Some lucky people just love their work. Or they always seem to love to work. Not me. I used to greatly resent the long hours I spent earning a living almost as much as I resisted my long daily list of “Things I Have To Do.”
It's not that I'm lazy. I just always thought that working interfered with getting on with my life, learning, and doing what I was supposed to be doing. Now I know that work usually offers just exactly the particular living, lessons, and opportunities I need. And now, more often, I enjoy all the kinds of work I do.
Caveat: I’m now more often able to do work that appeals to me, but I haven’t always been so fortunate.
Here’s what I’ve learned about work that has helped me move from (generally) resenting and resisting it, to enjoying it:
I’ve learned that putting “work” and “play” into two opposing mental categories (play = good, work = bad) doesn’t reflect reality very well, because so-called “work” can often be very involving, and so-called fun/leisure activities can be quite boring. It all depends on where you're coming from, mentally, as you do the activity.
Marketers have pushed hard to convince us of this imaginary dichotomy (work = bad, fun = good) in order to sell us their long list of “leisure” goods and pastimes, such as tourism, food and drink, hobbies, toys and so on. Eventually, consumers started accepting as truth the notion that work is something anyone should want to escape from (to a car! to the boat! to the islands! to drink a Coke!) The idea of working in a cubicle all day started to seem pretty tough after a lifetime of exposure to a barrage of anti-work commercials advocating instant getaways–even though in actuality, cubicles are designed for concentration and privacy and personal creativity, and working in one might just possibly offer something far more interesting than a possibly dull day spent lying on a dock tanning somewhere. It all depends on how you're conditioned to look at it.
Some people love gardening (for instance) and spend all their leisure time at it. Others hate it but spend just as much time at it, because it's their job. Both people do the same activities, but because they're coming from different places mentally, gardening is fun to one and work to the other.
Mark Twain once attempted to define work as “what a body has to do,” which definition accurately distinguished work from play by focusing solely on where the do-er is coming from. If s/he is coming from a feeling of duty and responsibility, no matter the activity, it becomes “work.” If s/he feels at choice, if the activity feels optional, the activity becomes play, rest, or relaxation.
From a long-term perspective, everyone is always at choice all the time, in everything we do. No one has to do anything at all. On any given day, we can choose to just up and quit and kind of fade away, or die. All we do, all our lives, is make choices, about when and how to die, and about how to spend all the hours we choose to live, in between being born and dying.
We need do nothing. Sudden illnesses and accidents prove this frequently, as presidents and slaves take to their beds and the world still goes on. Consider the lilies of the field: they neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed as one of these.
However, most people have pretty big life-agendas, so most people stay busy.
My husband once pointed out to me that my long list of “Things I Have To Do Today” was in reality a list of all the things I very much wanted to do. Say what?! Like, I want to mow the lawn? Clean the toilet? Pick up the dry cleaning? Yet if someone put a gun to my head and told me that, from now on, I could no longer have clean clothes or bathrooms or a tidy-looking lawn, I’d freak. I want those things in my life. (Actually, someday I’d rather have something more ecologically-sound surrounding me than a lawn, but that’s another story….)
What if someone somewhere suddenly walked into my life and prevented me from taking care of my family or friends or possessions, from working, or learning, or exercising, or making any of the myriad choices I currently indulge in as I decide how to spend the few precious hours that make up my life? I’d be pretty mad, despite the fact that he would have effectively relieved me of my daily task list….
Last week our local YMCA closed for cleaning. I fretted and whined all week about not being allowed to do my usual workout routine. Hmmm. Usually I complain all week about having to do my usual workout routine. What is fun and what is work depends entirely on where I'm coming from at the moment.
Like everyone else, I occasionally get hyper about not doing more of the things on my life list of “Things I Want to Do Before I Die.” But such suffering is mild compared with what I endure when I forget that all the things on my daily “to do” list aren’t merely odious duties and responsibilities that I must somehow grit my teeth and hold my nose and get nobly past; they are exactly the very things I’ve chosen to do, from among all the options I’m currently aware of having, that I most want done.
