of the pandemic and when I was getting my master’s — have also been the loneliest.

So maybe there’s wisdom in my friends’ and would-be beau’s focus on relationships, just as there is wisdom in my fixation on passion and productivity. I will never be a person who finds meaning solely in being a wife and mother, but I’ll also never again be so focused on the future that I let the present rot.

There must be a compromise between these two extremes, I tell myself. And I add finding that balance to my list of things to accomplish before the end of quarantine — sandwiched right between working out and finally getting around to War and Peace.