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What Is Work For?

What Is Work For?

Last week, I starting thinking about why so many people devote so much of their lives to work, and seem to get so little enjoyment or reward in return. It doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense. Surveys show that many people, perhaps a majority, feel dissatisfied with some major aspect of their working lives. It may be lack of satisfaction, too little free time, too little reward, or work that bores and frustrates them.

Life isn’t always (or often) fair and few people get all that they want, but to have so many people who feel dissatisfied with a major aspect of their life raises an important question. What is the problem? Why are so many people so unhappy? What is work for?

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There is an obvious and superficial answer to the last question: you work to make enough money to support yourself and any family you may have. But that doesn’t seem a good enough answer. If work had no more than this utilitarian purpose, no one would do a single hour of work past the point where they had enough money to sustain life. You could argue that what people see as “enough” varies hugely. Some are content with modest lives; others want the best of everything. But the general point would still hold good.

Well, yes. But that doesn’t explain why ultra-rich people go on working and amassing money far past the point where they are even able to spend it in their lifetime. Nor does it address the phenomenon I tried to think about in my posting Leisure Is the Meaning of Work. It seems for many people today work is no longer a means to an end (whatever that end may be). The reward for work success has become the requirement to work still more . . . and so on, for ever and ever. Amen. A means to a means to a means. Maybe that’s why so many are feeling frustrated and miserable: the end for which work is the means never comes into view. It’s just more work ahead, like in the old Buddhist tale about the guru who told his disciples that the world sits in space on the back of four elephants. The youngest and cheekiest disciple asked what the elephants stood on. “More elephants,” replied the guru. “And what do those elephants stand on?” asked the disciple, trying to show how clever he could be. “Look,” replied the exasperated guru. “It’s elephants all the way down. Get it?”

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One aspect of this endless cycle of work for work’s sake seems to be a loss of any great interest in seeking The Common Good. In the past, a willingness to work together for the common good was seen as the natural basis of democracy and the foundation of any society. Today, individualism is rampant, and each person seems to be out for him or herself, regardless of others’ needs. Despite much pious cant about “customer-centric organizations,” the reality is that the managers of an enterprise gain the lion’s share of the rewards. With “ownership” spread between huge financial institutions, many corporations no longer face any effective external control. So long as they make profits for these institutional shareholders, thereby meeting their self-interest, the executives in charge are free to do pretty much as they wish. Maybe it’s all tied up with the epidemic of short-term thinking; the “grab-and-go” style of corporate management. Whatever the reason, it’s making for some miserable working conditions.

Looking to the past brought me to Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who observed and commented on the fledgling American republic in the early 1800s. His argued that true freedom is compromised as soon as people are limited in all the small, daily decisions of life. That struck a chord for me. In The Freedom to Choose . . . and the Time to Do It, I suggested that unless people have the freedom to choose the small things in their lives, any larger freedoms have little meaning. You may have freedom to vote, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech, but if you aren’t free to take some time off occasionally, or decide how you want to balance work with the rest of your life, you will still feel like a slave. Petty tyrannies are rampant in most organizations, breeding mistrust and frustration. Tyranny—be it religious, political, economic, or military—always begins with oppression in the small, seemingly insignificant things of life, before growing to envelope everything else. We should slow down and stop this insidious growth, before it stifles our lives with poisonous tentacles.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to business life.

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Last Updated on January 2, 2020

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Over time, we all gather a set of constricting habits around us—ones that trap us in a zone of supposed comfort, well below what our potential would allow us to attain. Pretty soon, such habits slip below the level of our consciousness, but they still determine what we think that we can and cannot do—and what we cannot even bring ourselves to try. As long as you let these habits rule you, you’ll be stuck in a rut.

Like the tiny, soft bodied creatures that build coral reefs, habits start off small and flexible, and end up by building massive barriers of rock all around your mind. Inside the reefs, the water feels quiet and friendly. Outside, you think it’s going to be rough and stormy. There may be sharks. But if you’re to develop in any direction from where you are today, you must go outside that reef of habits that marks the boundaries of your comfort zone. There’s no other way. There’s even nothing specially wrong with those habits as such. They probably worked for you in the past.

But now, it’s time to step over them and go into the wider world of your unused potential. Your fears don’t know what’s going to be out there, so they invent monsters and scary beasts to keep you inside.

