career change | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

“Work You Love,” Part II: How Vulnerable Are You Ready To Be?

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After my last post, I thought of a few more things it’s helpful to consider when deciding whether to pursue a career that strongly interests us.  Like I said before, I’m not specifically coming out for or against seeking the work you love — that’s a decision each person must make for themselves based on their own wants and needs.  I’m pointing to questions it’s important to ask when making that choice.

Doing work we’re deeply engaged in usually goes hand in hand with being vulnerable — exposing parts of ourselves it feels risky to share.  If you’re a blogger, I’ll bet you’ve experienced this sense of vulnerability when writing on something you strongly cared about.  “Do I really want people to know I feel this way?” you may have found yourself asking.

Often, revealing these parts of ourselves feels risky because they’ve been criticized or ridiculed before, and they feel fragile.  If you were told “no one thinks you’re funny” when you were little, allowing your sense of humor to emerge in something you’re writing is likely to feel unsafe.  Someone might make a similar comment, and then you’d be forced to relive the pain of that old wound.

The Perks Of Disengaged Work

This points to a reason why many of us are doing jobs that don’t deeply engage us.  In most jobs, we don’t need to bring out tender parts of ourselves to do our tasks.  You don’t usually have to expose your sense of humor, your compassion, or some other vulnerable aspect of yourself to draft a PowerPoint, plug values into a spreadsheet, or review documents.

I know many people who prefer this approach to work.  After all, they risk getting hurt enough in their personal relationships — why bring that vulnerability into what they do for a living?  And it’s okay with them if working feels mechanical, because they find exciting things to do in their off hours.  As the saying goes, they work to live — they don’t live to work.

Can You Separate “Work” From “Life”?

Although it’s easier in some ways to “work to live,” that approach, like anything, has drawbacks.  For some of us, when we don’t bring all of ourselves to our work, we’re nagged by the worry that we aren’t giving our gifts to the world.

To take my earlier example, it’s true that, if you do work that doesn’t require you to express your sense of humor, you don’t take the risk that someone will criticize that part.  But by locking that part away, you also keep people from enjoying it — you deny people a gift.

Also, the idea of “working to live” — disengaging from your work, but showing up fully in other activities — sounds good in theory, but the reality is messier.  You can’t work for 8+ hours a day with a detached, emotionless attitude and expect that not to spill over into other parts of your life.

I know this from experience.  I took pride in the work I did as a lawyer, but I wouldn’t exactly say my most vulnerable parts shone through in it.  I spent my working days in a cool, rational headspace, which was ideal for what I did.  The trouble was, I found myself, out of habit, slipping into this mindset with friends and loved ones — relating to them like they were colleagues or adversaries.

If you do something you really care about, you’ll almost certainly have to let others see parts of you that you normally keep under wraps.  This involves a risk, but also a great reward, because offering all you have to give brings a feeling of aliveness that’s exhilarating.

Why We Don’t Really Want “Work We Love”

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(I’m still tweaking the Work Consciously site a bit, so I thought I’d tide you all over with my latest musing.)

Earlier this month, as you probably heard, only 51% of the Americans surveyed in a Conference Board study reported that they find their jobs interesting — the lowest number in 22 years.  On the surface, this may seem like a problem.  But my sense, from working with clients and just talking to people I know, is that many of us actually don’t want to do profoundly interesting work.  And I think that’s perfectly okay.

Some Like It Smooth

For many people, in my experience, work offers an escape from the emotional messiness of the rest of their lives.  When they’re in the office, they don’t have to handle conflicts with family and loved ones, ponder what they’re really contributing to the world, or do anything else that requires them to feel deeply.  And when they go home, they can leave it all behind them for the evening and relax — because they aren’t very invested in the projects they’re working on, they don’t find themselves obsessing over those projects after hours.

People who find their work really meaningful and interesting, on the other hand, don’t seem to experience working this way.  When we care deeply about what we’re doing, the stakes are higher — our accomplishments are more exciting, but our failures also carry a sharper sting.

Look at artists who are seriously devoted to their craft, for example — they suffer to produce their work in a way that the typical employee does not.  When the painters and sculptors I know tell me about how they experience their work, I can easily see how the term “tortured artist” came to be.

This is one reason why, I think, we’ve seen a lot of recent writing questioning whether the common personal development idea of “finding the work you love” is really all it’s cracked up to be.  (See Lisis B.’s post, for instance.)

