WAT Presents: The Life I Want
Updated: Jul 28
Social responsibility experts Christine Bader and Eva Dienel's project, The Life I Want addresses how work affects our lives, communities, and mental health. Their project is more timely than ever as they address the BLM movement, unemployment, digitization and globalization, and the work reform necessary to thrive in and out of a pandemic.
The Purpose of the Life I Want
Where should we draw the line between work and life? How can we maximize our work’s positive impact? What is our definition of “work” in the first place?
In a modern context, these questions can be challenging to answer. Digitization and globalization increase each year, changing Work and our interactions with it. Eva Dienel and Christine Bader aspire to make Work accessible, ethical, and “workable” despite the topic’s near-opaque complexity. Hence, they launched The Life I Want.
Bader says, “What we really want to emphasize is that creating the life you want is partly about living a happier life. But that is not the end game.” She believes that fixing Work and attaining happiness takes time, energy, and motivation. Work, she explains, is not merely an individual effort. It impacts and is impacted by, the communities and the world that we live in.
Dienel says, “Work is a huge system that has influence over our lives. So if we make work better, we can make our lives better, we can make the world better.” The Life I Want explores how individual and systemic change, together, can do that. Here, Bader and Dienel speak to what they’ve learned about Work through their project.
Introducing Christine Bader and Eva Dienel
Bader and Dienel have each led long careers based on social responsibility. As they’ve gone through a variety of jobs and positions, they’ve worked to get closer to the balanced lives they want.
Bader’s interest in global responsibility began with City Year, a yearlong service program for young adults. Sponsored by AmeriCorps, it aims to help students in cities. When Bader joined her peers in the program, she says, she saw the connection between corporate work and community for the first time.
She says, “I just wanted to do something that I frankly understood, that had a real impact on people’s lives.”
After earning an MBA at Yale, Bader pursued a diverse career in private sector service. During her time at BP, she worked in various countries to manage the oil company’s social impact. She also worked as Amazon’s Director of Social Responsibility for two years.
Bader has written and spoken on social responsibility throughout her career. The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, released to critical acclaim in 2014, explores the topic in a corporate sphere.
A thread of social service runs through Dienel's work, as well. She has worked with various magazines and publishing houses with a focus on social or environmental good. In her early career, she notes the importance of San Francisco's social justice magazine Mother Jones and environmentally-oriented publishing house Sierra Club Books. Now, she does freelance work for a variety of clients.
Dienel says, "I just decided, as a freelance writer and editor, I would only focus on projects that were near and dear to me and where I felt like I was not only advancing the conversation but doing a little bit of good in the world."
Dienel and Bader agree that they've aimed to create meaningful, sustainable careers that account for their priorities. They've sought to blend work, family, and enriching pursuits. Through this goal, they founded The Life I Want.
Dienel says, "The be-all and end-all of life wasn't to get somewhere academically or professionally. It was to live a really good life".
Photo credit @artisanalphoto
Importance of Work, Pt I: Mental Health
The Life I Want examines work as it relates to many aspects of life. Dienel and Bader treat mental health as a primary concern. Dienel says, "Work is one of the primary things that drive your mental health in good and bad ways."
She explains that work has a daily effect on mental and emotional states. Through her journalistic research into the subject, she sees that work can make huge impacts in a positive or negative direction.
Bader agrees that work and mental health go hand in hand. Though work influences mental health, she adds that it also goes the other way around. She says, "If you're working all the time at the expense of not just your family, but your own health, you actually won't be able to work as well and as effectively."
Importance of Work, Pt II: Community
Work makes a vital impact on each person. For The Life I Want; however, it extends beyond the individual. It affects communities and social structures, and Dienel and Bader believe that work reform should address this connection. They note the spreading, negative aspects of overwork: environmental devastation, familial estrangement, and community dissolution. They identify work’s over-focus on consumption, within a capitalistic framework, as a problem.
Bader expresses that modern social trends lead people to overemphasize work. There is a rise in domestic migration and the decline of religious communities. She notes the “dismantling of the public, government, and social safety net over the past couple decades,” as described in Lauren Sandler’s This Is All I’ve Got. Work, she says, has grown separate from individual emotions and communities- and she wishes it hadn’t.
Dienel says, “Community does a lot of things that we used to look to work to provide. But actually, if we take some of the power away from work, and we give it to Community, what does that look like?” Work, she believes, should function on a scale more meaningful than production and consumption. Society doesn’t acknowledge certain forms of work, including activism and family management, which relate to community health.
Dienel mentions the Black Lives Matter protests. Activists receive no payment for the critical work they’re doing across the U.S. She attributes this to a lack of immediate product output, but she asserts that a “mindset shift” should occur to value community-based work better.
She hopes that workers and work reformers can take inspiration from communities that help the hungry, elderly, or those down on luck. She thinks that progressive ideals should be part of the work process. If this can happen, she says, “then the world opens up when it comes to job opportunities.”
The Life I Want promotes reimagined forms of work that work within communities. As people “fix” work to fit better in their lives, Dienel says, “do what you can to fix work for other people too.”
Photo credit Liam Pickhardt
Reforming Work: Values
In The Life I Want's model, work reform requires an overhead effort. Bader emphasizes corporate responsibility. For her, this involves overturning patriarchal and white supremacist work cultures, building ethical business models from the ground up, and bringing emotion and empathy back into work life.
One of the most significant problems with the ethical business, she says, is how it is received. For too long, she says, "The dominant paradigm has been the tradeoff model." If a business is ethical, the public tends to assume that products or services must take a hit. In essence, the majority of consumers believe that something must be either quality or ethical, not both.
Bader gives the example of sock sales. Based on surveys cited in Bader's first book, studies show that advertising the ethics of a product can deter customers instead of attracting them. If two pairs of identical socks are on sale, buyers will be less likely to purchase the pair labeled "ethically sourced."
However, Dienel and Bader both believe that the paradigm can shift. Dienel sees summer 2020 as a potential site of change. In light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the BLM movement's growth, she says, "I think people are starting to fundamentally question whether they're living their values."
She cites a metaphor from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of bestselling How to be an Antiracist. It deals with rain - namely that one can't recognize a downpour if it's all they've ever known, especially if it's telling them, they're dry. Kendi applied this metaphor to racism, but Dienel believes it relates to capitalism and toxic work cultures. If we're entrenched in them, she says, we struggle to recognize their problems until something requires us to view them differently.
The pandemic has forced many to step out of toxic work's "rain," through unemployment or changing the place and way they work. The BLM protests have brought people out of the rain in the sense that Kendi meant it: further exposing racism on a national scale.
In the end, Dienel and Bader agree, work should be about self and community progress more than product alone. Dienel sums, "The creation that you're doing to put together the work should be as good as the product or service."
Work Reform Now
Work reform relates to mental and environmental health. It involves introspection, community, and a shift in what we define as "work." To dismantle systems that overemphasize product over, Bader and Dienel believe working together is the way.
"It's not a hack that any of us can do individually," Bader says. "It's a much bigger, systemic problem."
The pandemic has brought changes to work, and Dienel believes people can shape them long-term into more equitable work models. She says, "It's not that the pandemic has been a great equalizer, as people talked about at the beginning of the pandemic. But, as Christine said, it's a great highlighter." It has exposed many problems with systems of power, work, and social support.
In a time of tumult, she says, "Now is the time to ask for these changes."
Written by contributing writer Olivia Cipperman