"Our jobs are not our lives ... just our current gig.
We do have choices."
-- Joshua Halberstam, author of
Work: Making a Living and Making a Life
It was 1973 and I was almost fifty," Hilary Stewart said. The prolific author, illustrator, and expert on West Coast native culture was telling me why she quit her job as a TV set designer nearly thirty years ago. "I'd walk around the studio with a bulging file under my arm marked IMWAB [I Am Writing a Book]. Whenever I could, I'd head into my office, close the door, and work away on it.
Eventually I had to make a choice, so I saved my money and when I felt ready, I made the leap. It was a bit of a struggle to make ends meet so I cut expenses to the bone, even gathered windfall apples and went without cream in my coffee. But I was determined."
And Hilary Stewart didn't just survive; she thrived! Her work is her joy. It flows through her life as naturally as the tides brushing the beaches of her Quadra Island home. Her resolve to test the Gods of Security and Pension Plans led to a profoundly meaningful life. Ms. Stewart finished that book and several others followed.
Meaningful Work Matters
At its most basic level, work satisfies our economic imperatives and signals our position in society. Through it, we pay the rent, buy groceries, and prepare for the future. But our work can also express who we are and provide reasons for getting on with life. Whether we wait tables at the local diner or manage a Wall Street brokerage house, meaningful work will showcase our special talents and foster deep satisfaction.
But unfulfilling work poisons our zest for living. It pilfers the blessings we deserve and can sour our heart and soul -- and it can smother life with emotional and physical exhaustion. It clutters life with anxiety, boredom, resentments, and low self-esteem that can leave us bitter, wishing we were somewhere else or -- caught in a vicious cycle of envy -- someone else. Like all clutter, unfulfilling work clouds life with undercurrents of chaos that bite the heels of personal power.
Lack of recognition, gossipy workplaces, unhealthy physical environments, jobs without potential, and bosses without compassion all contribute to workplace clutter. And unhappiness at work is pervasive. Only 13 percent of men and 22 percent of women of the 10,000 surveyed for a British study declared that they were completely satisfied with their jobs. Another survey by the online version of Red magazine found that six out of ten women workers wished that they could quit their jobs.
Yet most of them won't. The lure of the next vacation, the annual raise, and the promise of a retirement pension keep many chained to the millstone. So does responsibility to family and insistent creditors. Doing what you really want might work for the folks with a healthy trust account, but what about the nine-to-fiver with real commitments and obligations?
If You Can't Change Your Job, Change Your Outlook
Esperanza, my wonderful no-nonsense hairdresser, says it's all about attitude. Esperanza embodies the Quaker saying "Work is love made visible." The vase of flowers (a weekly gift from her husband) that dominates her studio pales next to her intoxicating zeal for life. Spirited Latin music floats through the air as she clips, curls, and tangos. A salve of genuine caring flows from the tip of her hairdresser's scissors toward the women who come for spiffy new looks. They leave with lighter hearts and heads ringing with Esperanza's kitchen-table wisdom.
"If you want to change jobs but can't, change your outlook," said this vivacious woman whose bosomy embraces could squeeze a yelp from Hulk Hogan. "I'm happy with what I do now, but like most of us, I've had jobs I detested. But hey, honey, we all have to work at something. Sometimes we just have to put on a good face and do our best to make the sun shine -- especially when it's cloudy. And you know what?" she added with a broad, radiant smile. "When we look for the good in things in life, we find them, even in jobs we don't like."
While a positive outlook will bash the heck out of mental clutter, so will a dash of creativity. "For me, teaching subjects I don't like is workplace clutter," said Barbara, a teacher with a passion for history and a dislike for sports. "I adore history but have absolutely no talent when it comes to physical education. Fortunately, I have a colleague who agreed to trade my P.E class for her history class. With one less subject to prepare, we both have more time to do what we're best at. Everyone wins, especially the kids."
A two-hour drive to work cluttered the job for Sue, a Vancouver-based senior account executive. "Driving in this city is horrendous. I'm an animal by the time I reach the office." Fortunately, Sue's company allowed her to work from home two days a week. "It's a good deal for them. I have fewer interruptions here than at the office so I'm actually more productive. And I save all that commuting time."
But what if we despise our work, can't stand the boss, dread Mondays, and die a little each time we punch the clock? If we look, there are often new opportunities within the same field. An operating-room nurse seeking relief from a highly charged atmosphere might retrain as a public health practitioner. A banker frustrated by the inflexibility of a large institution could set up his own financial counseling company. A divorce lawyer wearied of the thrust and parry of the courtroom might use her negotiating and problem-solving skills to teach mediation.
Don't Get Caught in Golden Handcuffs
James, a marketing representative, handled his situation with patience and a plan. "I lived the life of a beer commercial," he said of his job. "I sat in the VIP boxes at the games, skied, golfed, and fished at the best places." By the time gray hairs highlighted the boyish blond curls and his growing family clamored for attention, the company ladder was cleared for his assent. All he had to do was scoot up the rungs. That's when James quit.
"I wanted to see my boys grow up. Although the company never came out and said it, it expected us to live the job," he explained "Sure, [the bosses] said it's important to balance our lives, even offered us courses on how to do it, but all the guys knew that quarterly objectives came first. The money and all that, well, it was nice, but they owned me -- and my time."
James knew his skills had value but said that he "didn't want to take huge risks, so I started keeping an eye out for something related to my industry." He talked with people, asked what was happening in their companies, and watched how they were treated. Then he started dropping comments to likely employers, letting them know that he might be looking around. Within a year, James had another position with a company where people actually take their vacations. "The money's great, I love the challenge -- and I have time with my boys."
