For our recent episode on quitting jobs, The Cut on Tuesdays talked to renowned therapist Esther Perel about her new podcast, How’s Work? We got to use only a little bit of our conversation on the show, so we wanted to share some more of what she had to say. Below, the author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs describes how she got interested in her new subject. —Molly Fischer
Why did you decide you wanted to make a show about work?
I’ve always said it is the quality of our relationships that determines the quality of our lives. And I have primarily emphasized home as the basis for the statement. But in fact, this is equally true: that the quality of your relationships will determine the quality of your work, your sense of purpose, how much and how well you will actually achieve things at work. And because, more than ever, no amount of money or purpose or even free food is going to compensate for a poisonous relationship in the workplace. And everybody knows that.
I just thought, This is the next context. Home and work have become the two places where people have gone with all the needs that used to belong to community and religion. So they need to be explored in parallel — they are undergoing parallel revolution. So it just made perfect sense that if I’ve done a series for anyone who’s ever loved, I’ll do a series for anyone who’s ever had a job.
The idea is this: Your relationship résumé, your history — your diary, if you want — doesn’t stay at the door when you come to work. It’s true that people bring their whole self to work, but it has a different meaning than the way we typically hear the sentence. It means that people bring with them a history that will influence how they connect, communicate, engage in conflict, deal with trust and betrayal, and deal with ruptures and repair. It’s those underlying invisible dynamics that influence relationships in the workplace that really become quite riveting. And the kinds of situations that we have explored — I mean, we have dealt with so many people who are in completely different work realities.
What are some recurrent problems you’ve noticed across all those settings?
The key issues often have to do with boundaries. Who is in, and who is out? Who are the new people who can join, who are the people who are leaving, and how does that affect a relationship? How’s Work?, the podcast, is less about the workplace and more about the people who work in that place. Are you more erring on the side of self-reliant or more on the side of interdependence? Do you find it easy to ask for help and receive feedback, or do you find yourself more on the defensive, experiencing feedback as hovering on criticism, and you want to make sure you’re not being seen in a negative light? Do you take initiative, or do you wait to be told what to do? What’s your relationship to authority? Who can go to work and not question their relationship to authority?
Your kids are in their 20s — what kind of advice do you give them about work?
I think the first job is the one where you’re going to learn to work. You’re going to learn the ethos of working and showing up. And it’s not if you’re in the mood and some days are boring. It’s hard work, and people have expectations from you and they’re not your parents, and they’re going to have very different rules about all of that. And it’s a big infrastructure, and it doesn’t make exceptions for you.
In another situation, I may say — I mean, I talk to their friends, too; I’m being more hypothetical here — you know, you need to be in a place where you actually care about the thing you talk about every day. Some people, that doesn’t matter; for you, it makes a big difference.
I have a 23- and a 26-year-old, so I’m watching this thing very closely: those who have found a trick, those who are underemployed, those who are keeping busy to pay the rent, those who are on a track but it’s not exactly where they really want to be. It’s very rich, actually, this period that we don’t talk about as much — the post-training time. I think we are in a period where work is so much a part of our identity (it’s not just what you do but who you are) that we often spend a lot of time trying to think, Who am I and what do I want to do and where do I want to express this and where can I bring my talents in all of that?
This is a new definition of work. It’s very different than work as production — I need to pay the bills, I need to go to the factory, and I’m going to just make sure I get the job done. This is not a job that is meant to reflect my true self and all of that. At the same time, I think choices are dynamic. Half of the time or some of the time, a part of it is what you choose, and a part of it is what is chosen for you, or the circumstances of your life, or the place where you found yourself and there was somebody who just took an interest in you. And no, you could have done ten other things. But this is kind of where you landed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.