Work should lift us up not crush us

“If you don’t work on yourself, then much of your politics is merely projections. We have to walk our talk and do the inner work that allows the outer work to be authentic and also effective.”
― Matthew Fox, Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation

Work is a dirty word. Ordinarily, it’s not something that ‘normal’ people want to talk about save to bemoan their wearisome situation.

I don’t disagree: I used to think work was something worth talking about — as a way to connect us with a higher purpose — but then I realised not everyone saw things that way; it was as an economic outturn and nothing more.

What’s your earliest memory of work? When one of your parents used it to explain the absence or mood of the other? If not this paradigm, I can guarantee it revolved around money (see the work of Peter Koenig). In other words, the sort of work your parents did (or didn’t do) was the product of your (economic) circumstances.

Even if this isn’t your experience, at some stage in your life someone told you that you needed money to live, and that meant getting a job. Accordingly, you were told you had to study hard, pass a bushel of often meaningless exams and keep your nose clean. In essence, you needed to conform, if you wanted to stand any chance of being successful…in your work and at work.

I accept there are exceptions both in my hackneyed narrative and the education system, but they normally get labelled ‘alternative’. I can say this with some force because I live in a part of the world where places like Totnes, Dartington and the local Rudolph Steiner school usually attract this sort of labelling. In my experience, there’s nothing ‘alternative’ about a society or education system that enables children to stand on their own two feet and teach them a bushel of ‘real life’ skills, e.g. how to use a hammer and chisel, to cook, tend a garden or mend things. I know some mainstream schools offer these but, by and large, they’re only deemed good enough to be offered as extracurricular activities.

So, you go to school, work hard, pass a few exams and then, after a few years, when you think you know who you are, you launch yourself on the jobs market. Normally, you’ve no plan, even if you’ve chosen one occupation or craft over another, save ‘earning’ and having ‘prospects’ (whatever they are these days…). But work, such that it is, quickly becomes secondary to everything else: money, material things and having a good time at weekends.

But, hey, what else is there? After, all who wants to be a starving artist? Are you joking? I’ve got a job; I’m made.

Looking back, do you remember someone mentioning to you that the best jobs were where you were able to match your passion with the day to day minutia of work? You did try for a while to do something close to that but it didn’t last. The money was poor. The work was dull. And frankly, the passion thing wasn’t that great. (Trust me, there’s a huge difference between being good at something and following your calling.)

And so, in the end, you gave up on the passion thing, and decided to suck it up and accept that work is just work: you get up feeling mostly exhausted from the day before, dress, look at your long face in the mirror, have breakfast and fall into another day of dullness. Oh sure, that’s not everyone’s daily flavour but even those who’ve only been at the coalface for a few years soon lose their work mojo, and realise that the work, no matter how you dress it up with another flouncy, faux title, is just work.

The thing is despite all the ‘new’ things that get championed like employee engagement, flexible working and Brand You, you’re still expected to play by the rules. And they’re very exact. Step out of line and your card is marked. It’s no wonder you play games. And, as sad as it sounds, it’s often the people who play the best game, not do the best work, who get on.

(You just want an easy life.)

The other thing to bear in mind is that there’s an asymmetry between the top jobs and all the rest. You might think that working your proverbial off will get you the top spot but it’s not that linear. In case you hadn’t noticed, those that produce the best work rarely accelerate the fastest. In fact, if they’re any good most employers would rather they weren’t promoted because they’re too difficult to replace.

For a lot of people, particularly now, they’re incredibly impatient. Too much dullness and they’re off. It’s not surprising to see people who’ve had a dozen or so jobs before they get to 40. And even the professions aren’t immune. I’m quite sure that working in law was previously regarded as a job for life, and that was mainly because you were made partner as soon as you started. Now? It’s no different to any other sector.

I accept that I’m doing my best to paint the worst possible picture but it’s the truth. Not just my truth but what I’ve witnessed and heard from others over the last 35 years.

Perhaps work isn’t your thing. You’ve got bigger fish to fry or you’ve got a grand plan to escape the rat race at 35, but for the vast majority of people now and in the future, work will be how they make a living and spend most of their time — remember we’re an ‘always on’ society. But there has to come a time, not always at a time of crises, where you reflect on the true meaning of work. You know it’s the sort of question that usually starts with those few words: “If money was no object what would I do with my life?”

If I look back on my own experience of work, my only regret is that I didn’t discover the power of deep work — see the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport — before I jumped ship for the nth time.

Nowadays, particularly in our over-indulged and excess culture, no one really knows what they like sufficient to invest their life to be the best version possible of who they are within their chosen field. There’s are exceptions but, for the average worker, their measure of success is correlated against earnings, status, a job title and how quickly they can escape the rat race. Not to grow into true self by virtue of doing meaningful work.

What a waste.

Do I have any advice?

Yes. Read this post, “How to do what you love and make good money” by Derek Sivers. And then ask yourself, is your paid work ever likely to ignite your soul? No. Then what would you do or like to do outside work that might do so?

If you don’t buy this twin track approach, then perhaps now is the time to take stock of your life, and invite a few questions into your heart?

1. Who am I?
2. Why am I here?
3. What’s my purpose?
4. When do I feel most alive?
5. If I could work on one thing for a year without distraction what would I do?
6. If money was no object, what would I do?
7. Can I reinvent myself without trashing my career capital?

In the end though no amount of reading or exhortation is going to change the way you see work. The truth is you may be perfectly happy with your circumstances, even though you know that the work you’re doing isn’t helping you in the self-development department. That’s fine. No, I mean it. I no more want to cause an unnecessary rift in your life than I do want someone to tell me how rubbish my life is. But all I know from decades holed up in cubicle nation is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You can find meaning in your work. It requires great courage though to (a) ask the obvious but often unexpressed question(s), (b) provide a cogent answer that means you can live with whatever decision you arrive at, and (c) you understand that work is there to support and enhance your gifts, not to crush your soul.

If I had my time again, there’s no way I would have stumbled forward at an alarming rate without ever taking proper time out to understand what was really going on. Also, I’d have read more widely, spoken to a broader range of people and taken to heart the modus operandi of the artisan. I’m not sure things would have been any easier, or I could have said that I was definitely following my passion, but I’m convinced that I wouldn’t have gone from this job to the next only to arrive back at the beginning with the same nagging doubt that something was missing.

One thing’s for sure, if you do work with me or I work for you, I’ll never stop believing in the transformative nature of work. Indeed, on a good day, I think work is positively spiritual.