I asked James what advice he'll give his sons when they step into the workforce. Will he encourage passion or pension? "I know it sounds clichéd, but I'll tell them to follow their hearts, not to be caught in golden handcuffs or seduced by power, not to let the job control their lives. If they can see that that's all clutter, the rest is easy."
Work-Life Balance is a Priority
Yet even as the balance between work and family tilts dangerously toward work, some companies recognize that a work-life balance is a priority in attracting and keeping staff. And when they do, studies indicate that sick days drop and productivity increases by almost 20 percent.
"I had just left a difficult relationship when I started working here," said Carol, a grocery store cashier. "My boss knew this when he hired me. I was emotionally fragile, but he took me on anyway, helped me through the bad days, and gave me time off when I needed it. Even though I could earn more working elsewhere, I won't leave. The atmosphere is so positive. Working here is my therapy. Everyone smiles."
Donna, a former bank employee, took a huge risk when she left her job (with its enticements of security and benefits) to start a business offering tours of her city's walking trails and outdoor heritage. "Working at the bank suffocated me," she explained. Fully aware of the financial pitfalls of a seasonally based business, Donna did her homework first. She developed a solid business plan with a market survey, cultivated relationships with the tourist board, offered visiting journalists familiarization tours, and set up a strategic promotion program.
When we last spoke, she was madly planning the coming season after a promising first summer. "Sure there were risks and challenges in leaving my job, but life is full of those. I feel so alive now." For this resolute young woman, the decision to do what she loved rather than "go through the motions" defined her approach to life and made her intensely happy. "I believe we have a right to do what we love, but we have to be willing to invest in ourselves, plan carefully, learn what we need to know, focus our goals, and will ourselves to succeed."
Frances Litman, who was also locked into a job that had lost its shine, juggled two jobs before she turned a passion into a paycheck. The former editorial assistant discovered a natural chemistry with the camera after taking a photography course. "I fell in love with the camera. I studied and I practiced. Deep down I knew that photography was my calling, but could I make a living taking pictures? That was the challenge." Ms. Litman talked of beating back niggling thoughts like "working in the creative arts means living poor" and "taking pictures is not a 'real' job." I asked how she had made the switch from a union-protected job to an at-your-own-risk vocation. "It was a calculated risk," she responded thoughtfully. "I developed my photography business while still slugging it out at the newspaper. For three years, I essentially worked two jobs. Then I went for it. Now I can't imagine doing anything else." Like Hilary Stewart, whose books have never been out of print, Frances Litman is at the top of her game, consistently winning international honors and relishing every minute of it.
Finding a Job That Fulfills Deeper Needs
There are numerous examples of others who left unsatisfying work to find jobs that fulfill deeper needs and express personal values. A private detective entered the priesthood, a day-care worker is now a police constable, a former government bureaucrat creates magic as a film producer, and a former truck driver is now a successful sculptor.
"In most cases, those making a change have to confront what is important to them, to assess their values and deal with the ever-present social pressure of equating who we are with what we do," said employment counselor Hannah Green. "People often rate their self-worth according to the work they do."
The late Joseph Campbell, philosopher, mythologist, author, and teacher who popularized the phrase "follow your bliss," said that when we do this, doors we didn't even know existed will open. No doubt there's a good bit of testing along the way, but Campbell emphasized that when potential is fertilized with the power of directed passion, it blossoms to liberate our soul. It's how we create our heaven on earth and release genius.
The gripping melodies of a Mahler symphony, medical breakthroughs that cure polio and smallpox, at-home businesses that improve services for seniors, guided explorations in the countryside, moments captured in Litman photographs, and a page from Hilary Stewart's book all stem from working from the heart. Lust as potent are heavenly handmade blintzes at the tiny shop down the street, crafts that fill neighborhood stores, and volunteers who share their talents. When work is "love made visible," it clobbers boredom, apathy, and ennui -- the clutter of unfulfilling work. When work becomes an expression of our humanness, when it reveals who we are, when it resonates with passion and our deeper self, all things are possible. As the indomitable publisher Katherine Graham said, to love what you do and feel it matters -- could anything be more fun?
* Think of work as a vehicle to express your values and who you are.
* Choose a job that showcases your talents.
* Use your creativity to make your work meaningful and to express your inner needs.
* Keep a positive attitude. Adjust your expectations.
* Doing what you love breeds success and builds confidence.
* Balance life by looking for flexible and creative approaches to work.
* Analyze your employer's philosophy on work-life balance. Consider flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, or part-time work.
* Refuse to take part in office gossip and other negative workplace activities.
* Listen for the call to follow your bliss. It is the source of your genius.
* If you decide to change your job, learn new skills and make contacts in your new field first.
* Consider transforming a hobby into paying work.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Beyond Words Publishing, Inc.
Unclutter Your Life: Transforming Your Physical, Mental, And Emotional Space
by Katherine Gibson.
Are you ready to move into a bright clutter-free future? From noise pollution to financial messes and stressful relationships, clutter affects ALL aspects of our lives--not just our physical spaces. If you¹ve tried feng-shui and other organizing techniques and you still can't find clarity in your life, this down-to-earth guide will show you how to evict the clutter culprits and cultivate peace of mind in your home and soul.
About the Author
Katherine Gibson is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the national board of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. Katherine holds a Master of Education degree and is a recognized educator who offers courses at the University of Victoria. She also provides private coaching to writers. Katherine is a dynamic keynote speaker and seminar leader who will liven up a conference, retreat or special occasion. Katherine is based in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her website at www.katherinegibson.com