Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Work – The Original Four Letter Word
I suspect that roughly 10,000 years ago, a very content, happy and confident caveman woke up late one morning after a night of stargazing. He was lying on the dirt floor of his small but rent-controlled grotto when he realized that sleep would be far more comfortable if he had one of those Woolly Mammoth blankets that some of the other cave-people had. He also thought that fire would be an excellent addition to his rock pad before the winter hit.
Fire was new and trendy, and everyone else was installing it. He didn’t want to be the only one without it.
He started to ponder how he could go about getting the blanket and fire. These things didn’t just show up on your doorstep (bear in mind that Amazon was just a river at this time). After some serious contemplation and a few well-placed grunts, it occurred to him that to have these cave essentials, he was going to get up, go outside and WORK for them.
..and there you have it. The concept of work was invented.
I can’t say that this is precisely how it played out, but it’s how it happened in my mind.
The world has come a long way in 10,000 years, but the concept of work hasn’t changed. Sure, we’ve swapped wrestling a T-Rex for WFH Zoom calls, but the essence behind the word has not changed. There are some seriously polarized views on the concept of work. Some are dedicated to hard work while others focus on minimal work, and still, others ask WHY they need to work. These are the fringe people. Most of us who evolved from that caveman (almost 7 billion of us) fall in the middle of seeing work as a necessary evil.
And that is a shame because work has the potential to provide so much to our lives
I was born in the 1960s (the latter part of the decade, so no, I didn’t see Woodstock), and my father was a brilliant engineer. He was born in India, but he moved away to London to pursue higher education and get a well-paying job the moment he was able.
He met my mother, started a family and eventually migrated everyone to Canada. As engineers go, my dad was brilliant. He published papers and made a name for himself, but for him, work was EVERYTHING. For as long as I could remember, he would come home from work and immediately go to his office and start working again. He would hand draw complex engineering diagrams and use his slide rule to make all the appropriate calculations. There was a dinner break where we’d see him, but then it was back into the office till later in the evening when he’d sit for a bit of TV. Then, after the 11oclock news, he was in bed to start the whole cycle over again.
For my dad, like so many males, personal identity was not based on who he was but on what he did. He had a solid work ethic, and succeeding at his job is what granted the identity needed to say that he was a good father, husband and provider. My father was a *company man* and for him, that meant that his hard work provided a steady paycheque, lifetime employment and benefits in the rare event your kids needed dental appliances. Outside of a few weeks per year of a family vacation, the commitment to the job was, for his generation, the proof of being a good parent and a good person.
My dad’s work ethic was probably something that he learned through his father, but it was most certainly something that my dad passed on to me. Technically, that sounds great, but the problem with that is that my father didn’t like his job. He worked with some people he didn’t enjoy and he pushed hard for the respect that he didn’t feel he often received. At the expense of his personal life, his long hours of work were not appropriately compensated, and he didn’t move up in the company as he anticipated. I don’t deny that some of that may have been because of his attitude (stubborn like a caveman), but it spoke to what he was willing to put up with just so that he could continue to work.
So, when it came time for me to leave the world of public school and embark on a path of post-secondary education that would eventually land me the same secure job as my father, I knew I had to choose wisely.
There was no option to take off a year and backpack across Europe or even to ponder what I wanted to do with my life. My dad had instilled a plan into me; School — Job- Die. The plan didn’t have optional add-ons for enjoyment, purpose, contentment or inspiration.
So, just like the caveman who wanted a cozy fur blanket, I followed course. I obtained a couple of degrees and landed myself a nice corporate job. Honestly, it was a sweet gig. A respected company that made a lot of money, a nice cubicle I could call home, a gym and even a subsidized cafeteria. The pay was ok for someone with a new family, but it had a pension, great benefits and I got vacation every year.
From my dad’s perspective, this was great. I was doing exactly what I should be doing, and as a respectful son, that made me content.
..for a while
I’m not sure of the exact day that it hit, or if it was like cooking a frog; a slow boil over time so you don’t notice the discomfort. Still, I began to realize that I was miserable.
I didn’t enjoy the job; I was depressed, unmotivated, emotional and possibly distant as a husband and a father. Yet, weirdly, the idea of changing careers never entered my mind. I was so committed to my job that forsaking it for something that could be less, EVEN if it meant I was happier, was unfathomable.
I kept going, day after day after week after year. Unfortunately, I was not a good employee. I had let myself be so beaten down by a job that didn’t fulfill me that I was full of self-doubt. I began to feel as if I couldn’t do anything. I would arrive at work with the best of intentions, but moments after I sat at my desk, I couldn’t think of anything that I was good at.
My day would revolve around my breaks. First, I would do “stuff” until it was coffee time, where I would enjoy a fresh-baked muffin, then I’d do more stuff till it was lunchtime and a hot entrée in the cafeteria. Then, I’d linger around till mid-afternoon coffee and another snack. At that point, It was too late to start anything new, so I’d coast the afternoon till it was quitting time.
