What is your true desire, your inherent ambition, in life and work? That’s an important question, especially when it comes to making money. Here, as everywhere, it’s important to be authentic and true to yourself. To make it so, you may have to set strong boundaries or to find a new position. But in the end, there’s no greater satisfaction than stepping up to the plate.
In this series of Provisions, we are exploring what it takes to love the work we do. And that isn’t always easy in this day and age. There was a time, long ago, when work was more organically connected to the fabric of life itself. People didn’t leave home to go to work. Instead, their life and work were two sides of the same coin, and usually within walking distance of each other.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, all that changed. Over time, we developed modes of transportation and communication that enabled us to live and work at increasing distances. We also developed modes of work, most notably factories and corporations, that required the use of sophisticated equipment and complicated systems in order to produce the many goods and services we now consider necessary (and often take for granted) in the modern world.
This is the environment in which we find ourselves today, and it is understandable that many people not only fail to love their work; they have actually come to dread and despise it. In far too many instances, work has become an alienating experience, with little connection to our core values, and no real purpose other than paying the bills.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you stay in the system or drop out, there are ways to make peace with your work and to reclaim it as a positive good.
Take one of my running buddies, who works at a local restaurant. It’s a busy place with plenty of customer-service demands. The hours can be long and the work can be hard. But I have never heard my friend complain and, in fact, whenever the subject of work comes up my friend is sure to sing its praises.
He’s not hesitant to mention a time when personal problems got in the way of his doing work at all. The have-no-work days have made my friend thankful and appreciative for the have-work days. But his love of work goes far beyond the mere fact of having a job. He delights in learning new ways of cooking and in making the restaurant a positive community gathering place. In short, he enjoys his time on the job because of the opportunity, relationships, and learning it gives him.
What’s the secret to my friend’s success? Authenticity. He has found a place where he can be great just by being himself, and that makes all the difference. It enables him to give the role much more than he otherwise could.
Being authentic gets harder when work pushes you down. That’s when it’s time to set boundaries or move along. Of the two options, boundary setting takes more energy and may be more intimidating. When you constantly have to police the environment to protect yourself, it can be both exhausting and demoralizing.
I have worked with many clients who find themselves in this situation. Their work may demand time they are not willing to give, may specify procedures they don’t support, may involve tasks they don’t enjoy, may include supervision that drives them crazy, and may even produce goods and services they find morally reprehensible. Yet they find themselves showing up and slogging away, day after day, to collect the almighty paycheck and to receive such other benefits as the company may have to offer.
In situations like these, we begin by making a hierarchy of values in order to understand the depth and breadth of the incompatibility. If it goes to the bone of morally reprehensible goods and services, then it’s time to get out no matter what. But if it’s a matter of lesser things, then strong boundaries may be enough to make the situation not only tolerable but enjoyable.
All this has to be negotiated carefully, of course. When they fly in the face of organizational culture, it’s easy for strong boundaries to lead to unemployment! But it’s not impossible to be authentic in a hostile environment or, to borrow a phrase, to sing a familiar song in a strange land, and to come out better than before.
But only you can define “better.” This is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to authenticity. There are plenty of times when being authentic leads to less success in the eyes of the world. Howard Dean, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, claims to have been authentic in that now infamous speech to his supporters after his third-place finish in Iowa. If so, many pundits now predict that such authenticity will cost him the nomination.
That’s the way it is with authenticity. We may have to learn to be happy with less than we had hoped for. Being true to ourselves is not always rewarded the way we would like. But it is always better than selling out.
I know one person who struggled for years to set his boundaries in what he experienced as a hostile work environment. Everything was always urgent, and the demands for uncompensated overtime were intense. Priorities would shift frequently, making it hard to plan and even harder to accomplish the plan. Micromanagement was rampant.
In the end, he set his boundaries as to urgency, overtime, priorities, and autonomy. To his surprise, instead of getting fired, the company made their peace with someone they viewed as a headstrong and yet valuable employee. Life was better, even though it was clear he would never go any higher in the organizational structure.
Now some might say that life wasn’t “better,” since my friend had effectively ended his promotion track by setting his boundaries. But my friend viewed life as infinitely better, since he was true to himself, even if that meant earning less and having less responsibility in exchange.
John Schuster, in his book Answer Your Call, makes it clear that authenticity and the way of the world are at times in direct conflict. He describes the many internal and external voices • he calls them saboteurs • that would lead us off course. But he too affirms the importance of being true to oneself, even if that leads to less fame and fortune.
“The dominant social drummer,” Schuster notes, “pounds a commercial and conforming beat that is intense and relentless. The beat constantly pounds out its core message: ‘Don’t think too hard…. Sign on the dotted line and don’t worry. Come, follow the beat.'”
Of course, for some people, the beat comes close enough to their own authentic self, at least for a time, that they dance to the beat and have the time of their life. That, in a way, is the experience of my friend in the restaurant. He’s doing what they want him to do, and loving it. But others, like my friend who set strong boundaries, find it necessary to draw the line in order to preserve their dignity and be the people they want to be. Both ways have authenticity, as long as they come from the heart.
It will perhaps come as no surprise that my friend who set strong boundaries eventually ended up leaving the company in order to go somewhere that he felt was more aligned to his manner of working. “Although I left a lot of money on the table,” he once told me, “being in a place where I can be great just by being myself, just by showing up, makes all the difference in the world. It was worth every penny to leave, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been before.”
Isn’t that what we all want out of life and work? Who wants to be a square peg in a round hole? In the end, we want to be great just by showing up and to be paid just for being ourselves. Fortunately, that’s not an impossible dream for us all.
Coaching Inquiries: Are you living an authentic life? Are you working in an environment where you have to set strong boundaries? What shifts would make things better? How could better learn to love the work you do?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
I’m grateful for Erika’s reminder to appreciate the process in last week’s Creativity Pathway. I dabble in watercolors. I find that when I let myself get lost in the pleasure of blending the colors and noticing the ways the lines come together or move apart, that I am much more likely to end up with a product I am happy with than when I am concerned about the product as I am painting. Even if the outcome gets ruined, like those peanut butter cookies, I haven’t wasted my paper and paints because I have had an enjoyable experience. I like these new Creativity Pathways. Thanks!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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