The problem with libraries is that they can be so large, impressive, and filled with knowledge that they unwittingly embed in us an idea that everything worth registering, everything valuable and true, must lie ‘out there’, must already have been classed on a shelf with an index number to await our discovery the moment we cease to be so preoccupied with ourselves.
But what this modest, respectful and quietly self-hating conclusion disguises is that each one of us is an unparalleled and superlative center of knowledge in and of ourselves; our minds have more ideas stored in them than are to be found in the collective catalogues of the Biblioteca Geral da Universidade de Coimbra, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the British library in London; we have vaults filled with a greater number of moving and beautiful scenes than those of the world’s greatest museums put together. We are just failing to wander the stacks and galleries as often as we should; we are failing to notice what we have seen. So convinced are we that insights of worth lie beyond us, we have omitted to consult the treasury of thoughts and visions generated every hour by our endlessly brilliant, fatefully unexplored minds.
The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked:
“In the minds of geniuses, we find — once more — our own neglected thoughts.”
In other words, geniuses don’t have thoughts that are in the end so very different from our own; they have simply had the confidence to take them more seriously. Rather than imagining that their minds are only a pale shadow of the minds of infinitely greater thinkers who lived and died elsewhere long ago, they have been respectful enough of their existence to conceive that one or two properly valuable ideas might plausibly chose to alight in the familiar aviary of their own intelligences. Thinking is — in a way we generally refuse to imagine — a truly democratic activity.
We all have very similar and very able minds; where geniuses differ is in their more confident inclinations to study them properly.
In the last two hundred, the world has witnessed the greatest increase in productivity in the history of humanity. From 1 A.D to 1820, living standards in the West slowly doubled, rising from a GDP per person of $600 a year to $1,200. Then, over the next 200 years, it catapulted up by a factor of more than twenty, to stand at over $26,000.
Not only have we become more productive, we have also acquired a sense of what being productive should look like: being in an office, surrounded by a lot of people, attending meetings, travelling a lot and answering many, many messages.
But we may thereby be in danger of missing out on what the most fruitful kind of work actually requires. In so far as the world most decisively advances through ideas, through clarity of thought around the large first order questions, then arguably some of our most productive moments will have little in common with the scenarios envisaged by the modern religion of hard work. They will be quiet, outwardly idle moments in which we’ll at last have the opportunity to break through cliched assumptions and received ideas, in which something vital and authentic will surge through our minds and in which we’ll have the courage to take a neglected intuition seriously or give an opposing point of view the benefit of the doubt, moments in which we’ll realise how little time we have left on earth and will use the feeling of panic to orient us towards what we really want and have known for a long time already needs to be done.
Paradoxically, it can be hard to do this sort of thinking in the expected locations. Familiar places breed familiar thoughts. Surrounded by a hundred colleagues, an original vision can feel inappropriate. Thinking is also hard when thinking is all we’re meant to be doing. A blank sheet of paper on a brisk Monday morning can panic the mind into silence. The best sort of thinking emerges when we have no set agenda, in the hollows of the day, when we are meant merely to be walking around the park or taking a train journey, having a bath or staring blankly into space. It is then that our best, but also most furtive thoughts, may be lured out of the unconscious and can be glimpsed by reason before they have a chance to run away again. There is a discomfiting aspect to many of our important ideas; they would, if taken seriously, often entail an element of disruption. We might have to make big changes to the way we do things, we might have to upset people and correct now false assumptions. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take such thoughts seriously, but it explains our deep temptation not to. We are so much better at executing on plans than stepping back to evaluate whether the plans are the right ones. We are geniuses at working out the thousand small steps required to advance a project, but poor at giving ourselves the time and space to figure out whether the project was ever even relevant.
If we had the strength to disagree with the harried conditions of modern work, we might come to recognise that a quiet room in mid afternoon, when we have nothing pressing to do till supper, no one to see and no messages to reply to, might be among the most productive places we could be. We would recognise the profound value of spending hours staring out of the window, ostensibly ‘wasting time’ but in reality perhaps generating thoughts that would spare us extraordinary confusion and error. The figure in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting might look as if she was doing ‘nothing’, but some of our greatest insights come when we stop trying to be purposeful and instead respect the creative potential of reverie and free association. Window daydreaming is a strategic rebellion against the excessive demands of immediate (but ultimately insignificant) pressures – in favour of the slow development of more substantial plans.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, Strandgade 30.,1909.