Maybe it would be nice to be wildly wealthy and pay for lots of others to do more of my work. But then I’d have to expend a lot of time and energy managing their help and my money, and I don’t much relish those tasks either. Besides, if the lessons I most need to learn as an individual involve being wealthy, God will help me get there. And until then, he'll have other lessons for me to learn, in other ways….
Where we “come from,” mentally and emotionally, as we’re doing work, whatever the tasks, is what makes all the difference. I’ve happily retitled all my daily lists to reflect their more appropriate and accurate reality: now they’re “Things I Want To Do Today,” instead of “Things I Have To Do Today” lists. I work hard to remember, these days, to shift my mind from “I have to” or “I need to” or “I must,” to “I want to.”
Along these same lines, whenever my list is long (and it always is) but my schedule flexible (true more often these days than in the past) I’ve learned to ask, given a moment of transition from one task to another, “What do I want to do next?” instead of “What do I have to do next?” The results of this tiny little shift really knocked me out at first. I could hardly believe what a difference this small distinction makes, and I certainly didn’t know the power of this shift until I tried it.
To my great surprise, I found that whenever I genuinely asked that question—“What do I want to do next?”—and took a moment to listen/wait for the answer, I always found that the answer was already on my mental list of things I “needed” to do. Surprising. And amazing. Because I had always thought that if I asked such a question honestly, my subconscious mind would leap to answer me with “lie on a Hawaiian beach!” or “take a trailride down a mountainside!” or some such. But no. Not at all.
Checking out what I want to do before I begin the next activity always makes the next, “chosen” task much more fun, and certainly lighter. Furthermore, when I get an answer and follow up on it, I often find out that my new day's re-ordered schedule is much more efficient than my merely logical brain could ever have designed. My inspirations are always much cleverer than I am.
A related insight about work came to me not long ago while I was pondering the traditional meanings of a religious term, “God’s will.”
I used to think that whatever God’s will for me was, it must be something completely different than my own will for me. Probably, in fact, God’s will for me was in direct opposition to my own, me being a miserable sinner and all, with all kinds of disgusting impulses, and him being perfect. Surely our wills would be in complete opposition, considering the devil whispering in my ear and all. God’s will, as I imagined it, had to be something harder, different, and more self-sacrificial than any of my own very-dear-to-my-heart, most-secret wishes. Doubtless, I thought, God wants me to give all that stuff up, give everything I have to the poor, and come follow him to Africa or somewhere, leaving all I love behind.
So of course, for a long time, I resisted even asking God The Question (“What is your will for me?”) Being pretty willful already, well, I had plans, and didn’t need anyone adding to my list or crossing out my stuff, particularly not God. I was quite confident that none of his answers would agree with any of mine anyway, so I just didn't ask, hoping he wouldn't notice my modest omission.
Surprise. When I finally did work up the guts to actually ask the question (and now I do it more often, day-to-day, and sometimes even moment-to-moment) I always get the same answer. God wants me to be happy. And he wants me to share my happiness with others. That's it.
And the specifics? He helps me with those, too. To my utter amazement and astonishment, I’ve learned that God’s will for me, whether over the long term, or from day to day, is always exactly whatever, on the deepest and highest level, I most want for me, too, at that time. He wants me to do, right now, whatever it is I most want to do right now. Sometimes what I really want to do is so perfect I've reppressed it, but God always dredges it up for me. S/he just works that way, better than magic.
The specific work God recommends of course varies from time to time (and no, I don’t hear voices)—but on the most general level, his will and my will are always the same–to do something, in some small way, that is caring, accepting, supportive, kind, useful. That's the only thing that ever makes me happy, or anyone else, for that matter. And I do so want to be happy.
Mother Theresa once said there are no great acts of love, only small acts of great love.
Often the urge to “do something helpful” takes the form of caring gently for myself. Hey, I’m God’s beloved child too, even though I sometimes forget that. More often, I’m prompted to continue my efforts for others in some small way. All I ever need to do is to remember to ask the question/s—either one of them—“What do I want to do now?” and/or “What is your will for me?” because when I do, I am lifted back into my overriding purpose, and am more able to hold it in the back of my mind as I work or play or whatever you want to call it, feeling well-supported in my task, and receiving the help I need to get that task accomplished peacefully and well.
