The Ideal Worker: How to Get Beyond Fake Stories

Updated: Jun 13



What stories do we tell ourselves? And do they help or hurt us, our colleagues, and our organizations?


The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote work are calling into question powerful, enduring stories—long cherished, especially by executives and managers of a certain generation—about the "ideal worker" whose job is their life, as demonstrated by putting in long hours at the office.


But, as Brigid Schulte told the New York Times last week, recent events have shown that this is "a totally fake story we’ve been telling ourselves." The ideal worker of today is not the ideal worker of yesterday (and perhaps never was).


How do we recognize false or unhelpful stories like this and start telling ourselves a different story?


Try applied history.


Applied history is about storytelling, yes. But above all it aims to transcend, rather than reinforce, certain stories embedded in our culture, like the one about the ideal worker.


By showing how stories like this emerged in the first place—and how they're tied up with technological innovation, the emergence of new economic actors, and ideas about gender and family structure—applied history helps us see the larger story behind the story.


In doing so, applied history reveals different voices and experiences that can illuminate how certain culturally-embedded stories have affected people, and sometimes still do. Ultimately, it can help us challenge stories like the one about the ideal worker, and discard what no longer fits our present-day needs or values.


The result? Rather than uncritically accepting those stories, we're able to understand their origins, how they've changed over time, how they've affected people over time, how they may no longer serve us today—and when it's time for a different story.


Arielle Gorin is a Saybrook Senior Consultant. She is currently at work on a multigenerational family history and a research study for a leading tech firm. This post originally appeared on Saybrook's LinkedIn page.