We are encouraged to be hard on ourselves for our ‘lazy’ moods, inactivity can feel like a sin against the bustling activity of modernity. But it might be that at points the real threat to our happiness and self-development lies not in our failure to be busy, but in the very opposite scenario: in our inability to be ‘lazy’ enough. Outwardly idling does not have to mean that we are neglecting to be fruitful. It may look to the world as if we are accomplishing nothing at all but, below the surface, a lot may be going on that’s both important and in its own way very arduous. When we’re busy with routines and administration, we’re focused on those elements that sit at the front of our minds: we’re executing plans rather than reflecting on their value and ultimate purpose. But it is to the deeper, less accessible zones of our inner lives that we have to turn in order to understand the foundations of our problems and arrive at decisions and conclusions that can govern our overall path. Yet these only emerge – tentatively – when we are feeling brave enough to distance ourselves from immediate demands; when we can stare at clouds and follow the movement of tree branches.
Someone who looks extremely active, whose diary is always filled, may appear the opposite of lazy. But secretly, there may be a lot of avoidance going on beneath the outward frenzy. Busy people evade a different order of undertaking. They are practically a hive of activity, yet they don’t get round to working out their real feelings about their work. They constantly delay the investigation of their own direction. They are lazy when it comes to understanding the purpose of their lives. Their busy-ness is in fact a subtle but powerful form of distraction – in fact, a kind of laziness.
Our lives might be a lot more balanced if we learnt to re-allocate prestige. We should think that there is courage not just in travelling the world, but also in daring to sit at home with our thoughts, risking encounters with certain anxiety-inducing or melancholy but also highly necessary ideas. The heroically hard worker isn’t necessarily the one in the business lounge of the international airport, it might be the person gazing without expression out of the window, and occasionally writing down one or two ideas on a pad of paper. That might be the hard work that will properly honour our potential.
It is tempting to pretend that the body has no particular claim on us – and to overlook how much it controls who we can be, what we can achieve and how we’re able to think.
We may, for example, mistakenly imagine that the ideas circulating in our minds must always be a product of reason, and rest upon intellectual foundations assembled from sober arguments. The way we feel about politics, our assessment of our professional futures, our view of holidays or the manners of our children can appear to have formed in our minds on the basis of rational induction alone. But in truth, much of what is in consciousness is merely the shadow and puppet play of the body’s inclinations, playing itself out in the theater of the mind. A passing mood of intense optimism may in the end come down not to our thorough or realistic evaluation of the prospects for humanity, but to the ingestion of 250ml of orange juice; while an equally strong mood of despair and fury may be founded not on genuine grievance, but on a collapse in blood sodium levels.
We are especially inclined to forget the extent to which what we think has been coloured by how much we have slept. It is well understood by wise parents that the very young should only go for so long without a nap. After baby has spent a pleasant morning, after friends have come around and brought presents and made animated faces, after there has been some cake and some cuddles, after there have been a lot of bright lights and perhaps some songs too, enough is enough. Unless some urgent preventive measures are taken, baby will start to look stern and then burst into tears and the experienced parent knows that nothing is particularly wrong (though the baby may by now be wailing): it is just time for a nap. The brain needs to process, digest and divide up the welter of experiences that have been ingested, and so the curtains are drawn, baby is laid down next to the soft toys and soon it is asleep and calm descends. Everyone knows that life is going to be a lot more manageable again in an hour.
Sadly, we exercise no such caution with ourselves. We treat our brains as if they were robust computers rather than delicate organs housed within a fickle animal that must carefully be soothed, watered, fed and put to rest. We schedule a week in which we will see friends every night, in which we’ll do 12 meetings (three of them requiring a lot of preparation), where we’ll make a quick overnight dash to another country on the Wednesday, where we’ll watch three films, read 14 newspapers, change six pairs of sheets, have five heavily meals after 8pm and drink 30 coffees – and then we lament that our ideas feel a bit scrambled and that we are close to mental collapse. We refuse to take seriously how much of our vulnerable babyhood is left inside our adult selves – and therefore, how much care we must take of our bodies if the mind is to have any chance of retaining a hold on sanity. What register as anxiety, ill-temper and sadness are typically not real phenomena, but symptoms of our bodies’ enraged pleas for us to put them to bed.
Hubristically, we assume that most of daylight hours can sensibly be devoted to work without any ensuing cost or penalty. But the body insists otherwise. Unless we are too stubborn to hear it, it will always call out – at around three in the afternoon, in that widely-known but rarely mentioned blank zone where, in organisations and offices around the world, despite a patina of activity, nothing of value has ever been thought or done – to be lain down somewhere on a bed, divan, sofa, corner armchair, field or hayloft and left to itself for twenty minutes.
