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.
When we see a baby exploring or playing, our attention is usually on how adorable they are. What we don’t often notice is how much we can learn from watching babies’ behavior, particularly when it comes to getting work done. I think babies are actually some of the most helpful “productivity gurus” out there, and I’ll offer four valuable lessons I’ve picked up from watching them.
1. Babies’ Attention Is Fully In The Now. If you watch an infant looking at or playing with something, you can tell the object completely absorbs the baby’s attention. The baby’s eyes stay wide open, and they don’t waver from the object. The baby may eventually turn to play with or look at something else, but when it does, the next object also gets its undivided attention.
In that moment, the baby clearly isn’t fretting about problems that might come up in the future, or worrying it isn’t doing a good enough job playing with its toy. The baby’s curiosity about what’s right in front of it, right now, occupies all its awareness. As meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in <Wherever You Go, There You Are, “Have you ever seen an infant studying her own hand, totally absorbed in exploring this wondrous creation of nature? Her attention can be sustained, apparently effortlessly, for minutes at a time.”
As you know, as adults, our attention normally lacks this singular focus. While we’re working, much of our attention is usually absorbed in the past or what might happen in the future. Perhaps we’re reliving embarrassing memories, fretting that others won’t like our work, dreaming of our upcoming vacation, or something else. Holding our focus on our work often takes strain and effort.
How can we get into that fully attentive state that used to come naturally when we were little? One simple exercise involves training our eyes on an object in front of us, whether it’s our hand, the desk, a tree, or something else, and simply holding our attention on it for several minutes. When you find your attention drifting away from the object toward something else in the area, or into thoughts about the past and future, gently bring your focus back to what you’re looking at. This gradually strengthens our ability to sustain our attention, much like building a muscle.
2. Babies Are Persistent. You may have heard the statistic that babies, on average, fall down about three hundred times in the process of learning to walk. While they’re in this process, the idea that it’s too hard to learn to walk, and it would be easier to just give up and keep crawling, doesn’t seem to occur to them. Unless they have a medical condition that gets in the way, they persist until they’re toddling around.
Somehow, we lose this natural persistence somewhere on the way to adulthood. We usually don’t even try to get most of what we want in life—we dream about the body we want, the book we’d like to publish, or the relationship we’d like to create, but we don’t get around to the doing phase. At work, when we’re required to do something challenging, our usual response is to put off doing it. Anything to avoid the possibility that we’ll fail, and feel embarrassed or inadequate.
One way to start regaining that tolerance for discomfort we had as infants is to see that discomfort for what it really is—just a bunch of sensations we experience in our bodies, whether it’s a tightness in our shoulders, shortness of breath, or something else. The next time you’re worried you’ll fail at something or embarrass yourself, breathe deeply and pay close attention to the sensations you’re feeling. Notice that those sensations haven’t hurt or killed you—even though you’re feeling them, you’re still fully alive and intact. The more you recognize this, the more you can start gracefully moving through your fear of failure rather than running away from it.
3. Babies Stay Curious. Another thing it’s easy to notice when we watch babies is their insatiable curiosity. Wherever they go, they seem to want to explore, touch and play with everything. Although we can’t get a perfect understanding of how babies experience life, in watching them we get the sense that the world, and each moment, always occur to them as fresh and new. Even if they spend day after day in the same room, it seems they always find something to get fascinated by and interested in.
This definitely isn’t the way most adults experience the world. For many of us, after a short while in a new job or business, our tasks start to feel dull and repetitive, and it becomes hard to maintain our attention and drive. We feel like we’ve got our work down to a science, we know all the right and wrong moves, and there’s nothing more to discover or learn.
I’ve found that cultivating curiosity, or a sense of wonder, about my work helps me stay fulfilled and productive. It’s much easier for me to focus on, and stay motivated in, my tasks when working feels like an exploration rather than a routine. I can maintain this sense of wonder by questioning assumptions I tend to make about how it’s best to do my tasks.
If I’m writing an article, for example, and I want to tap into my curiosity, I might ask myself questions like: Should I keep to my usual length of about 1,400 words, or maybe cut that in half for this piece? Should I start with an anecdote like usual, or try just a summary of what I’m going to say instead? When I remember to question my normal way of doing things, I remind myself I don’t actually “have it all figured out,” and there are so many interesting possibilities to explore. In Zen Buddhism, this is called approaching life with a “beginner’s mind,” and babies are natural masters of this.
4. Babies Are Courageous. Compared to adults, babies seem positively fearless. We don’t often see babies holding back from trying new things out of fear, or looking to others for approval or permission before acting. If they want to climb out of the crib, make a noise, or do anything else that occurs to them, they do it without hesitation. Eventually, as their parents punish them for doing certain things, they develop shame and inhibition, but early in their lives infants don’t seem limited by those feelings.
As adults, we’re burdened with a lot more fear and inhibition, particularly in the work context. Often, our sense of self-worth is riding on our success at work, and when we have this mindset we naturally worry about our performance. This anxiety harms our productivity because it has us constantly second-guess our work, wake up late at night worrying about what others will think of it, procrastinate because it’s easier than risking a mistake, and so on.
One way to move beyond this kind of fear is to ask ourselves this question: what would really happen if we made a mistake, or faced some setback, in our work? Would we be physically hurt or killed? Would we be too ashamed to ever show our faces at work again? Would we feel compelled to move to a monastery or cave? When we seriously look at these questions, we realize the consequences of failure wouldn’t be as earth-shattering as we usually imagine. As our fear of making mistakes lessens, we feel more freedom to experiment and take worthwhile risks at work, and get things done more quickly and easily.
No, I’m not saying we need to start sleeping in cribs or eating baby food to become more productive. But I do think we could stand to benefit from the curiosity, courage and joy babies bring to everything they do.
Wilfrid over at Money Galaxy runs a great blog about personal finance—I’m particularly into the real estate investment advice, since I became a landlord over the past year (oops, maybe I shouldn’t have revealed that! )