Relationship With Self Creates Relationship With Work | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Relationship With Self Creates Relationship With Work

My focus used to be on helping people find fulfilling careers.  Like many of us, I assumed that, as soon as we find the “right” career — something we’re passionate about, that pays the bills, that gives us a flexible schedule, or has whatever else we’re looking for in a “dream job” — we’ll get the joy we want out of our work.

After spending more time talking and working with people, I noticed something that changed my mind.  What I saw was that, after they changed careers, people tended to gripe about their new jobs or businesses in exactly the same ways they once complained about their old ones.

Back when a friend of mine was working a 9-to-5 job, he used to say, when asked about his work, that he “didn’t want to talk about it.”  Eventually, he started his own business, hoping to “do something that didn’t feel like a job.”  Unfortunately, a few months into his entrepreneurial stint, he began noticing himself telling people he “didn’t want to talk about” how his business was doing.

Wherever You Work, There You Are

Examples like this taught me that, while we usually think we dislike our work because we have a bad job, often the problem has more to do with our relationship with ourselves.  My sense with the friend I mentioned, for instance, is that, on some level, he simply doesn’t see himself and what he does as worth talking about.  It’s no wonder, then, that he keeps “not wanting to talk about” everything he takes part in.

Perhaps you’ve heard this kind of talk before — “wherever you go, there you are,” and all that.  What we don’t usually hear, however, are suggestions for how to become aware of, and transform, these habits of thinking and feeling.  I’ll talk about an approach I’ve found useful.

An Awareness-Building Exercise

Believe it or not, in the productivity workshop I lead with a yoga teacher, one of the exercises involves sitting in front of a wall, and staring at a piece of tape for half an hour.  The only thing the participants have to do is, whenever their minds wander away, simply bring their attention back to the tape.

After the exercise, we ask people what they experienced as they did it.  We usually find that they had a wide range of thoughts and sensations — some felt antsy, some got sleepy, some were annoyed at me for “making them” go through this process, and so on.

But we almost always learn that, no matter what a person feels while staring at the wall, it’ll be a feeling they’ve had before.  For example, if they notice themselves internally griping “there’s no point in doing this” during the exercise, that’s probably something they often think while they’re doing a project at work.

In other words, what this exercise teaches people is that they – not their jobs, their bosses, the office furniture or anything else — are the ones creating the suffering they’re going through in their work.

Just getting conscious of this, I’ve found, can create a big shift in perspective.  In my experience, when we become aware of how much power we have over the way we experience the world, we often find ourselves spontaneously using that power to let go of ways of thinking that have troubled us in the past.

16 thoughts on
Relationship With Self Creates Relationship With Work

  1. Lance

    I *love* your yoga example! And especially because I’m currently taking a yoga class – and just find such deep meaning from it. At the end of each yoga session, we do savasana – which feels almost like a meditation. While it’s not a half hour long, it is still something that is so, so good for me. And it is because of the awareness I find in being fully in that moment.

    Anyway, great piece here today!! And especially as a reminder of how we can see that if we have some “issue”, perhaps there’s more to it than just what we think the “issue” is…

  2. Stacey Shipman

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m actually working on a blog post called “Is workplace stress really about the work?” Based a lot on what you talk about here and my own experience. I hated my corporate jobs, but then when I quit I also disliked self-employment! I thought I was broken. Realized I needed to deal with my “stuff”. It’s why I also don’t believe there is much difference between your personal and professional life. You are always the common denominator. If you don’t “feel good” about yourself, you won’t feel good about anything.

  3. Charlotte Rains Dixon

    I’ll never forget the moment, several years ago, when the meaning of “wherever you go, there you are” hit me full force. Oh, wow. And that was when I realized since I was stuck myself, I better learn to quit my bitching and go for it. Made a big difference in my life.

  4. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. it is mind over matter isn’t it! I’d go nuts looking at tape on a wall .. but now-a-days I realise the reason why. If we take pride in our work, our life, our daily tasks .. life will be happier, easier and generally more pleasant … and we’ll probably achieve more – motivated to get on with things.

    So please hang the tape there .. and your post title is so right .. cheers Hilary

  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Lance — I definitely get that you’re receiving a lot from doing yoga, and it sounds like it has a lot to do with getting a chance to just be there, without trying to do anything or needing anything to happen. I think getting moments like that can be really nourishing.

  6. Chris - Post author

    Hi Stacey — it sounds like changing careers ended up being a valuable “wake up call” for you because it showed you that what you felt about your work just had a lot to do with how you related to yourself. I had an experience like that when I made my transition — for me it was noticing that I could be an even more demanding “boss” than senior people I worked for used to be.