The sophistication of any civilisation could be measured via a people’s readiness to accept – whatever the inconvenience – a primary role for the siesta and the extent to which it can build in measures to accommodate it in its architecture, social routines and works of art.
Joaquín Sorolla, La Siesta, 1911
The siesta symbolises a mature recognition of our fleshly reality and of the limits set by our biochemical makeup to our ability to think and act well. We are not being lazy, we’re acknowledging that we are not sole masters of our house and that if we are to permit the best of ourselves to emerge, we have to do justice to our stifled yawns.
A civilisation that doesn’t accept a role for siestas is also likely to be one that can’t accept a place for dying or more generally cannot come to terms with the limits placed on human endeavour by biological reality. It is a civilisation that hasn’t squared up to its own nature.
When we have learnt how to stop and take a nap, we are also likely to have grasped that we are mortal – and must therefore at all times be kind enough to ourselves and others to pay heed to the wisdom of exhaustion.
There are few questions harder or lonelier than: ‘what should I do with the rest of my working life?’. We are often simply meant to know the answer – and a lot of people tend to be invested in us continuing along the safe and predictable path.
But, in private, some of us are acutely aware that we aren’t very happy where we are – and would love to find a way towards a job that truly fulfills our souls.
Tantalisingly, many of the answers we need better to direct our futures are inside us already, but we need help in getting them out, in making sense of them and in assembling them into a plan.
This is a set of essays and prompts to help us learn more about our working identities – and to guide us deftly towards the kind of jobs we need in order to thrive and honour our talents.
1. Why Now?
Career ‘crises’ tend to befall us at particular times – for reasons that we don’t necessarily entirely understand but should study with generous attention.
However valid it might be to examine the specifics of our career conundrums, it’s also worth stepping back a little to ask why a dissatisfaction might have descended at this particular juncture.
From a desire to shield ourselves from challenging or anxiety-provoking truths, we might inadvertently be hiding some of the true causes of our mental distress. For example, we might find it easier to say that we hate our job in general rather than admit that we are being dragged down by a frostiness that has descended in our relationship with a particular colleague we had once very much hoped to connect with. A powerful longing to find a new professional identity might – in a circuitous way – be bound up with an unhappiness in our sex lives or a sadness that our children are to leave home soon.
This isn’t to say that there is nothing wrong with our lives, simply to emphasise that we need to get as clear as possible about what exactly the problem(s) might be, so as to ensure that we can accurately focus in on the root causes of our restlessness.
In career therapy sessions, ‘why now?’ is one of the most powerful questions ever raised – and we should keep our minds open to the many varied available answers. We might be in some sort of crisis but – with beautiful strangeness – perhaps not exactly the sort of career crisis we had initially imagined.
- What is unique to this moment?
- Is there anything else distinctly challenging that might be unfolding?
- If you could address something in your life other than your career, what might this be?
- What’s changed since you were last professionally content?
We often suffer not just from a desire to move jobs, but from a panicked sense that we need to move right now – even when, objectively, there is no immediate financial or practical necessity to do so.
The mind comes to a view that by taking a particular course of action, by ‘doing something now’, we will rid ourselves of what feels like an underlying agony or claustrophobia. We should notice the extent to which we are motivated not by a relaxed curiosity about another professional world, but by a desire to stop an inner suffering and restlessness.
This should give us pause for thought. Career therapy is as a rule suspicious of haste. It isn’t that we never need to make a change. It’s just that the longing to make a change while feeling that one has no alternative but to do so is often a sign that we’re trying to solve a problem by deploying an only partially-related solution. The time to move is when not moving might also – somehow – be an option.
If we can stay patient, we may realise that there is, in the background, an unconscious hope that a career move is going to spare us some kind of emotional toll: an ongoing humiliation, a feeling of not being valued, a sense of helplessness or unlovability. It might be that we need to go back and mourn something that went wrong in the past, rather than alter our job in the present.
Career therapists often operate with a curious rule of thumb: if it looks like a work problem, it may well, deep down, be a love problem. And, correspondingly, if it looks like a love problem, it can – oddly – turn out to be in essence a work problem…
- How do you hope you will feel after this career move?
- How do you think you will feel if you don’t change?
- What would be the dangers of not acting?
- What are the dangers of gradual change?
- Might it be a love problem rather than a work problem?
The Difficulty of Thinking
One of the frustrating features of our minds is that the more significant our thoughts happen to be, the more they have a tendency to escape our grasp. Thinking about our careers is very hard indeed, because it tends to induce intense anxiety about the value of our lives and the scale of the challenges before us.
