Finding What Work Means to Me

Three months into my long COVID diagnosis, I was told I could only work three or four hours a day and I struggled to fill my days without the humdrum of busyness I'd grown accustomed to. A healthcare professional asked me: "what is meaningful to you apart from work?"

Finding What Work Means to Me

Three months into my long COVID diagnosis, I was told I could only work three or four hours a day and I struggled to fill my days without the humdrum of busyness I'd grown so accustomed to. A healthcare professional asked me the following: "what is meaningful to you apart from work, socialising and exercise?"

The short answer is, I didn't know.

Those three things had formed the pillars of my identity for as long as I could remember. Trying to balance them at the same intensity as I had before getting ill, was causing me to remain unwell. We are fed the narrative that you have to fight your way to getting better, but with chronic conditions, that simply did not apply.

I started to reevaluate my relationship with work and for want of a better word, my purpose. When I am trying to better understand an issue, I read.

Two books were particularly insightful to me during this time

  1. Elizabeth Uviebinené: The Reset
  2. Jeff Goins: The Art of Work

There have been so many books and articles that have tried to explore the changing nature of work during the pandemic. And quite frankly, most have failed. In The Reset Uviebinene emphasises that we tend to look at how we work rather than what work means to us and 'when you dig into it, it feels like how we're working hasn't changed at all.' We've been fixated on how and where we are work, but our problems and mindsets are the same as before. What does being in our living rooms or home offices change, if we have the same relationship to our work?

Work Has Become So Linked With Our Identities

There have been a lot of toxic behaviours at the heart of the way we work. Hustle culture, back-to-back meetings and having to perform that we are as hard-working remotely. Work has come to form such a critical part of our identities. Uviebinené questions whether we have 'reduced the conversation to this home vs office debate because it’s an easier question that the one we actually need to tackle: why are our personal identities so tied-in with our jobs?' I realised this was exactly what was causing me to spiral from being unable to work as much. I'd tied up my identity to what I did and achieved at work.

The Reset leans on a broad-range of original interviews including one from award-winning content creator, TV host, and social critic Erica Williams Simon, who perfectly describes a need to never attach yourself to:

'a place, a company, an organisation or a project. Attach yourself to a mission, a calling, a purpose only. That’s how you keep our power and your peace.’ Easier said than done, when the temptation of throwing ourselves into our work, will likely always be there. But definitely something to aspire to.

The Pandemic Revealed the Bare Bones of Our Work

The Reset asks us to reevaluate what work means to us. It was easy to get wrapped up in the busyness of our office environment, Thursday night after work drinks and networking events 'and avoid the fundamental question of whether we found our work fulfilling.' But the pandemic exposed the very bones of our work lives. Instead of thinking about how we work, thinking about why. In a surprising phenomenon, people are not just abandoning jobs but switching professions, as this time has been a radical re-assessment of our careers, a great reset in how we think about work.

The Reset sets to find out 'as individuals, how can we change our relationship to work?' In doing so, it became clear that work fits into a broader ecosystem of six categories that would be impacted and needed to change:

  1. Identity: how can we align ourselves to missions or callings rather than places, organisations or projects?
  2. Culture: how can we view culture as more than perks and after work drinks?
  3. Business: how do businesses need to think beyond their revenue since the pandemic?
  4. Community: how can we find community in a hybrid world?
  5. City: how does where we live impact our work?
  6. Society: how do we we use our work to think beyond our strand of society?

The Reset was a very thought-provoking book that I highly recommend to anyone reevaluating their relationship to work. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but I feel like it will open the door to a much more substantive conversation about finding meaningful work.

Jeff Goins' the Art of Work

The Art of Work is about 'finding your calling and discovering what you were born to do.' Goins argues that as children we all entertained that we wanted to do something meaningful with our lives, then slowly after school or as we got jobs, we gave up on those dreams. Each chapter tells at least one person's story and is based on a theme: awareness, apprenticeship, practice, discovery and profession.

Overcoming the myth that you "just know" and acting anyway

At school, I definitely felt a pressure to know what I wanted to be when I grew up and I grew frustrated that I was unable to narrow it down to one thing. I wanted my future to be wrapped up in a little bow: lawyer, doctor, teacher. Goins emphasises that these pressures arise from the following phrase, 'I just knew.' We hear this from people who are too humble to admit how hard they worked or who are too uncomfortable with acknowledging how they got lucky.' Goins argues that we all want to "just know" what we are supposed to do with our lives, but it's fear that prevents us from searching what that might be.

What we are really looking for, is for someone to promise us that we won't fail. The Art of Work urges us to move and not wait for a better time whether we are sure of it or not.

Broadening Our Conception of Happiness At Work

Two stories we tend to hear when it comes to pursuing a dream. First, the tale of the self-made man or woman, a 'driven individual overcoming adversity and defying the odds to achieve success.' Sheer tenacity and ambition at the heart of this story. Second, the opposite of the first story, and instead of a self-made path there is a determined one, 'whatever you will be, will be. Life happens in spite of what we want.'

Goins urges us to find a third way, where we we acknowledge that finding our purpose is about more than getting what we want. By understanding there are facets of our life and work that we cannot control, but we have the power to choose how we react to things and what we prioritise.

Many of us are dissatisfied at work and are searching for happiness there. But Goins believes it is unlikely to be happiness we are searching for. Goins borrows from the work of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl:

Human beings, he argued, are not hardwired for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. They want meaning. In spite of what we say, we don't want happiness. It's simply not enough to satisfy our deepest longings. We are looking for something more, something transcendent- a reason to happy.

As part of his life-saving therapy with suicidal patients and his own experience in Nazi concentration camp, Frankl learned there are three things that give meaning to life: first, a project; second, a significant relationship; and third, a redemptive view of suffering. He realized that, if people, even in the bleakest of circumstances, have a job to do, something to return to tomorrow, then they have a reason to live another day.

Embracing Failure and the Pivot

I've long been a fan of viewing setbacks and failures as something to learn from. The Art of Work emphasises the need to think of a pivot not as plan B, but as part of the process. Unexpected setbacks can and will happen and they enable us to recalibrate and grow. Too often we look at successful people and think they succeeded despite failure their failure, but we need to realise they succeeded because of them.

According to Goins 'every calling is marked by a season of insignificance, a period when nothing seems to make sense' and this is an even more important time than periods of success.

I know now more than ever that finding my calling will not be a linear process by any means. It's not been easy, but my health condition has forced me let go of expectations of where I "should be" and I'm trying to do the same with my work. We could all do with taking each moment as it comes, rather than striving for a destination. The Reset and the Art of Work are a great place to start.