Staying in the present moment helps a lot too, especially when the present task seems daunting.
In the past, no matter what activity I was engaged in, I spent a lot of time fussing that I really should be doing something else. When I rushed through my half-assed approach to mowing the lawn, I would fret that I hadn’t yet had time to read the newspaper and keep up with current events. Later, as I hurriedly scanned the paper, I worried about doing the laundry. Hastily sorting the laundry, I entertained nagging doubts about not getting in my workout. Yet, running down the road later, I obsessed about neglecting my husband. Alone with him at last, I found myself pining for time to myself, but when I was finally alone, I felt lonely and anti-social and wondered if my life was too self-absorbed. So I’d volunteer, and spend my volunteer hours mulling about not having time left over to use my talents or have a creative life….
And so on and on, in a stupid endless cycle of never being here and now, never living in the present, but always focusing on how I hadn't been or done “enough” in the past, or else hurrying to have, do or be “more” in the future. Funny, but no one ever worries or frets about anything when they’re focused on their work in the present–only when they’re mulling about, in the past and future, which don’t even exist….
In the past, as I rushed to finish the items on my “Have To Do” lists, I often dismissed any possibility of doing anything as well as I could. I mean, why even try, with so many limitations, with so little time and energy to put into any given task, and so many other things to worry about? After all, I reasoned, the results of giving “my best effort” in such a constrained situation would only be embarrassing. So I wouldn't even try. And thus I rarely earned the very real satisfaction that comes with a job well-done, along with its many other rewards.
I've since learned that, even given only a few minutes, one can do one’s best, strive for excellence, focus on one task at a time, stay fully present, pay full attention to each detail, and work hard to appreciate and accept “what is” in that moment.
Alternatively, one can spend those same few minutes rushing around and fretting. In both these instances, the results and the experience of working for those two minutes are totally different. The difference lies always in where I'm coming from–what purpose I’ve given myself, my atttitude toward excellence, and whether or not I recognize that I'm doing something I want to do–or not.
I still often fall into these foolish work patterns (old habits die hard) but I’m also gradually retraining my brain to recall and apply my new insights more often, as new challenges arise.
I’m also finally learning to “chip away” at goals or tasks, to take very small steps, and to be persistent in sticking with each of them.
Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by all that I want to do (and even when I recognize that I’m the one who’s chosen to do all this stuff) I'll somehow manage to remember to mentally push away the whole big (scary) picture—the long impossibly hard list of undone things—and instead select and focus on just one small piece of one thing, and start “chipping away” at it. When I totally focus on that one small step, staying in the present, paying attention to detail, doing the best job I’m capable of doing at that moment (which is, admittedly, sometimes crap, but then, sometimes crap is my best), then I can accept and appreciate my own small contributions, whatever they are, along with my own fallibility and mistakes, and keep on chipping away at the next task.
I’m also getting better about not rushing, pushing or hurrying through work, although I still try to work efficiently and quickly. Again, the differences between these two approaches may seem like very fine distinctions, but the two are really quite different. Again, it’s just a matter of “coming from” a different place, mentally.
Whenever I hurry/rush/push, I just feel bad, because each of these words imply negative self-judgments (“You’re not good enough! You’re moving too slowly! You ought to think faster!” etc.) On the other hand, working quickly or efficiently has the different, more positive connotation of focusing firmly upon effecting my task well, without stress or carelessness. I can work quickly and still attend thoughtfully to the task at hand—something I cannot do when I’m rushing past the present moment toward some vague future urgency.
I learned another helpful work-related tip when training for a marathon: the process of getting there, of doing the actual work itself, that leads up to the goal, is almost always far more satisfying than the final achievement of the goal itself. True, I loved the day of the marathon; it was fun, exciting, exhilarating. But when I looked back afterward, what I really loved most of all was the training, all the good and bad and in-between workouts I got through during the months leading up to the marathon.