An original thought might, for example, herald a realisation that we’ve been pursuing the wrong approach to an important issue for far too long. We might discover that there is a lot we’re going to need to change.
A blunt demand that we should ‘think harder’ may not be the best approach. In order to give new, threatening but important thoughts the best possible chance of developing, we may have to make use of certain mental tricks. The mind sometimes doesn’t think too well if thinking is all it is allowed to do; so it should sometimes be a given a routine task to distract it and help it lower its guard. For instance, a long journey alone in a train or on a plane may render our minds more willing to entertain certain intimately challenging ideas. We can find reassurance when we are at a distance from the normal context of our lives; if we make a decision we won’t have to act on it immediately. The passing countryside can give us a spectacle to absorb our restlessness. Something similar might happen if we go alone to a cafe – or take a walk in the countryside: here the rhythm of our steps is semi-automatic, we half notice what’s going on around us – but it’s not important or urgent; the more paranoid, rigid surface of the mind can be gently occupied so that our deeper and more awkward thoughts can slip in unnoticed.
We should accept that our brains are strange, delicate instruments that evade our direct commands and are perplexingly talented at warding off the very ideas that might save us or help us flourish.
- Don’t sit down for hours with a blank sheet of paper titled: ‘What I should do with the rest of my life.’
- Think while trying to do something else, for example, having a shower, taking a train ride, sitting in a cafe
- Keep your thoughts in a notebook: let them tumble out randomly and accumulate them slowly. See, after a few weeks, what you’ve collected. Understanding ourselves tends to happen retrospectively.
- To quell your own mind’s tendency to go blank, plug your brain into someone else’s. Talk this through with a friend – or a therapist.
The Agony of Choice
A lot of the reasons why we don’t move forward is that we are terrified of choice – and because, implicitly, we believe that there might be such a thing as cost-free, perfect choice and, by extension, a flawless life.
To liberate ourselves to move forward, we should accept – with robust courage – the inevitability of pain around choice. The difficulty of choosing can mean that many of us spend our lives avoiding hard choices, which ends up being a kind of choice all of its own. But there is no alternative to picking something and to making our peace with the compromise that every choice entails.
We procrastinate, at times, in a desperate attempt to keep at bay the cruel limitations of reality. If we move city, we might have new work prospects, but we’ll lose our current friends; if we devote ourselves to one specific career, other sides of our character will be neglected… If we delay choosing, all options appear to stay alive, at least as possibilities. Yet that is a grave illusion. We should quell our procrastination by accepting that not choosing is in itself a choice and that every choice will necessarily mean missing out on something important.
We should get better and faster at making decisions, sure in the knowledge that every decision will be in its own way slightly wrong and somewhat sad – while also slightly right and somewhat good.
- What are the upsides of staying put?
- What are the upsides of moving?
- What are the downsides of staying put?
- What are the downsides of moving?
There is no cost-free choice…
Many of the best clues as to what we might do in the world of work are to be found in a time when we largely had no thought of work. Childhood provides us with a particularly valuable storehouse of career ideas because it is blessedly free of so many of the elements that later inhibit or distort our true interests. As children, we generally had no thought of status or money – and didn’t even wonder whether we were any good at what we were doing. It just seemed like fun to pretend to be a pilot or a chef, to design a house or to make an advert.
It isn’t exactly what we used to play at as children that counts, it is the pleasures that we found in certain games that needs to be distilled and recovered – and then translated into adult concepts. Once we’ve remembered what we liked to do (build model planes or draw intricate imaginary worlds, organise treasure hunts or capture squirrels), we should make a few patient guesses as to what actually mattered to us in these activities – and see whether there might be echoes or analogous satisfactions to hand somewhere in the adult world.
Children are particularly unanalytical about what they enjoy; but they are also particularly adept at, and passionate about enjoying themselves. We should be sure to engage with a version of ourselves that once knew our pleasures well, perhaps far better than we know them now.
- Draw a table with three columns. In the left hand column, make a list of various things you loved to play at as a child.
- Next to each one, in the middle column, pin down the pleasures that were active within each game or hobby.
- In the right hand column, write down where comparable pleasures might be found in adult occupations.
- If work were more like a game, if status, money and talent didn’t count, what might you do next?
A Future Self
Our imaginations tend to be so daunted by the practicalities required for us to change our lives, we grow inhibited about properly visualising the future that we ostensibly seek. We’re so concerned with the next three moves we might make (and all the challenges involved in, say, a resignation, a return to education etc…), we don’t richly explore what our lives might actually look like if everything worked out as we currently hope.