Unlike my father, I avoided the mistake of arriving at home only to do more work. Instead, I focused on my family, but I was exhausted from the stress of continuing with a job where I provided no tangible benefit. I was nothing more than a warm body in a chair. The only thing that was growing was my waist size through the repeated daily trips to the cafeteria.
I was never able to understand what I was doing wrong. I wanted to do good at the job. I wanted to be a great employee that made a real difference to the company, but it never happened. I saw my peers able to do that, so why couldn’t I? Did that mean I was genuinely incompetent.
In hindsight, what I was feeling was probably close to what my dad experienced. If he made it through, I guess I could, or..I guess I SHOULD
Then it happened. On a Thursday in late March, the vibe in the office was different. Panic set in as news travelled through the building of a series of layoffs. Everyone was on edge, as was I. The only difference, I was asked by my manager to go with him upstairs. Honestly, everything after that was a blur and just a formality. I was being TERMINATED.
I wasn’t mad or resentful at my unexpected freedom. I had been doing work that wasn’t what I should be doing. It provided me with no satisfaction or identity, or purpose. I was coming in and taking money from my employer and providing no real value in return. The company had let me go as part of a numbers game, but it forced me to face something that I could not do on my own.
I was raised with a specific set of beliefs on what a job is and what it isn’t, and I was sticking to that old idea. I was too scared to make a change. So I’m delighted my company did it for me.
I spent 15 years in a cubicle farm. For some people, it’s the perfect fit, but it was a very important lesson on what I don’t want to do for work.
It’s no surprise that so many of us are frustrated with our work lives. A Gallup poll done in 2017 showed that 85% of the GLOBAL workforce is NOT engaged at work. (https://news.gallup.com/opinion/chairman/212045/world-broken-workplace.aspx?g_source=position1&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles).
That’s an alarming number. Why do so many of us stay with sub-par jobs?
Since my termination, I know that I have reflected a great deal on the importance of work in my life. In somewhat general terms, we spend 1/3 of our lives between the ages of 25 through 65 doing work. With another 1/3 spent sleeping, you don’t have much opportunity to get enjoyment and satisfaction out of life if it’s missing from your job.
We stick with those unfulfilling jobs because they provide us with the money to hopefully find happiness between eating, showering and watching TV. That’s seldom how it works, however. A small annual raise, an extra few days of vacation and possibly a minor promotion gives us enough justification to hold on just a bit longer to that thankless job. We convince ourselves that it’s getting better, but it’s only become slightly more tolerable.
In his 1974 book, “Working” author Studs Terkel states that “[Work] is about a search…for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor” (Terkel, Studs. (1972) Work — Working People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, The New Press)
While almost 50 years old and a definite possibility that Terkel didn’t foresee a forced migration to the Work From Home concept, his sentiment still holds today. Through Terkel’s interviews of working people and even high-end business executives, you see a common thread that people have a dream for a fulfilling job. Still, the truth is that (as one interviewee stated) “..most people work at jobs that mechanize them and depersonalize them..”
What if we could be fully engaged in our jobs. What would our lives look like if we loved what we did? How would we feel about life and ourselves if the work we did spoke to our true selves?
After a few years of experimentation after my last job, I found my answer to those questions, and it’s pretty inspiring.
When I evaluated what brought me joy, I found that I adored helping others succeed. I seemed to have a natural gift for asking the right questions and making people feel comfortable talking openly. So I pursued some more education and became a certified Personal Coach. It’s a far cry from the Business and IT education I obtained in University and certainly not what my father would think of as a traditional career, but it makes me feel whole.
Here’s the added benefit of working in a field you love; it makes your whole life better. My cubicle job’s depression and low self-confidence have been replaced with a feeling of contentment in life, genuine excitement for what the future may hold and an ever-growing belief in my ability to succeed in whatever I try.
This work revelation took me 54 years to discover, and that’s not abnormal. A 2019 study from the Bureau of Labour Statistics (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf) showed that we will hold 12 different jobs on average between the age of 18 to 52. Although that number probably includes a summer gig working at a Blockbuster, it also shows an innate desire to find a fulfilling job.
I’ve now had a taste of what I don’t want to be doing for work; I’ll never go back to a corporate cubicle farm. I’ve also had a taste of what I need in a rewarding job, and I’m ecstatic that I have reset the bar higher for my work life. I can’t say what I’ll be doing in 5 or 10 years for an income, but knowing that I can make a conscious decision to pick work that speaks to who I am is a beautiful reminder that how you feel about your work is more important than what you do for work.
As far as the caveman at the start of our story, he found that he hated the job after a few dinosaur hunts. It was physical, messy and the mortality rate was abysmal. After some reflection and inner work with his life coach, he started a small boutique art studio doing custom cave drawings. A number of his pieces are still on display today.
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