So—as all the wise sages know and express, but as I somehow was very slow to “get” on any personal level for such a long time–happiness is not something you find at the end of a journey, but rather, contained within the journey itself. Of course it’s fun to achieve success, but after a brief moment or a day or at most a week of exhilaration, such happiness wears off, and you just move on to the next challenge. Nearly all the fun, all the meaning, the involvement, all the interest lies in the long trip itself, not in the destination. So nowadays, once I’ve decided on a goal, I let go of it, stop thinking about it, and instead focus my attention on chipping away at that day’s or that moment’s work.
Another other good thing I've learned about a steady focus on “process” (rather than on the end-point) is that the final product, the result, usually turns out to be better too….
From my husband's example, I've learned that persistence in the face of huge challenges and overwhelming obstacles is not necessarily, as I was raised to believe, a foolish consistency–something maddening and frustrating, to be avoided at all costs. Difficulties had always been signals for me that, whatever my chosen task, it was now clear that it was inappropriate from the start, and so was no longer worth pursuing.
My husband loves challenges. When he gets one, he lowers his head threateningly, snorts loudly, bellows, and paws the ground thunderously with a glint of fierce joy in his eyes (well, metaphorically speaking, anyway.) He loves it when someone tells him he can’t do something. It makes him laugh. His whole body visibly shifts, readying for action. He loves it when a task is impossible, because for him, impossible takes just a little longer. Challenges energize and focus him, probably because his past persistence has been so well-reinforced by his past successes (and yes, he’s had some failures too, has had to finally give up a time or two, too.) But overall, the harder and more challenging the work, the more he enjoys it. All this came as an amazing revelation to me who grew up with the attitude that if something was difficult, obviously I had picked the wrong task for my talents, and needed to drop it and choose something else to do.
My husband has also taught me by example that a good way to work harmoniously with others is to work hard to make them successful, and also, to help them with what is most important to them (which, to my surprise, is not the same for everyone, and rarely what I would want most, but instead, varies greatly from person to person.) Observing his experience with this, I’ve noticed that most of the many people he has taken the time to understand, help, and support, later have come through for him when he needed them the most.
He’s also taught me something about myself that is probably generalizable to most people—that I’m happiest when I stay busy. I used to rush through my long lists of tasks in order to get a moment to relax and escape from them (and I still enjoy napping and reading.) But for the most part, these days, I try to stay busy and productive. I find staying busy works best all around for me in a lot of different ways.
I'm also learning not to worry about what I leave undone. Even when I try my best to follow all the above “rules,” some important things just don’t get done. But a lot of other things do. And I’m learning to be OK with that kind of imperfect result. Because the depressing fact is, well, ummm, I’m human. (How embarassing.) Which means I’ll never do anything perfectly or to my complete satisfaction, and that’s OK, as long as I know I did my (often meager) best at the time (an important condition!) To err is human (to my surprise), and I’ve recently decided to humbly give up the good fight and join the human race. Learning to be more accepting of others’ imperfections has helped me become a lot easier on myself.
Regular exercise is never selfish. In fact, it’s the most unselfish way you can spend time in your life, along with ingesting wisely, getting a good night’s sleep, and prayer—because you are more able to help both others and yourself when you feel good.
The most tiring thing in the world is the stress of constant judgment, whether it’s directed toward yourself or toward others. Whenever I'm feeling very resistant—about myself, others, or the way the world is, no matter how routine my work of the moment may be, I'm soon exhausted. So one key to peace of mind and relaxation at work (and at play, if I must continue to make such distinctions) is to find new ways to let go of my resistance to others, to myself, and to the way things are in this best of all possible worlds. When I can find my acceptance again, I always return to every task with renewed appreciation for it and for everything and everyone, including myself.
Here’s what else I’ve learned about feeling tired when working: I rest or do something else, briefly, when I can, or at least take a moment to take three long deep slow breaths. I also try to avoid rushing through the present moment in my hurry to get to anticipated rest/reward/relaxation/escape, or to different tasks. Mr. Tortoise was right. Mr. Hare was wrong, remember? He collapsed in exhaustion and never got the job done? A steady work pace offers me a much more productive and peaceful routine than rushing-and-resting-and-rushing-and-resting.