So we should undertake a thought-exercise in which we leap ahead ten years from now – and picture that our plans have come to fruition. We should evoke for ourselves both the broad outline of our lives and a range of specific details. We should think about what a typical Tuesday afternoon might look like and how it would be to contemplate a new week from the perspective of a Sunday evening.
We might discover a host of complex and accurate pleasures or, surprisingly, a selection of surprising irritants and rather testing compromises.
Dreaming of the future in a frictionless way lends us the energy to look past the hurdles immediately before us – as well as, sometimes, granting us permission to remain exactly where we are.
- Journey forward ten years: everything has worked out according to your current plans. How does your life feel?
- How is an average week filled? What are you doing on a Thursday morning?
- What pleases you?
- What still annoys you?
Surprisingly perhaps, our desire to make a change in our career is frequently driven by having already succeeded well enough in some area or another – but then perhaps grown bored or dissatisfied on discovering that success was not quite what we imagined it might be.
Before we move on too swiftly and pick yet another area to do well in, we should interrogate some of our underlying hopes about what success in any field can bring us.
We are used to framing our career ambitions in relatively practical terms: we speak of wanting money or fame, excitement or intellectual stimulation. But our true wishes can be fascinatingly emotional in nature. We should ask ourselves about the psychological benefits that we hope to secure through succeeding at our newest ambition. Our answers may feel strikingly odd, almost naive or in some way quite disconnected from the job we’re ostensibly trying to master. We might say that, if we succeed, we hope we will: ‘finally be loved’, ‘No longer have to worry’ or ‘be able to make it up to everyone.’
Success is hard enough to secure: we should ensure that, if it were one day to be ours, it would truly offer us what we crave.
- Without thinking too much, complete the sentence: If I succeed, I will finally be able to…
- If my career goes as I want it to, I won’t have to…
- What has success to date not quite brought me?
- What would it be perplexing or sad if future success couldn’t deliver?
After the Lottery
We operate in societies where the vast majority of people tell themselves that they work for one reason and one reason only: money. This may sometimes be true, but it’s rare for anyone to work for cash alone – and the sensible-sounding nature of this motive tends to mask a variety of other more fascinating and emotional motives we harbour for making it to work every day.
Before making any radical moves, we should ask ourselves what we might do if we won the proverbial lottery.
The question can evoke how much we lean on work for more than merely financial support. We do so, perhaps, to stave off anxieties about our legitimacy or ward off our fears of loneliness or worthlessness. Work might be compensating for intractable difficulties in our relationships or lending us opportunities to feel wanted and important. We might be trying, all the while, to repair a broken bond with our a long-dead father or to impress an indifferent and narcissistic mother.
None of these ambitions are illegitimate. It’s just that by insisting too much that we are just financially-maximising creatures and are going to work because we ‘need to’, we miss out on understanding the complex psychological pleasures and compulsions that come from engaging with work – and we are therefore often not as accurate as we might be when choosing what task to devote ourselves to next.
- List five reasons why you work.
- Rank them in order of importance
- What would you do after the lottery win? How does this differ from what you’re doing now?
- What do you need work for other than money?
The Duty Trap
Every education system rewards duty and tends to encourage us to forget our true desires. After years of school and university, we often can’t conceive of asking ourselves too vigorously what we might in our hearts want to do with our lives; what it might be fun to do with the years that remain. It’s not the way we’ve learnt to think. The rule of duty has been the governing ideology for 80% of our time on earth – and it’s become our second nature. We are convinced that a good job is meant to be substantially dull, irksome and annoying. Why else would someone pay us to do it?
This dutiful way of thinking has high prestige, because it sounds like a road to safety in a competitive and alarmingly expensive world. But, in fact, success in the modern economy will generally only go to those who can bring extraordinary dedication and imagination to their labours – and this is only possible when one is, to a large extent, having fun. Work produced merely out of duty is limp and lacking next to that done out of love. In other words, pleasure isn’t the opposite of work; it’s a key ingredient of successful work.
Yet we have to recognise that asking ourselves what we might really want to do – without any immediate or primary consideration for money or reputation – goes against our every, educationally-embedded assumption about what could possibly keep us safe – and is therefore rather scary. It takes immense insight and maturity to remember that we will best serve others – and can make our own greatest contribution to society – when we bring the most imaginative and most authentically personal sides of our nature into our work. Duty can guarantee us a basic income. Only sincere, pleasure-led work can generate sizeable success.
- Who taught you about duty?
- Did following duty work for them?
- Think of those you most admire: in what ways did they not follow duty?
- What would be the satisfying but un-dutiful thing for you to do?