Nobody’s born with an instruction manual for life. Despite all the helpful advice from parents, teachers and elders, each of us must make our own way in the world, doing the best we can and quite often getting things wrong.

Messing up a few times isn’t that big a deal. But if you get scared and try to avoid all mistakes by sticking with just a few “tried and true” behaviors, you’ll miss out on most opportunities as well.

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Lots of people who suffer from boredom at work are doing it to themselves. They’re bored and frustrated because that’s what their choices have caused them to be. They’re stuck in ruts they’ve dug for themselves while trying to avoid making mistakes and taking risks. People who never make mistakes never make anything else either.

It’s time to pin down the habits that have become unconscious and are running your life for you, and get rid of them. Here’s how to do it:

1. Understand the Truth about Your Habits

They always represent past successes. You have formed habitual, automatic behaviors because you once dealt with something successfully, tried the same response next time, and found it worked again. That’s how habits grow and why they feel so useful.

To get away from what’s causing your unhappiness and workplace blues, you must give up on many of your most fondly held (and formerly successful) habits. and try new ways of thinking and acting. There truly isn’t any alternative. Those habits are going to block you from finding new and creative ideas. No new ideas, no learning. No learning, no access to successful change.

2. Do Something—Almost Anything—Differently and See What Happens

Even the most successful habits eventually lose their usefulness as events change the world and fresh responses are called for. Yet we cling on to them long after their benefit has gone.

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Past strategies are bound to fail sometime. Letting them become automatic habits that take the controls is a sure road to self-inflicted harm.

3. Take Some Time out and Have a Detailed Look at Yourself—With No Holds Barred

Discovering your unconscious habits can be tough. For a start, they’re unconscious, right? Then they fight back.

Ask anyone who has ever given up smoking if habits are tough to break. You’ve got used to them—and they’re at least as addictive as nicotine or crack cocaine.

4. Be Who You Are

It’s easy to assume that you always have to fit in to get on in the world; that you must conform to be liked and respected by others or face exclusion. Because most people want to please, they try to become what they believe others expect, even if it means forcing themselves to be the kind of person they aren’t, deep down.

You need to start by putting yourself first. You’re unique. We’re all unique, so saying this doesn’t suggest that you’re better than others or deserve more than they do.

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You need to put yourself first because no one else has as much interest in your life as you do; and because if you don’t, no one else will. Putting others second means giving them their due respect, not ignoring them totally.

Keeping up a self-image can be a burden. Hanging on to an inflated, unrealistic one is a curse. Give yourself a break.

5. Slow Down and Let Go

Most of us want to think of ourselves as good, kind, intelligent and caring people. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t.

Reality is complex. We can’t function at all without constant input and support from other people.

Everything we have, everything we’ve learned, came to us through someone else’s hands. At our best, we pass on this borrowed existence to others, enhanced by our contribution. At our worst, we waste and squander it.

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So recognize that you’re a rich mixture of thoughts and feelings that come and go, some useful, some not. There’s no need to keep up a façade; no need to pretend; no need to fear of what you know to be true.

When you face your own truth, you’ll find it’s an enormous relief. If you’re maybe not as wonderful as you’d like to be, you aren’t nearly as bad as you fear either.

The truth really does set you free; free to work on being better and to forgive yourself for being human; free to express your gratitude to others and recognize what you owe them; free to acknowledge your feelings without letting them dominate your life. Above all, you’ll be free to understand the truth of living: that much of what happens to you is no more than chance. It can’t be avoided and is not your fault. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it.

Final Thoughts

What is holding you in situations and actions that no longer work for you often isn’t inertia or procrastination. It’s the power of habitual ways of seeing the world and thinking about events. Until you can let go of those old, worn-out habits, they’ll continue to hold you prisoner.

To stay in your comfort zone through mere habit, or—worse still—to stay there because of irrational fears of what may lie outside, will condemn you to a life of frustration and regret.

If you can accept the truth about the world and yourself, change whatever is holding you back, and get on with a fresh view on life, you’ll find that single action lets you open the door of your self-imposed prison and walk free. There’s a marvelous world out there. You’ll see, if you try it!

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Featured photo credit: teigan rodger via unsplash.com

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