A wise old man living in the Himalayas once said there are three types of work. The first is bad, and only has a negative effect on the world and the people. The second is neutral, and does no harm, but has no impact for good either. The third is positive, and is a force for good in the world, helping society or the world in some way.
Ok, it was my friend’s dad, and he said it about two days ago. He does live in the Himalayas though, and is clearly wise. I’m not so sure about old; he can’t be much older than me. Although a wise middle aged man living in the Himalayas doesn’t quite have the same ring about it.
I love this though. I’ve talked much about meaningful work, and finding the red threads in what you do. But this puts another perspective on it.
Let me ask you, which type of work do you do?
Are you in a corporate role, creating consumer goods no one needs? Or worse, things like cigarettes, or maybe unhealthy food that you feel isn’t a good thing. Or in promoting gambling? It’s subjective, of course. For many of these things, we could argue that they aren’t all bad – unhealthy food is good for an infrequent treat. Who doesn’t love cake, or ice cream, or chocolate, now and again? Or a drink? Or a flutter on the Grand National? But then there are those who become addicted, or promote them to children and get them hooked into bad habits. If you are involved in work in a field like this, and you feel it’s intrinsically bad, then yes, you should quit. If you can’t find a purpose in the work that meets your values, then you are selling your soul. Leave as soon as you can.
A neutral job
But my job is to persuade you that your job isn’t that bad, so let’s look at some neutral ones. Even that is subjective. The friend I was talking to – let’s call her Suki – said her job fell into the neutral category, and she wanted something that has a positive effect on the world. Her job though, is in the leisure industry, and she provides a service to young people where they can take part in a fun event with their friends. I’d call that more than neutral. I think that has a positive effect on the world. It’s not doing any harm, and it’s enabling people to enjoy themselves. Yes, it’s a business making a profit, but it’s not ripping people off or conning them out of money, it’s providing a service for a fee. Suki wants more and wants to work somewhere that is helping people more directly than just having fun, and that’s fine. But she shouldn’t downplay the role she has now.
It’s easier to see the value in charitable work, in education, health or social care, in teaching. But just because you’re in a business that makes a profit, that doesn’t mean it has no social or environmental impact on the world. I don’t want to get into the whole capitalism argument, and there is much going on currently that I personally abhor. But the profit motive doesn’t automatically mean something is negative.
So should you quit?
So I’ll ask again, what type of work do you do, and should you quit your job?
If you have job with a positive effect on the world, I’d say don’t quit. You might want to quit if the work culture is rubbish or you don’t have a good manager. They say people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. But before you do, there are things you can try to learn to fall back in love with work. Try these seven things you can do to feel happier. You might also want to quit if you’re bored. But if that’s the only problem try this red threads exercise to discover what you love.
If you’re in a neutral job, that might be enough for you. We all have different wants and needs from our work. Advice is the same as above. With the added suggestion that you think differently about the purpose of your work. If, like Suki, you work somewhere you consider neutral, consider whether you bring joy and happiness, or even something that makes life easier in some way for someone, maybe it’s not so neutral after all. Focus on that.
If you’re in job that you consider has a negative effect on the world, then yes, I’d be looking for something with more purpose. Obviously just quitting isn’t a sensible option for most people most of the time. I can’t tell you what to do of course, and we all have different things to consider. If you have personal circumstances that mean you can’t, if your purpose is to provide for your family, then focus on that. It’s an important purpose. But maybe think about what you can change in the future, and start planning for more meaningful work as your next step. What would be a positive work situation for you, and can you work towards that?
I kinda wanted to do a flow chart thingy, but it’s beyond my technological skills Feel free to let me know what you think of this concept, and how it plays out for you, in the comments below.
I was described as a 40 something the other day. I’ll take that, thanks . If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know I left my 40s behind a good while ago.
We were talking about work, and it got me thinking about where I was working in my 40s. It wasn’t a bad job – there were plenty of interesting things to do, I got on well with the boss, and there were only the two of us for most of the time. But there were no prospects, and to be honest I wasn’t using my best skills all that much. The wider organisation – head office, the charity’s trustees – didn’t really know me or my best skills and had no interest in helping me use them or develop and grow. So I got bored. I needed more.
They say 40 is the new 30
50 is the new 40, 60 is… well, you get the idea. And while it’s fun to bask in the glow of being taken for younger than you are, the reality is that we are living longer, are fitter, healthier, have more energy than our grandparents did. We have active brains and expect more from life.
If you’re a 40 or 50 something – you have at least 10 years of your working life in front of you. With pensions the way they are in the UK, it’s probably going to be longer than that.