Good Boys & Girls
Many of us are good boys or girls. When we were little, we did our homework on time. We kept our rooms tidy. We wanted to help our parents. People imagine that good children are fine; because they do everything that’s expected of them. And that, of course, is precisely the problem. The secret sorrows – and future difficulties – of the good boy or girl begin with their inner need for excessive compliance. The good child isn’t good because by a quirk of nature they simply have no inclination to be anything else. They are good because they have no other option. Their goodness is a necessity rather than a choice.
Many good children are good out of love of a depressed harassed parent who makes it clear they just couldn’t cope with any more complications or difficulties. Or maybe they are very good to soothe a violently angry parent who could become catastrophically frightening at any sign of less than perfect conduct. But this repression of more challenging emotions, though it produces short-term pleasant obedience, stores up a huge amount of difficulty in later life.
Following the rules won’t get you far enough. Almost everything that’s interesting, worth doing or important will meet with a degree of opposition. A good child is condemned to career mediocrity and sterile people-pleasing.
The desire to be good is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the good child) fruitfully and bravely bad.
- How did you grow up ‘good’?
- What has being ‘good’ made you miss out on?
- What would be the interestingly rebellious thing you might do?
- What was the good child in you made to feel scared of?
The Impostor Syndrome
In many challenges – personal and professional – we are held back by the crippling thought that people like us could not not possibly triumph given what we know of ourselves: how reliably stupid, anxious, gauche, crude, vulgar and dull we really are. We leave the possibility of success to others, because we don’t seem to ourselves to be anything like the sort of people we see lauded around us.
The root cause of the impostor syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what other people are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we fail to imagine how deeply flawed everyone else must necessarily also be beneath a more or less polished surface.
The impostor syndrome has its roots in a basic feature of the human condition. We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties, doubts and idiocies from within. Yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us, a far narrower, and more edited source of information.
The solution to the impostor syndrome lies in making a crucial leap of faith: that everyone must (despite a lack of reliable evidence) be as anxious, uncertain and wayward as we are. The leap means that whenever we encounter a stranger we’re not really encountering a stranger, we’re in fact encountering someone who is – in spite of the surface evidence to the contrary – in basic ways very much like us – and that therefore nothing fundamental stands between us and the possibility of responsibility, success and fulfilment.
- Imagine some of the most intimidating, accomplished and impressive people you know on the toilet. Reflect on Montaigne’s remark: ‘Kings and philosophers shit; and so do ladies.’ And, he might have added, so do top CEOs, entrepreneurs and creatives.
- Imagine that others feel all the fears you do; they are just hiding them. As you hide yours.
- Stop waiting to be given permission.
- No one really knows; you have as good a chance as any one…
One of the best guides to working out what to do with our lives is also one of our most shameful and taboo emotions: envy. While envy is uncomfortable, squaring up to the emotion is an indispensable requirement for determining a career path; envy is a call to action that should be heeded, containing garbled messages sent by confused but important parts of our personalities about what we long to do next.
Without regular envious attacks, we couldn’t know what we wanted to be. Instead of trying to repress our envy, we should make every effort to study it. Each person we envy possesses a piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting our possible future. There is a portrait of a ‘true self’ waiting to be assembled out of the envious hints we receive when we turn the pages of a newspaper or hear updates on the radio about the career moves of old schoolmates. Rather than run from the emotion, we should calmly ask one essential and redemptive question of all those we envy: ‘What could I learn about here?’
Even when we do attend to our envy, we generally remain extremely poor students of envy’s wisdom. We start to envy certain individuals in their entirety, when in fact, if we took a moment to analyse their lives we would realise that it was only a small part of what they had done that really resonates with us, and should guide our own next steps. What we’re in danger of forgetting is that the qualities we admire don’t just belong to one specific, attractive life. They can be pursued in lesser, weaker (but still real) doses in countless other places, opening up the possibility of creating more manageable and more realistic versions of the lives we desire.
- Keep a note of everyone you envy.
- Imagine that it isn’t their whole life you envy, just a part: beside each name, write down adjectives you envy.
- How might some of the qualities you envy be found in your future life without having exactly their life?
4. LETTING GO
Processing the past
One thing that’s liable to get missed when we move job is the tricky truth that we ultimately had to change course because, in one way or another, something went wrong. Perhaps we misjudged what our real ambitions were; we failed to get on with colleagues; we fell foul of office politics, we realised that our temperament wasn’t welcome… Something sad and bad brought us to alter the course of our lives.