If you change careers or start your own business to do something that feels meaningful, you not only set yourself up for financial uncertainty — you also board an emotional rollercoaster that the average 9-to-5 job simply doesn’t entail.  It’s certainly not going to feel like “work you love” all the time — in fact, there will probably be moments when you loathe it more deeply than any “regular job” you’ve ever done.  (I’m speaking from personal experience.)

Some Prefer Extreme Sports

Obviously, pursuing “the work we love” has its drawbacks.  And, like anything else, it has its perks.  For one thing, the emotional rollercoaster we ride when we do work that we care deeply about can be a blessing as well as a curse.

There’s something appealing about having a life full of peaks and valleys, rather than one that’s merely a stroll across flat ground.  I suspect this is why people do “extreme sports” like mountain climbing and skydiving — the fear we feel when we do such things, although it’s unpleasant, has a certain aliveness about it that I think we all crave.

So this is my take on the issue of whether to seek out the “work you love”:  it’s a choice each person needs to make for themselves, with both eyes open.  People who prefer a smoother emotional experience, and are in a job where they feel comfortable, may be better off staying where they are.

But if, like some people, you want a richer emotional life in what you do — bigger ups and downs, and a stronger sense of aliveness — doing something that feels deeply meaningful might be for you.

Seeing Your Way Of Seeing

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A while back, I had a client—I’ll call her Jane—who, like many people I work with, was interested in a career change.  Jane had several great ideas in mind.  Unfortunately, she was also great at coming up with reasons why they wouldn’t work, and when she came to see me she was feeling pretty despondent.

We talked a bit about the possibilities Jane had considered, and why she was convinced none of them would pan out.  She couldn’t be an artist, she said, because she wasn’t talented enough.  She couldn’t be a therapist, because she didn’t want to spend all that time and money getting a degree.  She couldn’t start a new business because the economy is in a downturn.  And so on.

The more we talked, the more I started to wonder:  could anything work out for Jane, or was everything impossible?  And eventually I asked her:  “does anything look possible for you at all?”

Jane thought for a little while.  “No,” she finally said.  Oddly, although she’d just realized how bleak and hopeless the world looked to her, she gave a slight smile.  “Actually, that’s kind of silly.”

What Is A Lens?

In that moment, Jane caught a glimpse of what I call the lens through which she was seeing the world—the set of deep-seated assumptions she was making about her capabilities and the way other people are.  I call it a lens because, just as our glasses or contact lenses are so close to our faces we often forget they’re there, the lens we see the world through has often been around so long that we’ve come to mistake it for reality.

Jane came to me thinking her specific career ideas were unrealistic, but in fact those ideas weren’t the problem.  The problem was that she saw the whole world as a hopeless and inhospitable place.  With this worldview, of course nothing seemed possible to her.

In becoming aware of the lens she was using to see the world, Jane had a reaction I’ve seen in several other people—she started taking it less seriously.  She also realized she might even be resourceful enough to make her career ideas work out, and she’s been pursuing a new direction.

It seems that, just by becoming conscious of the assumptions we’ve been making about life that have limited us, we can start letting go of them and opening ourselves to new possibilities.  Awareness is the first and, I think, the most important step in personal growth.

Locating Your Lens

How do we become aware of the deep-seated ideas about the world that are holding us back?  I’ll share an exercise I use to help people think about this issue.

To do this, take a moment and think about a task you don’t believe you can accomplish.  Maybe, for example, you have a business idea you’d like to pursue but it sounds too tough to pull off, or you’re interested in taking an aerobics class but you don’t think you have the time or energy.

Now, try completing this sentence:  “I can’t do it because the world is ________________.”  Perhaps, for instance, the world is uncaring, stingy, dangerous, stupid, or something else.  Say whatever comes to mind, without censoring or judging what you think of.

Spending a little while playing with this exercise, I’ve found, can help people get in touch with deep-rooted beliefs that influence their decisions and the results they’re getting all over their lives.  When they notice and let go of these beliefs, amazing new possibilities seem to suddenly open up.

Link Love: Evita Ochel runs a beautifully designed series of sites featuring her photography, writing, book reviews, wellness information and more.  I was honored to be interviewed by her recently about my personal journey and future plans.

My Recent Radio Appearance (Audio)

I’ve received some requests for a recording of my recent appearance on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen, and some people had difficulty downloading the recording from the radio station’s site.  So, I’m posting the file here to make sure you get the chance to hear it.