I enjoy my life so much more these days as I’ve gained control over my various addictions. Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, drugs, and food addictions gradually increase body tension and inevitably work against anyone's ability to enjoy work.
Transitions between tasks often challenge me. I'm too tempted to want to hold onto the excitement of my last accomplishment. Although it's always wise to step back and admire my own small achievements and pat myself on the back before moving on, I mostly need to keep moving on. I read somewhere recently that someone has a computer screensaver that says, “What’s Next???” in bold letters. Whoever he is, he has learned to keep on moving, to go on and take the next step, no matter how small. The present always holds new gifts, very different from the gifts of the past. (That’s why they call it “the present….”)
Whenever I’m working, it helps me to remember what the purpose of all my busy-ness is. What is my overriding goal in life, in general, as well as my goal for each specific task I do? The only goal that will ever be satisfying to me or to anyone is always the same one, although it has many faces and many names. Some call it God, others call it peace or truth. Sometimes it’s called service, or kindness, or love, or healing, or joy, or oneness or giving. All are exactly the same goal, shining in all its many different facets. Whenever I’m clear about my purpose as I begin each task, that task goes well and easily. Whenever I lose sight of my goal, or have some other goal in mind, then things don’t go so well.
And what if my current task seems somehow beneath me, unworthy, uninteresting, or radically different from what I would prefer to be doing?
Our culture puts a lot of importance on choice in career, vocation, avocation, i.e., in what we spend our time doing. And since we change a lot as we grow older, and learn more about ourselves, and for all the other reasons it’s so hard to change directions in life, we often feel stuck in work that doesn’t feel right for us.
It is indeed a wonderful thing to be able to do what your heart is pulling you toward. But when I feel I can’t choose that for now, when I feel compelled to work at something which isn’t anywhere near my first choice of activities, I can always make it more interesting, more worthwhile, and more involving by investing my love and time and best efforts and attitudes in it.
My favorite example of this approach is the very nice plumpish lady who runs the bus station in our town. When I first entered her mostly-empty station, I thought about how I’d hate such a boring, scary sort of job. But each time I go there, she is so efficient and kind, so courteous and warm to the regulars who come and go, so helpful and thoughtful with each newly confused customer…. The whole place simply shines with her attention. Her beautiful plants adorn each sunny window. She does her job as well as anyone could do it, and she enjoys her day because she extends her quiet, unassuming and gentle kind of love and intelligence and effort to every person who walks in the door. Since she recently (uncomplainingly) lost a leg to diabetes, she has found new resourceful ways to make the necessary adaptations to continue her cheerful work.
We’re given the tasks before us for a reason. It’s impossible to be in the wrong place or at the wrong time, for the universe always offers us exactly the lessons we need to learn right now (and when we don’t use the present opportunity to learn them, well then, the universe will offer them to us again, and soon, in another form. So we might as well get on with it.)
I try to remember to jump in when something not-my-favorite just has to get done. I try to use the moment to learn, grow, and do my best no matter what it is I have before me, trusting that other doors will open, and other challenges will appear after I’ve learned to do this job well. What I’m doing right now is what I most need to be doing, as long as I’m doing it the best I can. I cannot be but in the right place at the right time. There are no accidents.
It also helps to remind myself that I’m not punching a temporal time-clock anymore. With my newfound perspective of having all of eternity to get things right (however “eternity” may look—no one knows) these days I relax more, feel less rushed and hurried. (But I’d still rather learn to be happy sooner, and to share my happiness sooner, so I still try to get on with it.)
It’s also relaxing to remember that mistakes are OK with God, and with everyone else too, no matter what others say or act like, because they've made them too, and will make more of them. And the higher up the career ladder they go, the bigger their new mistakes will be, and the more they'll make. Messing up big-time is what being human is all about—that, and learning from our mistakes, and moving on to our next (usually harder) lessons. I see nothing in nature or in the nature of God (although I see much in formal religion) that condemns anyone for their mistakes, and I see great rewards inherent in learning from them, and moving on.