Amidst the excitement of change, we tend to forget the uncomfortable past and focus instead on the next job – and all that it can bring us. But, in the process, we are in danger of missing out on valuable information – and of not sufficiently sifting through the unhappy evidence thrown up by our recent experiences. We need to take time to ponder our setbacks or dead ends. We can’t reliably build a happy future without understanding in detail what didn’t work out until now. There are important truths about ourselves and our weaker or more complicated sides lurking within the story of our old job. It isn’t inevitably someone else’s fault. It wasn’t just a rubbish company. It’s too simple to say we ‘simply wanted a change’. All these sound like attempts to bypass a vital confrontation with regret, ambivalence and mishap.
We should allow ourselves to be self-reflexive, frustrated and a little sad. There was probably some kind of anger that helped to drive us to make a change – and this needs to be given a proper airing. Without some form of emotional processing, we may get mildly depressed, as we do whenever something painful or cross hasn’t been properly understood and felt.
We have to ensure we have properly dissected and mourned the past before we have any right to be confident about our future plans.
- What were your initial hopes of your last job?
- How did the last job disappoint you?
- If there’s anger somewhere in your feelings, what are you angry about?
- How did others let you down?
- How did you let you down?
- What would you – with the benefit of hindsight – have done differently?
When we were small, we needed permission to do pretty much anything at all – and the move was sensible. Others knew better than we did what was safe, what was socially acceptable, what would work, what was in line with our needs…
But, for too many of us, this sensible childhood dynamic continues deep into the adult world, where it no longer serves any real purpose. We often know exactly what job we’d like to do next and are right in our hunches; and yet we remain stuck because we need someone else to give us permission to make the move that would render us happy.
Our block provides an occasion to reflect on an inhibition that must follow us through a number of situations in our lives. Somehow we are lacking trust, not in our abilities or our enthusiasms, but in our right to make big positive decisions (perhaps about who to marry, how long to stay with a partner, where to live or how to work…). Instead, we naturally assume that there is someone out there, a parent or parental figure, who first has to wave us through or, alternatively, can say a definitive ‘No’.
It’s often with such feelings in mind that people finally visit a career therapist; they don’t want advice, they simply (and just as importantly) crave permission.
We should, going forward, learn to give ourselves this permission by ourselves, understanding how little trust was (probably) once placed in us in childhood by big people who called the shots. We should mourn the lack of agency we were bequeathed with by the past – and take active steps to compensate for this vulnerability in the present.
We still need permission, of course, but it’s a permission that can handily be sought from one person who counts above all else and is always to hand: ourselves.
Place two chairs facing each other. Sit down in one of the chairs, facing the empty chair and imagine someone kind and caring and worldly sitting in the chair opposite you:
- Tell them your hopes and fears, your wishes and your tribulations about moving on.
- Then go and sit in the empty chair and face your old chair and imagine speaking to you.
- Now tell the chair opposite (you) that you have heard, that you understand and that you give them permission to act on their desires.
- Reflect on the exercise; note in particular how you already have a ‘voice’ inside you that can give you permission in a kindly way. You just aren’t used to seeking it out and listening to it. Do so from now on, whenever key decisions arise… Imagine a life in which you could more often, and more generously, give yourself permission by yourself.
When we are in career difficulties, it is easy to get ever more gloomy about our situation: we have failed, we lack talent, we don’t have the required imagination or insight…
Most of us have advanced degrees in self-destruction and self-suspicion. We may think that this gives us access to important truths about who we ‘really’ are. But, in reality, hating oneself is no guide to any sort of truth and is merely a route to missed opportunities.
It is, of course, important to acknowledge our setbacks and our weaknesses, but never at the expense of caring for ourselves and appropriately celebrating what we’re good at and can take pride in. After periods of critical introspection, there comes a moment when we need to shift course and accentuate the positives, to illustrate to ourselves how much we still have to offer. We should stop fearing that rejoicing at being us is always hubristic, arrogant or deluded. We should stop anticipating punishment if we get too overjoyed or somehow fear that if we get one thing, something else might be taken away.
We should be aware of our tendency to say ‘yes, but’… and of how, when we want to take pride in an achievement, a cruel ‘but’ so often comes along to spoil our mood. ‘I’m so happy I got this promotion, but it was sheer luck really’. ‘I’m great at this job, but they must have hired me only because they knew about my dad…’
We need to learn a very surprising lesson: that we are – despite a lot that we might have taken on board in childhood – in certain areas, genuinely rather wonderful.
- For once, make the case for you. What are you rather brilliant or good at? What has gone well in your career?
- Write down the top three achievements you feel really proud of, however large or small these may be.
