Have you ever noticed how when someone tells us how they’ve been really busy with work, we automatically interpret this as being a bad thing? Certainly, no one associates having a lot of work to do with sunshine, love, happiness or any other positive experience.
In many ways, this is a natural product of both our schooling and work experiences, where we’re not guided and supported to use our genius, creativity, and talents in order to do the work we should do. Rather, what is the more common experience is being funnelled through a system that puts us into neat slots like gears in a complex piece of machinery.
When it comes to work, we’ve come to accept the concept of ‘no pain, no gain’ as being the proper route to success and prosperity. That we need to tough it out in the hopes that – someday – we might finally be able to do what we want to do because we’ve ‘paid our dues’.
To make matters worse, even if we are lucky enough to do work we enjoy, that sense of satisfaction tends to be short-lived as we’re rarely given the space to grow and evolve, with the freedom to make mistakes without being blackballed a failure and someone no longer worthy of development or the attention of those in charge.
And so, we inevitably hunker down, hoping that someday our ship will come in as a reward for all the sacrifices we’ve made, and we’ll finally get to live the life we always wanted and do the work that we’ve dreamed about doing all those many years ago.
No doubt this is why so many insurance and retirement planning companies rely on images of retired couples lounging on a boat off some tropical island, or taking up salsa dancing lessons before enjoying a night on the town.
In each instance the message is clear – we can live the life we really want . . . but only after we’ve committed to giving the best part of our lives today to doing work that might not be what we had planned or should be doing.
In this light, it’s not too surprising why we’ve created a negative connotation around the word ‘work’, whether it’s as a verb or a noun.
Of course, there’s a truth that we need to come to terms with if we are to truly succeed and thrive – both professionally and personally – and that is that we’re not making sacrifices. We’re making choices. Bad choices. Safe choices. Choices that those around us tell us are the ‘smart’ ones to make, but are often not the best ones for us to choose.
I know I’ve made a few of those in my past – choices I made to help pay the bills while waiting for that opportunity that I really wanted to show up. And that’s where we fall into the trap, because while we may have accepted these choices as temporary, they soon become the work we do and the life we live because we stop looking for that path that we were meant to take; of reconnecting with the work we were meant to do. We give up on such dreams in favour of pragmatism and familiarity of sticking to what we know instead of what we need.
To be clear, this isn’t about simply ‘doing what we love’. It’s about learning to love what we do because it provides us with a sense of fulfilment. That our work becomes more than simply a means of survival and living, but a way for us to employ our talents, our genius, and our creativity and drive towards something meaningful and purpose-driven.
While the growing levels of anxiety, fear and stress we see in today’s workplaces are partly due to the prevailing uncertainties surrounding the global economy, it is also a manifestation of that disconnect between what we do and why we do it.
And it’s becoming clear as we move further into this century that this approach to our careers and lives is no longer sustainable; that we’ve reached a tipping point where people can no longer be expected to feel happy or fulfilled by working to live. Instead, we need to shift the paradigm to one where people live to work.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the sole reason for our lives is our work; that answering the typical question ‘what do you do for a living’ serves to define the sum total of our existence. Rather, it means that we need to be more mindful in ensuring that the work we do is aligned with our internal compass that guides us to finding our purpose and our ability to contribute meaningfully.
That as much as we’re helping our organization to attain its shared goals, we’re also performing work that helps us to achieve a sense of purpose – that what we contribute matters and is meaningful beyond our sphere of influence.
In the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egyptologists have found carved in the stone blocks the names of some of the work teams that helped to build this monument. The carvings were never meant to be seen by others. Instead, they were made simply to demonstrate the workers sense of accomplishment and purpose that they derived from the simple, but back-breaking work of hauling these large stones into place.
Their example serves as a testimony that we don’t need to ‘have it all’ to feel a sense of fulfilment or achievement. Rather, all that’s required is our willingness to no longer play it safe or waiting until later to commit our creativity, our passions and our dreams to that which not only creates meaning for others, but which also instills a sense of purpose and fulfilment within ourselves.
This piece was originally published on Deb-Mills Scofield’s blog.