I’m dearly loved by God exactly as I am. He made me exactly as I am because that’s the way he meant for me to be—fallible. As the saying goes, God don’t make no junk. With this eternal—and eternally “forgiven”—perspective in mind, I’m much less likely to rush around trying to make up for my far-less-than-perfect past or worry about some vague future. If it’s enough for God that I relax and focus on the task at hand, it’s enough for me, too.
God never ever gives up on anyone. The life he gives us is about just-keep-on-truckin’, and he gives us all the time and help we'll need (if we ask him) to do whatever he wants us to do. God never goes away mad, although we often do. He just keeps on waiting around until we come back around to him.
My family teases me because I've always been one to keep on making (and raving on and on about) all these great astounding new spiritual discoveries that revolutionize my life—but really, they’re always just the same old rehashed ones, reappearing over and over in different guises. It’s just that I forget about them for awhile, and then I get excited about them when they come up again, all reinforced and seemingly brand shiny-new. God has been so very patient with my comings and goings.
I sometimes think dogs are the special creation that God gave us, to teach us what unconditional love really means. God always greets me upon my return to him in just the same way my darling joyous little spaniel Tally greets me when I come home–even when I’ve just stepped on his tail coming hurriedly in the door, and oops, I forgot to feed him, and drat, I’m late, so he’s suffered the indignity and disgrace of having to pee on the floor. What the hell, he says, hey, you’re the greatest! Wow! I sure love you! YAY you’re HOME! With God and his children, it’s always all about “what’s next?” and never about whatever happened before we came home again.
Trying to use your special talents if you can (and we all have some) is always a good idea. What are they? They’re all those abilities you’ve always taken for granted, all the abilities you devalued, the ones you were certain couldn’t be all that wonderful because they were always somehow just there, without much effort on your part. People always told you that you were good at them, and to be sure, most other people weren’t so often good at them. All those overlooked and under-appreciated gifts you tended to denigrate and blow off? Yes, them. They're your talents. You have them.
Whenever I’ve developed and used my talents in service to some small slice of humanity, in some small way, it has always been so very satisfying. My gifts were given me for a very special (often unfathomable) reason. So were yours. And someday, looking back, we'll both know why.
On the other hand, no one, ever, ever (ever) who ever achieved anything remarkable, whether it be in a career or in any other field of endeavor–whether the work involved special talents or no particular aptitude at all–no one has ever achieved any level of success without a whole lot of struggle, many difficult tradeoffs, very long hours, and a lot of hard hard work. Just because a person has talent, just because they have a real interest, or really really want to do or be or have something, or just because they’re a whiz-kid and a natural wunderkind, doesn’t mean they still won’t have to overcome incredible challenges to reach success in their chosen field or in their chosen goals. This applies to whatever anyone wants most, whether it’s a successful marriage, a career, a lifestyle, an education, spiritual growth, whatever. A lot of life is about tradeoffs, and we'll someday know what was important to us, when we look back at our lives and see where we put our time….
Similarly, just because something apparently costs me an unreasonable number of hours or days or years of struggle to achieve, doesn’t mean I’ve chosen the wrong goal or career, or whatever. It only means that I am toughing through all the necessary work it takes to grow into an ever-more useful and happy person, meeting challenges, enduring a thousand failures and mistakes and kicks in the face—just like all the great leaders who have ever lived. Study Lincoln sometime if you want to read a long history of disastrous and heartbreaking failures, right up until the time he became President (and sadly, even after that.) Our greatest leaders aren't perfect. What they are is willing.
I’m trying to learn to persevere, for when I do, I find plenty of opportunities for renewed humility and the new wisdom that accompanies each temporary setback, along with the reinforcement that comes with renewed purpose and commitment. Perseverence through difficulties will help me become that much more productive and effective and useful and marketable than I ever was before. God never closes a door without opening a window.
I haven’t yet learned to apply all this stuff consistently, or in all situations, and I never will (at least not in this lifetime….) But I'm chipping away at it, and am much enjoying this joyous and rewarding lifetime process. I’ve come a long way toward becoming a happier, more productive, and less stressed-out worker.
This particular missive, howevr, has gone on way too long, and I've missed my workout and I'm late in making dinner and I'm stressed out and tired.
But happy. So herein endeth my tale.