Expect more from your work.

Expect More from Your Work

The Meaning of Work, Part 2

By Andrea Jacques

This is the second in a 5-part series on the Meaning of Work — where we explore how the words you use when thinking and talking about work influence your performance and fulfillment. Catch part 1, where we explore the idea of work as a necessary evil and the meaning of “job,” here.

What is an Occupation?

An occupation is an activity that a person spends time doing. People who refer to their work by this very neutral term tend to neither love nor hate their work. While work-as-occupation may not be a “necessary evil”, this meme frames one’s work activities as simply a way to fill time.

What’s the danger in this? When you’re content to define work as “something that occupies your time,” this says nothing about the quality of the experience you want to create at work. You can be just as occupied with something that stresses you out, as with something that bores you, or something that brings you great joy. Despite the fact that calling your work an occupation doesn’t dictate the quality of the expereince, the neutral connotations of the word are more likely to be symptomatic of low expectations around what work can or should be in your life.

Having low expectations for what work can bring to your life often covers up limiting beliefs about why you can’t gain more from your work. Over the last three decades of working with people who have struggled to discover meaningful work, I have seen many people hold themselves back from considering what they really want for any number of reasons: it’s too silly, too expensive, too time consuming, outside of their ability, or one of a thousand other stories about why what they want isn’t realistic. The challenge with this mindset? If you don’t admit to what you really want, you can’t begin to figure out how to get there.

Your Dreams Are Possible  — If You Give Yourself Permission to Have Goals

Think of it this way. If you dream of going on a year-long worldwide vacation but believe it isn’t realistic, you won’t invest any time actrually trying to figure out how to do it. Instead, you will settle for vacation options that feel “doable”, like going to Mexico for a week or two. You’ll go to Mexico for a week in the winter, but those Mexico vacations will never fulfill your need for your dream vacation. Even though you consciously dismissed the idea, your subconscious will keep nagging at you to fulfill your unrealized dream.

But the moment you admit what you want, you give your mind permission to start figuring out how to make it happen. You could vacation close to home (or enjoy a staycation) for a few years to save for your dream trip. More sustainably, you could start an online business that you can maintain while you jetset from country to country. You could even do volunteer work abroad in exchange for free accommodations to make it more affordable (not to mention fulfilling). The bottom line? There are many ways to achieve your vacation goal, but you can’t even begin to figure them out until you allow yourself to envision your dream vacation as possible and achievable.

It is the same with your work. You might have convinced yourself that having something to occupy your time and pay the bills is enough, but deep down inside there’s a part of you that knows it isn’t. There is a fine line between being content with your work and becoming complacent. People trick themselves into complacency. After all, when you feel like you can’t change things, it seems wise to accept them. This concept appears in many cultures, including the popular Christian “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr (“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”). When I was living in Japan, the acceptance of the unchangeable was often referred to as “the Japanese way”. Sometimes this was a statement made with pride, but too often it was said with a sense of resignation that implied that one couldn’t change the way things were even if one wanted to.

Over time, the decision to settle eats away at your energy in all areas of your life. If work is just something that pays your bills, your unused energy looks for something else to occupy itself with. Unfortunately, without a goal to work toward, you are more likely to occupy yourself with blame, frustration, anger, and resentment than joy, fun, love, and kindness. That’s the problem with an occupation: it only defines how much time and energy you spend, not what you spend it on.

Breaking Free from the Occupation Trap

To break free of the limitations of work as an occupation, it’s time to get curious about whether you are afraid to allow yourself to want more. Ask yourself the following:

  • What do truly want when it comes to your work? What do you dream of doing? Where would you work? What kind of people do you long to work with and for? If answering these questions is difficult for you, your upbringing or circumstances have likely been dampening your expectations around what work can be for so long that you have shut down a part of yourself. The danger with this is that when you shut off your “dream valve” in one area of your life, you are shutting it off for all of them. People who have low expectations of their work are likely to have low expectations and an inability to dream in other areas of their life as well. To reignite your dream light, get a journal and spend 5 minutes/day for the next week or two completing the following statements:
    • If I didn’t think it was impossible I would…
    • If I didn’t think it was crazy I would…
    • If I didn’t have to worry about time (or money, family, etc.) I would love to…
    • If I were more/less x, I would love to…
    • If I/my parents/my family had/hadn’t done x, then I would have loved to…
  • Whether you are able to answer the first set of questions right away or need to take some extra time to revive your possibility thinking, you will ultimately come up with a totally “unrealistic” (to you at least) vision of what you ideally want work to be for you. For each of the things you want, take a moment to write down why you think you can’t have. This might seem like a depressing exercise, but it can actually be quite freeing to get all of these limiting beliefs out in the open and written on paper instead of sneaking around in your head where they’ve been for years.
  • Now that your reasons are written down in black and white, challenge yourself to think of at least 10 different ways you can get around each of the barriers you identified above. Coming up with ten ideas for each will force you to step outside of your logical strategies and get creative. Feel free to write down totally ridiculous ideas as well if the logical ones run dry. It helps to lighten things up, but allowing yourself to think of crazy ideas as well as realistically workable ones, can spark innovative ways to get around the places you keep getting stuck in pursuing your dreams. If you can’t think of ways to get around a particular barrier, ask other people. They don’t have the limiting beliefs you do, so they’re likely to be better at coming up with strategies you can’t see.

Pay attention to how you are really occupying yourself at work. If it doesn’t require your full energy and attention, ask yourself what you’re investing that energy and attention in. If you don’t like how you’re investing it, look back at your answers to the above questions and refocus your actions on creating a more positive vision of work. Human beings have a natural need to constantly grow in order to feel fully alive. Dissatisfaction and dreaming of a better future for ourselves is what drives evolution. Viewing work as no more than a means to fill time and pay bills thwarts not only your motivation to evolve to your full potential, but also the multitude of benefits that pursuing your real dream could bring for others.

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