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Charlotte — good to meet you. Yes, we are stuck with ourselves, aren’t we — I get the sense that spiritual practice is about recognizing that we’re always going to have a personality, foibles, neuroses, and so on, and accepting that for what it is.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — yes, I think a lot of people would agree with you when it comes to going nuts looking at tape on a wall — and the question I get curious about is why. We all have our own answers — for some people it’s because they think they “should be doing more,” for others it’s a weird anxiety that comes up, and so on. But whatever we come up with in doing that exercise, it’s going to teach us a lot about ourselves.

  9. Sara


    WOW…this post is so TRUE:~) When I left work and semi-retired, I thought I would feel so great and I did for awhile, but then the same old doubts and habits emerged, even though I had no one or no job that brought them on. I couldn’t blame my dissatisfaction on anything, but myself.

    It required that I do a lot of self searching to find the sources of my dissatisfaction, which has helped to grow quite a bit. I agree with you and this post. It comes back to the messages in my head. I’m getting better at relaxing and going with the flow, but it means I have many conversations with that part of me that says, “You must be productive.”

    So, those of you out there that think if only you could retire and not have to work…guess what…your gremlins/ego needs will retire with you. What Chris is saying is absolutely right:~)

    Thank you, Chris!

  10. Jannie Funster

    I’m annoyed at you for even making me THINK about staring at a piece of tape on the wall for 30 minutes! :)

    Humor aside, or maybe it is humor we need for our job passions, for if work’s not fun, or at least the core aspect of it fun, why even do it, when there are many other paths to job happiness?

    Now, on one hand, maybe a songwriting type like you or I could make up a song to the piece of tape and sing it over and over while staring at it — still managing to stay focussed on it.

    It’s really all in the moment, eh?

    Let’s find inner productivity! Hey, someone should write a whole book on that, I bet it would be a hit! :)


  11. Robin Easton

    Dear Chris!!

    This made me think of a time of my life that I was working construction. At first I thought it was awful and why was I doing it, and I was the only girl on the crew, and it was boring, and, and….

    Then one day as I was laying out some form work and lugging 6′ X 5′ X 3/4″ sheets of plywood, and hefting 15′ x 6″ x 6″ wooden beams that I was as strong as all the men on the crew. I could walk up a ladder (hands free) with a huge concrete block in each hand and not bat an eyelash.

    Then one day I realized how fit I was. I started to note how much respect all the guys had for me. I was often in charge of the crews. And when they saw me working harder than they were, they started to really haul ass, and an incredible bond formed between us. Some of them even told me that they started to change their view of women or of their wives (treated them with more respect and took time to get to better know them).

    I never forgot those days, because it taught me that even a supposedly “menial” job was what I made it. I also learned the clean honest feeling of physical labor. It is a meditation in itself, which I’ve grown to dearly love.

    I am not saying that there aren’t times that we really do need to take risks and change jobs so that we can continue to grow, or do things which instill more life or creativity. However, I have learned that, as you say, it is inside myself that I find contentment. There is great power in knowing this.

    Historically there have been people in the hardest and most degrading situations who have brought dignity, joy, creativity into those situations, not only for themselves, but for those around them.

    I also laughed over your TAPE on the wall exercise. :) It made me think of my Chi Lel practice that I do each day, which is much slower than say yoga, or other forms of Chi Qong. It requires a constant letting go, being totally present in the moment, focused, until I feel the Chi, or life force, and am in communion with it. All else must be let go.

    I so enjoyed my time here today with you. I always do. You are a joyous burst of peace, inspiration, warm humor, and creativity.

    Hugs to you dear Chris,
    Rob ;)

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — It sounds like your semi-retirement and the way you experienced it taught you a lot about your relationship with yourself. I think that, in a sense, is a wonderful thing about career changes — they help to show us the fact that our careers really have very little to do with how we relate to ourselves — in the same way that getting into a new intimate relationship, and seeing that we have the same frustrations with our partner as we did last time, can give us that kind of awareness.

  13. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — just imagine how annoying the actual exercise is! I like what you’re saying about bringing a sense of humor and playfulness to whatever it is you’re doing — and that’s an attitude, in my experience, that we can bring even to “mundane” things like folding our socks. Now I want you to take my workshop so you can gift us with a tape song!

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Rob — wow, I think that’s a massive, 15′ x 82″ x 19″ testament to the fact that we can enjoy basically anything we do if we have the right relationship to ourselves and to the world. I definitely get how contemplative “menial labor” can be — I know I’ve really enjoyed the chances I’ve had to pull weeds and do other gardening stuff, for instance. It dawned on me as I read what you wrote that maybe one of the reasons it’s important to keep taking risks in our lives is that it helps us learn to accept ourselves in a broader and broader range of situations. When I started doing public speaking, I remember it really became an inquiry into “can I speak to audiences and still be caring toward myself?”

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