How does that make you feel? If you’re living your life just counting the clock down until you can retire, you’re doing it wrong. If the thought of another 10, 20 or hell, even more years of turning up for this job fills you with horror, ask yourself, why are you choosing to live like this?
You might be taking issue with me now.
‘I’m not choosing to live this way! I have no choice! I have bills, commitments, family to support!’
There’s always a choice
You might feel trapped in you job. You need the pay, you don’t have the skills, or the confidence to look for something else. You’ve looked, without success. Work sucks anyway, a new job will likely turn out just as bad as this one. Or even worse, and then what?
We may be stuck in a given situation for a time, but we can always choose our response to what happens, how we deal with it.
Even if you haven’t read his account, you’ve probably heard of Viktor Frankl, who wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz, and how those who gave up on life were the first to die. He says
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Man's Search for Meaning
Are you just waiting to be happy?
Your job may be bad, but I’m pretty sure it’s not as bad as Auschwitz. This is such an uplifting read, despite its subject, it gives a great perspective on the resilience of people. (I made a video with my thoughts on the account, you can watch it here.)
Do you want to be one of those people who waits to be happy, waits till a retirement that you might not be able to take, or won’t be able to enjoy because you have no disposable income? Is that what it would take for you to be happy – an absence of work? We hear so much these days about the importance of purpose and meaning in our lives, But Frankl was saying it after the war, after a harrowing experience, and how much it helped those who survived.
Are you asking yourself if there’s more to life than this?
There is. If you want to make a start now and feel happier at work today, I have put together my best tips for making a change. It’s free to download. If you want to find out seven things you can do today to feel happier at work, get it here.
Work life balance – does it matter?
Work – work is hard, it’s no fun, a necessary evil. To be happy, you need balance, your life has to be better, so it evens out the hardship you must endure every day at work.
Really? Is that the work-life balance you want?
I’ve been saying for a long time that work should be fun, motivating, rewarding, meaningful. Fulfilling, purposeful, challenging. Yes, there will be times when the going gets tough, but if you love the purpose of your work, then you can deal with the hard times. But that’s a bit different to believing that work is hard, something you must endure to earn a living.
So is a good work-life balance the answer?
I’ve just finished reading Nine Lies about Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Lie #8 – work life balance matters most. I’m blown away by this. You might think they’re off their trolley saying this is a lie, of course work life balance matters. But what they say is that it’s more important to be in love with your work.
One of the most moving things I’ve ever read in a business or personal development book is the story they tell of Sergei Polunin. He was a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet who quit at the height of his fame because he was unhappy in his work. I found it particularly tragic that a dancer, surely an artistic form that you can only do if you love your art, had to quit because he was unhappy in his work.
You might know this story, it was big news when it happened in 2012. (I didn’t, I don’t follow ballet.) Buckingham and Goodall then tell us how he fell back in love with his art, which was also big news, there’s been a documentary. It started with a performance on You Tube, and you can see this here. It’s worth watching, even if you’re not a ballet fan. Buckingham and Goodall say...
‘…you’ll recognise it not only as the work of a man at the end of his tether, but also as a pure expression of technical craft and unabashed joy. You see here a man who is taking his loves seriously, interlacing them with craft and discipline, and contributing to us something passionate, rare and pure.’
They talk about red threads, what are the threads in your work that you love? Identify them, and then weave more of them into your work. Fall in love with what you do, and spend more time doing those things at work.
If you’re in full time work, then that’s 35, 40 hours a week – more, if you’re in a stressful job where you’re being taken advantage of - you’re devoting to your employer. Do you want to spend that time resenting what you’re being asked to do? Or do you want to bring your best self, do what you love, bring your contribution to the world? If you’re in a difficult situation, then I get that it’s not a simple fix. A difficult boss or colleagues can be challenging. But if you can find joy in what you’re doing, you’ll feel better about the worst parts of the deal. You'll also be stronger and more able to deal with them.
If you want to know where to start, I’m going to take a leaf out of the book again. Buckingham and Goodall suggest keeping a note for a week of what tasks you love, and what tasks you loathe, as you do them over the course of the week. No need to worry where there's no strong feelings, just the extremes. At the end of a work week, you will have a list of your red threads. There’s no need for all of your threads at work to be red; research found that if they make up 20% or more of what you do, then you are in love with your work. I'm surprised it's such a small proportion, but that gives hope. If you have other issues, such as difficult working relationships, then at least you know you have a solid foundation on which to build.
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate of starting small with making a change. Does this activity sound like something you could do? If it does, I’ve made it a little easier by preparing a simple checklist you can download and use for the process.
You can also see my review of Nine Lies about Work here. I’d love to know what you think of it.
Get your checklist now and find your red threads
Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 Nine Lies about Work, Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts