Work and Careers

If you read a lot of lifestyle blogs like I do, I’m sure you have come across the word “passion” a few times. We are encouraged to “follow our passion” or if we don’t know what it is, to “find our passion”. People with multiple interests are encouraged to merge their many passions into one over-arching mega passion, or be dextrous multi-passionate plate spinners.

The idea of following a passion has certainly caught on in the collective imagination, with many people are getting out of their comfort zones (or discomfort zones) and pursuing what they are passionate about. This is exciting stuff; its energising to think that one really can live a passionate life.

Having said that I’m more of your moderate, middle of the road kind of personality. I have things that interest and concern me, but I try to keep calm about it. I don’t generally describe myself as passionate about things because I’m not an exuberantly emotional person.

I have been looking through the job ads for casual and part-time work, and this is given me cause to question the marketability of my tranquil nature. I have seen a few jobs that I might be interested in, but then I come across this requirement:

Must be passionate about …..

Hmm. So if I want a job as a casual sales assistant in an office supplies store, I need to be passionate about stationery. Really?

Now I must confess I do like stationery. I have been known to get excited about a matching set of six well made highlighter pens in pretty colours. I do get it, that people like stationery. But its not one of my life’s passions.

It seems that employers are also attracted to the passion principle, and are seeking staff with a passion for their products. But I wonder if passion really is an essential criteria for a successful working arrangement. A declaration of passion seems like a lot to ask for in a job application, particularly if is a role that doesn’t offer high pay or a long term commitment in return.

This puts me in a tricky position because if I am going to be passionate about anything its going to be a value or a principle, rather than a physical object. For example I could get passionate about “authenticity”. That’s inconvenient. It makes it difficult for me claim that I am passionate about pens and pencils.

Actually think I’d make a pretty good stationery store employee if what they are looking for is calm and friendly competence. But I can’t pretend to be what I’m not. I don’t want to fake an over-inflated enthusiasm I don’t feel and it bothers me that job applicants are put in the position of having to distort their personality to fit in with a narrow corporate culture.

So here’s my dilemma. If I am passionate about authenticity and honesty, then I’m going to be tempted to use my blog to holdup a mirror to the values of our culture. Thats going to mean writing blog posts that make it difficult to get a job in a chain store. Unless that chain store recognises that casual and part-time workers are there to fulfill a worthwhile purpose, but it’s not necessarily a life’s passion, and they’re going to bring their own personalities and interests with them.

Related Links:

Lorilee Lippincott on Passion and Purpose.

My various experiments in blogging, website design and online selling have given me an opportunity to reflect on how computers help us to do work. If you are starting from scratch, you decide in advance what you are dealing with and set rules about what you want to happen, then someone sets up a computer program to make it happen that way. If the computer program has already been written, as is the case with a pre-existing online selling website, or a blogging platform, most of that work has been done, and you need to work out how to achieve what you want to do within the confines of existing features of the application.

This automated nature of the computer applications means is a lot of effort goes into modelling scenarios and building solutions based on what might happen and how it might be dealt with before it actually happens.  Computers aren’t less work, they are a different type of work. Setting them up is not easy. Establishing the requirements for a computer application, building, testing and maintaining it is difficult work that deals with minute details and complex rules and operations. Customising an existing applications to your needs presents the challenge of working within pre-existing assumptions and solutions that might not be a good fit for your situation.

This digital age has created a lot of employment opportunities for knowledge workers, who are paid to focus their abilities and intelligence on these types of highly complex problems. Its can be interesting and challenging work that engages the mind and makes strong demands on the intellect. Knowledge workers are presented with an endless stream of problems to investigate, analyse and solve. Problems so complex that you have to get totally absorbed in the details to be able to do the work. Problems so complex that you lose yourself in them, and wake up at night trying to resolve them. Problems so complex that they take up an enormous amount of disc space in your consciousness, at the cost of other potential objects of your attention.

I suspect this need to become deeply absorbed in the work in order to do it well, and the tendency for it to spill over into free time, is a reason why some people feel the urge to resist or rebel against technology work. This may be one reason why people “play” on the internet when they are supposed to be working. They want to infuse their consciousness with something that speaks to their own identity, rather than having a head full of technical problems. It may be why some people long to quit their job and “follow their passion”. Of course if we work in IT applying out attention to the task at hand is what we are paid for, and those of us who are conscientious strive to do that well. But there can be an underlying fear that devoting so much time and attention to our work is causing us to miss out.

My recent experience with trying to set up rules to calculate postage rates for potential online sales reminded me of the all consuming nature of knowledge work. While my mind was spinning over how to solve this issue it was very difficult to connect with other people who were right in front of me, or other projects that I wanted to work on. I felt consumed by the problem I was trying to solve in my head and it was distancing me from other things that were important. I am good at analysis and problem solving because I DO throw myself into a problem and get involved in all the detailed complexity. I DO put all my resources into coming up with a solution to a messy multi-faceted scenario.  But that commitment to the task and absorption in its logic does not leave a lot of space for anything else. It can be such an effort to get a grasp on the details of a specific issue, it can be difficult to put it down over lunch, or at the end of the day.

Creativity, writing, photography, relationships, spiritual development. These are the things that are important to me. There is an opportunity cost to performing well in a demanding full time job, and these are the causalities. I don’t want to be ignoring the people around me because my head is  full of a complex abstract problem. I don’t want nights and weekends to reduced to “recovery time”. When I am on my death bed, I don’t want to be reflecting on my ability to analyse data, processes and applications. I will on occasion lend my attention to solving problems and puzzles, for work or fun. But I will be guarding against the high-jacking of my consciousness to the detriment of people and projects that are important to me.  At this time in my life, I want to use the best of my time, attention and creativity for my own priorities.

I have been quiet in the last couple of weeks due to being unwell. My health has been very good since I stopped work nearly a year ago, however this past few weeks I have been under the influence of some kind of virus that has given me low grade fevers and general lethargy. I suspect food intolerance was involved too, but you don’t get a fever from food intolerance, so there must be more to it than that. I can’t say it was too unpleasant, as the symptoms have been fairly mild, but its been enough to need frequent rests and not too much challenge.

Its strange being sick when you work from home, because its less of a dramatic change. I didn’t have to check in and explain my absence, or go to the doctor for certificates to authorise sick leave. I didn’t miss the constant need to assess whether I was “well enough to go to work” and estimating (wrongly) when I would be going back.

Being sick was a more subtle experience as it meant I spent even more time at home that I normally would, as I wasn’t able to do the many of the things that would take me out of the house. I tried to keep my hand in with a few projects, and was able to progress a few things, although I tired very quickly, and didn’t have very good stress tolerance when I encountered obstacles and difficulties. I still went through the “am I well enough” conversation with myself on a micro level, about particular projects I wanted to work on. Am I well enough to make some cards? Am I well enough to write my blog? Am I well enough to list this for sale online? I did struggle a little bit with wanting to push myself to do things when I really needed to rest and relax.

The weirdest part is now, when I am almost normal again. I feel ready to “go back to work” but there is no workplace to go back to. I am missing that part where you walk in the door and everyone says “hello stranger”. I am missing having a tangible list of jobs to get on with and projects to pickup. I am missing the people.

The work that I have been doing from home is really exploratory projects that have the potential to lead to an income, but are not yet producing enough to live on. This kind of work relies on momentum, enthusiasm, creativity, following your intuition. Getting back into that flow is very different to checking your email inbox and sifting through in your in tray. The momentum is building, but not yet flowing. I have been frustrated by the desire to do things, without the energy or concentration to see them through.

I continue to recall the advice in The Luck Factor regarding the habits of lucky people. I feel like I have a good grasp of one of the four behaviours, following your intuition. I understand being open to opportunity and turning a negative into a positive, and try to keep those in mind. The area where I am weakest is “expecting to succeed“.

One characteristic of lucky people is that they expect to be lucky. On closer examination how this works is that they behave in ways that maximise their chances of success. They put in a lot of effort and persevere to make sure they get the outcome they want. I am keeping this in mind as I am recovering my health. I am inclined to try things out without any certainty of success and there is a risk that I will underestimate the difficulty and give up too easily. Getting back out there to sell greeting cards and promote my professional organising business feels daunting as I regather my strength and focus. But I remember how much I was enjoying it before I got so rudely interrupted.

While I was digging around the shoes this morning looking for a missing thong (flipflop/rubber sandal) it occurred to me that this had become my idea of formal wear. It seemed like a big decision to be voluntarily putting on footwear to walk around the house in summer, but I was feeling like I needed some cushioning for my feet. Now that I am working from home, and particularly since it has been the summer break, I haven’t needed to be wearing shoes or dressy clothes nearly as often. I couldn’t find the thong so I took it up another notch and I am now wearing my running shoes and feeling very energetic and efficient as a consequence.

Its a different experience working from home because unless you have and outside job or meeting, it doesn’t really matter what you are wearing. Nevertheless, I do feel the need to cultivate a different mindset on what I deem to be “work days”. These are days were I am working actively on my various creative projects, doing tasks associated with setting up my business, or looking for part-time or freelance work. Often I work barefoot, but I sometimes find it helpful to dress up a little bit more than I would for a relaxation day, which might just mean joggers and a better class of T-shirt.

On work days I aim to build up some momentum by moving purposely between tasks. I have a diary where I make a list of projects and tasks for the week, then pick out various aspects each day. What I choose to do is to some extent influenced by the weather because some days its too hot to be working at the computer for long due to the heat it gives off into the room. I was very productive yesterday to make up for the lost day the day due to heatwave conditions. Today I will do as much as possible as we have another couple of hot days coming up. My other option in hot weather is to get up early or work later in the evening when it is cooler.

I am still getting used to the idea that a work day can be on the weekend, or at least part of the weekend, and a relaxation day can be during the week. I have some residual guilt on weekdays that I should be “at work” but I really enjoy the flexibility I have at the moment. I like working when I feel inspired and being able to do social things on weekdays. As the normal pace of life picks up after the Christmas/New Year lull I will have more work and social activities outside the house and more occasions to get dressed up.

I wonder what my podiatrist will think about my new lifestyle given that the lack of structure in my worklife has translated into a lack of foot support. You see I am supposed to be wearing orthotics to hold up my floppy arches, which does presuppose that one is wearing shoes. Hopefully he will understand that I am not doing serious mileage in my bare feet; and I will endeavour to meet him halfway, by occasionally throwing on some shoes.

Over the holidays I have been considering different potential sources of income, and how they might work together to make a reasonable living. Until this year I have always worked in permanent positions with set hours and a lot of built in benefits. This model has the advantage of being fairly secure, in so far as you don’t need to keep revisiting the question of where the work is going to come from. Its efficient because you know when you need to be at work and how much you will be paid. The nature of the work you need to be doing is provided for you by your employer. The downside of this type of job is the lack of flexibility and autonomy.

I have been thinking about other models where work comes from a variety of sources, in the form of a number of smaller jobs negotiated separately, or even from a variety of different types of work. I am already working on establishing a professional organising business, but this will take time to build up, and there is going to be free time around that where I could be working on other income generating projects. Apart from the uncertainty of the work flow in that business, I think the intensity of that work would benefit by being balanced out by other types of activities.  I have been thinking about doing some consulting work, and I am now also considering the potential role of writing and photography as possible income sources.

There are many professions which have a high degree of flexibility in the way that time is allocated. My Dad was a minister, and thats one profession where the boundaries between personal and professional life and time can be very fluid. My Dad worked on Sunday mornings, and taught scripture in school term time, but was often free to take us to school or pick us up in the afternoon. In a job like that, work could be any day of the week, or any time of the day, depending on what was going on. I also had the idea that my Dad worked for God, and thats a hard act to follow. As a young person the concept of work was linked with vocation and spirituality and not having that type of link in my own work has led to a feeling that something was missing.

Creative people who make a living from selling their work also have a lot of flexibility about when they work. I am making a wild assumption here, but I am betting Picasso didn’t feel concerned about the lack of structure resulting from not having a day job. Professional artists seem to have a very fluid lifestyle in which work can be at any hour of the day, when inspiration strikes. The image of the starving artist conveys the sense that for some people the drive to live out the creative process is more important than earning a steady income. Of course in some cases, devotion to their art was to the detriment of family life, health, and everything else. Nevertheless, its not necessary to be absolutely obsessed to make an income from creativity.

So this is where I am.  In the quiet space between Christmas and New Year I am wondering about the possibilities of different ways of earning an income that offer greater flexibility and autonomy. Wondering what that life would feel like if I made living as a creative being a permanent priority.

Last night I stumbled (or should I say careened?) onto the Q + A Tuesday videos of James Victore. James is a super-energetic graphic designer who has started doing weekly videos responding to peoples questions on life and careers. What he has to say is inspirational for people who want to live creatively and pursue their own projects.

I came across James via 99U which is a regular on my blog reader. He is featured on one of their Top 20 Insights, Talks and Quotables On Making Ideas Happen for 2012.  He has written a piece for 99U on confidence vs shyness which was very pertinent for me. Its hard to appreciate that this passionate, high-energy guy has to deal with his “shyness default setting” when putting himself across. He describes confidence as “being there”, paying attention to what is at hand, rather than the fears and doubts in your head.

In one of his videos on Being Lost he responds to a question about lack of career direction. These words really stood out to me:

Beware of the straight path.

Beware of any path.

If you find yourself on a path, get off it.

This was timely advice for me as I have been struggling with my very strong tendency to take the safe and traditional path. Although I have veered off into a very different lifestyle, which I love, its not yet financially viable, so a part of me keeps thinking I had better start hunting around for the main path and get some steady income. But I don’t feel finished with learning what this unknown path has to teach me. The conventional path has never led me to where I wanted to be. As James says, other people have been in this place of uncertainty, and we can take encouragement from that.

I will be checking out more Q + A Tuesday videos as James’ energy and enthusiasm is contagious. I am pleased that I have freed up time for learning what I need to learn, the way I need to learn it.  This feels more like the school that I need to be attending just now.

Elite athletes know what its like to monitored by precision instruments. A swimmer can lose a race by a hundredth of a second. A runner can be disqualified for jumping the gun by a whisper. They just can’t get away with anything. No margin for error.

I have an inner compass that sometimes feels a bit like that. When its in the Wrong Path mode is very finely callibrated. Don’t go that way. This is the wrong path for you. This doesn’t feel right. It can be difficult to make decisions when there seem to be so many no go zones. Things that seem wise and logical often fail to get past the inner compass. So much so that I sometimes I wish it would give me a break and let me get away with something even if it isn’t my “true north”.

Its seems like someone else was on duty the day the calibrated the True Path mode on my internal compass. Its much more subtle. The sign posts are not large and clear. Nothing is calling me forth with magnetic force. The True Path mode is comprised of fleeting ideas, wishful inklings, quiet yearnings and out of the blue hunches.

Fortunately both modes do have fairly good post decision feedback. If I head up the Wrong Path, I am going be feeling increasingly stressed, sick, depleted and miserable. If I am on the True Path, I feel energised, excited, content, integrated and confirmed.

Attempting to live life on the True Path, guided by intuition, is like being guided through the forest by the twitter of a little blue bird that flits in and out of sight. Don’t be fooled though. The little bird doesn’t just lead me through green meadows scattered with flowers. It wants me to go into some pretty tough places, that I wouldn’t normally consider. I want to yell “Are you kidding me?” But its already going off ahead.

So far my experiment with following this Inner Compass has confirmed that it is a more satisfying way to live. When it comes to my personal life, I have been able to let go of a lot of “shoulds” and find a more natural and rewarding path.

The challenge for me now is in relation to work. Can I trust the whispers of intuition to help me find a way to earn a living that represents the True Path? Or do I have to start getting realistic and push against my reluctance  in order to get something happening? I can see why poor starving artists end up poor and starving! Following the path of intuition, life becomes more like a treasure hunt with a rough map and no guarantee that the treasure even exists.

People said I was brave to quit my job earlier in the year, but I didn’t experience it that way. Now however, six months later, the stakes are getting higher. It feels like courage is needed to stay on the path that I embarked upon. I have travelled a long way out of my comfort zone, and I may never get back to it. I really don’t know where my compass will take me.