The interview is about bringing mindfulness practice into your work, finding your true calling in your career, my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course, and my upcoming projects.  I hope you enjoy it!

Download the Interview Here (27 mins.; MP3 file; right-click and select “Save As” to download)

My Recent Radio Appearance (Audio)

I’ve received some requests for a recording of my recent appearance on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen, and some people had difficulty downloading the recording from the radio station’s site.  So, I’m posting the file here to make sure you get the chance to hear it.

The interview is about bringing mindfulness practice into your work, finding your true calling in your career, my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course, and my upcoming projects.  I hope you enjoy it!

Download the Interview Here (27 mins.; MP3 file; right-click and select “Save As” to download)

My Recent Radio Appearance (Audio)

I’ve received some requests for a recording of my recent appearance on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen, and some people had difficulty downloading the recording from the radio station’s site.  So, I’m posting the file here to make sure you get the chance to hear it.

The interview is about bringing mindfulness practice into your work, finding your true calling in your career, my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course, and my upcoming projects.  I hope you enjoy it!

Download the Interview Here (27 mins.; MP3 file; right-click and select “Save As” to download)

My Recent Radio Appearance (Audio)

I’ve received some requests for a recording of my recent appearance on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen, and some people had difficulty downloading the recording from the radio station’s site.  So, I’m posting the file here to make sure you get the chance to hear it.

The interview is about bringing mindfulness practice into your work, finding your true calling in your career, my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course, and my upcoming projects.  I hope you enjoy it!

Download the Interview Here (27 mins.; MP3 file; right-click and select “Save As” to download)

My Recent Radio Appearance (Audio)

I’ve received some requests for a recording of my recent appearance on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen, and some people had difficulty downloading the recording from the radio station’s site.  So, I’m posting the file here to make sure you get the chance to hear it.

The interview is about bringing mindfulness practice into your work, finding your true calling in your career, my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course, and my upcoming projects.  I hope you enjoy it!

Download the Interview Here (27 mins.; MP3 file; right-click and select “Save As” to download)

My Recent Radio Appearance (Audio)

I’ve received some requests for a recording of my recent appearance on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen, and some people had difficulty downloading the recording from the radio station’s site.  So, I’m posting the file here to make sure you get the chance to hear it.

The interview is about bringing mindfulness practice into your work, finding your true calling in your career, my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course, and my upcoming projects.  I hope you enjoy it!

Download the Interview Here (27 mins.; MP3 file; right-click and select “Save As” to download)

Don’t Wait To Do Your “Real Work,” Part II: Finding Real Security

(This is the second part of a series I began a few months back with “Don’t Wait To Do Your ‘Real Work’,” an article about overcoming the fears that often hold us back from pursuing work that genuinely excites us.)

Much has been written about the importance of finding work that not only supports you financially but also deeply moves you.  Many people react to this kind of advice by thinking something like “well, it’s nice that you can do something you’re passionate about, but I’m focused on trying to survive right now.”  Presumably they figure that, once things are more financially stable for them, doing work that feels meaningful can finally become a priority.  Or maybe they’ve grown too cynical to believe it’s even possible for them to enjoy working.

Doing something we’re genuinely interested in, of course, isn’t the only thing we tend to put off until we find the financial security we’re looking for.  Many of us also put off taking our intimate relationships and outside pursuits as deeply as we’d like, hoping one day we’ll feel secure enough to go for what we want.  The trouble is that, for many of us, the sense of security we crave never seems to arrive.  For many of us, no matter what we achieve in terms of money and material rewards, a nagging fear that it could all disappear tomorrow lurks in the background.

We tend to assume that the sense of stability we’re seeking will come if we just work a little harder or longer.  But is this true?  I’ve known many wealthy people who, despite their material success, seem trapped in “survival mode,” fearing they’ll make a mistake and the abundance in their lives will dry up tomorrow.  And of course, there are more public examples of famous actors, like Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lopez, who have, surprisingly (at least to me), been concerned that their careers won’t last.

What this suggests to me is that money won’t give us the lasting feeling of security many of us are chasing.  Instead, I think it has more to do with our view of the universe.  That is, do we see it as a basically safe place, where we’ll probably come out okay if we take some risks and even make a few mistakes?  Or do we see the universe as unforgiving and hostile, likely to punish or destroy us for even a minor slipup?  If we hold the second view, it’s not surprising that, no matter how secure our job seems, and how much money we have, that fear that “everything’s going to fall apart” keeps its hold on us.

If the degree of security we feel really depends on how we see the universe, how can we shift our perspective to develop the feeling of safety we want?  In working with clients, I see it as one of my roles to help them cultivate what A.H. Almaas calls a sense of “basic trust,” or a “confidence in the goodness of the universe.”  Here are three approaches to developing a more trusting perspective on life that I’ve found useful:

1. Let Go Of The Idea That “Insecurity Equals Success.” Many of us have spent our lives believing, consciously or otherwise, something like this:  the more afraid I am of failing, the more successful I’m likely to be.  We tend to assume that anxiety about running out of money or not achieving the status we want in our careers will keep us motivated.  If we weren’t so afraid, after all, we’d have no reason to get out of bed or off the couch.

First, notice that this way of thinking puts you on a treadmill you can’t get off.  If you really have to stay fearful to stay motivated, you can never allow yourself to relax and let go of your anxiety, because if you did, you’d lose your will to go on.  Also, notice that this mindset can actually harm your productivity.  When you’re constantly worried about your career security or performance, the time and energy you spend tossing and turning at night, endlessly second-guessing the work you produce, and so on don’t contribute much to advancing your career.

Most importantly, if you recognize that you’ve been thinking this way, just consider for a moment the possibility that sources of motivation other than fear exist.  There are things you can enjoy doing so much, and feel so deeply moved by, that you don’t even think about the money, material rewards, or whatever else you’re earning when you do them.  In other words, you can enjoy the process of doing those things without even thinking about the end product you’re creating.

Take the activities in your life you see as “play,” for instance.  Suppose you enjoy running.  Running is obviously a great way to stay healthy, but while you’re running you don’t need to focus your mind on the product—good health—to like doing it.  You can enjoy the pure process of it, without giving any thought to the results you’re getting.  Once you see this is possible, the next step is to find something you enjoy the process of doing—whether it’s fishing, computer programming, dog training or something else—and incorporating that into the work you do.

2. Face The Possibility Of Failure. Although we all seem to be afraid of failing in our careers and elsewhere, many of us never seriously consider what “failure” really means to us, and what we’d do to pick ourselves back up again if we did fail.  When we take a hard look at these issues, we often find that the risk of failure no longer seems so terrifying.

I invite you to honestly ask yourself:  what’s your definition of failure?  Would it mean losing your job?  Getting negative comments from the boss on a project?  Not meeting your sales targets?  Once you have an answer in mind, give some thought to what you’d do if that worst-case scenario came true.  Would you find another job or career?  Sell a few of your possessions?  Take some time off and write a book?

Most of us are unwilling to seriously consider what we’d do if we “failed,” because even thinking about that feels too scary—it’s almost as if we’d die if the situation we’re imagining came about.  But when we actually contemplate how we’d handle a “failure,” and begin coming up with fallback plans, we often discover a strength and resourcefulness in ourselves we didn’t know we had.  In fact, we’d probably manage to survive and even thrive in the face of setbacks.

When we recognize we’re capable of dealing with most of the challenges we may face in our work, a peace and focus set in as we go through our normal routine.  The risks we thought were too frightening to take, the conversations we thought were too difficult to have, and so on start to feel more manageable, and the success we’re looking for starts to feel more available.

3. Notice How The Fear Of Failure Feels. Ultimately, the worry that things will “fall apart,” in your career or elsewhere, is just a sensation you experience somewhere in your body—for many people, it’s the feeling of some part of their bodies tensing up.  Like a cramp or a crick in your neck, it may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t likely to seriously hurt or kill you, and in fact it tends to pass away quickly.

Take a moment, the next time you’re feeling anxiety about your career, financial security, or something similar, to observe how that fear manifests in your body.  What sensations let you know you’re feeling afraid?

When you simply start to notice how anxiety about failure feels for you, your relationship with that sensation begins to change.  Many of us hold back from pursuing our most deep-seated goals—whether it’s the business we’re interested in starting, the screenplay we’d like to write, the relationship we’d like to have, and so on—to avoid experiencing this fear.  But when we realize that the emotion of fear is actually a quickly passing bunch of sensations in our bodies, it ceases to look so threatening.

When we perceive our anxiety about failure for what it really is, the universe starts to look like a less hostile and more welcoming place to exist.  And we come to see that the feeling of security we’ve been looking for can actually be found within ourselves.