- Imagine you were a good friend of yours: how would you sell ‘you’ to a prospective employer?
- Learn to be a bit more suspicious of your innate modesty. Finish the sentence: If I wasn’t so modest, I might…
The Status Quo
We live in a world that doesn’t think very highly of people who don’t move on. Career metaphors tend to have radical mobility built into them; it’s all about paths and ladders, new horizons and bold trajectories.
This is often an extremely helpful stance (lending us courage and countering inbuilt timidity) but it can have an obtuseness of its own. There are situations when we may experience a genuine sense that we are not in the right job, and come to the view that moving on is the only option. We may share our intent with friends and colleagues, we may go into therapy, we may start to plan for a radical change for the rest of our lives and receive adulation from those around us for our courage and energy.
And then we may come to a rather embarrassing realisation; that having considered our options, our character, the real nature of our dissatisfaction and the impulses that drive us on, we’d rather stay put; we’re OK where we are. We don’t want to move at all. But, of course, by now, this can seem extremely shameful, the coward’s way out.
Far from it; we should accord as much prestige to a conscious decision to stay put as we do to a considered impulse to go elsewhere. There should be no shame in either direction.
Maybe our current position feels like a quiet resting place – but quiet resting places are fine. Maybe we’ll never get to the top but the middle has its legitimate attractions. Good modest lives are an achievement in themselves. We should be as suspicious of being prevented by others from doing something we want – as we are of being encouraged into roles that don’t – on reflection – suit us.
The status quo is not the enemy, it’s simply another option and often a very dignified and decent one at that.
- Who would you be afraid of disappointing if you stayed put?
- Who might be mean or judgemental towards you if you had a quiet life?
- Where is the pressure to accelerate, increase, break barriers and rise to the next level coming from? Do you – on reflection – agree with it?
- One side of you should now tell the other why a quiet life is – in fact – a hugely noble and valuable option. In case you were wondering…
5. WHAT’S NEXT?
Some of the reason we find it hard to move forward in our careers is that we imagine change in overly dramatic terms. Either we stay put – or we have to sell the house, go back to university for five years, lose all our friends and sacrifice all our leisure hours…
When the opposition is so stark, no wonder we end up stuck, often against our will. A more helpful approach is to think of big changes happening via very small steps and very gradual alterations: that is, in terms of evolution rather than revolution. People might not even notice what was going on. It might just mean taking one evening class on a Tuesday or volunteering for something on the weekend. An eventual enormous shift might be set in motion by nothing more outwardly dramatic than buying a book or meeting one or two people for a coffee. Minor moves can strengthen our courage by giving us insight in an area where we as yet have very little experience. They break through the unhelpful but widely prevalent sense that we should either remain as we are or change everything. Oddly, there is a far less glamorous, more neglected third option we can explore: the careful evolutionary step.
- Identify five things, very small things, you could do that won’t upend your life but would nevertheless be the first steps towards a new career.
- What could you change inside your current job to help you in some way prepare for a next job?
- How could you fill two hours of your leisure time with something that helped to move you in the right direction?
- Imagine giving yourself a whole year to do nothing but ‘small steps’ towards a Big Goal.
When we plan for a new career, we often get unhelpfully fixated on one kind of job that we feel we need above all others. We set our sights on becoming an architect or a journalist, a graphic designer or an entrepreneur, an actor or a novelist… Our choices tend to reflect popular ideals of a ‘good job’ and are, for this reason, often heavily oversubscribed or deeply insecure.
The solution to such fixations lies in coming to understand more closely what we are really interested in beneath the headline of our desired job, because the more accurately and precisely we fathom what we really care about, the more we stand to discover that our interests actually exist in a far broader range of occupations than we have until now been used to entertaining.
When we properly grasp what draws us to one job, we often identify qualities that are available in other kinds of adjacent employment as well. What we really love isn’t this specific job, but a range of qualities we have first located there, normally because this job was the most conspicuous example of a repository of them. Yet, in reality, the qualities can’t only exist there.
This is not an exercise in getting us to give up on what we really want. The liberating move is to see that what we want exists in places beyond those we had identified – and in perhaps rather easier or safer roles as well.
- Write down a list of your chosen ‘ideal’ jobs.
- Now redescribe them in terms of their imagined pleasures (ie. creativity, self-expression, prestige… etc.)
- Try to imagine that these pleasures could, and must, exist in other occupations: what might these be?
- How could you find some of what you want in a job that is hard to secure in one that isn’t?
For most of human history, the working destiny of every new generation was automatically determined by the preceding generation. One would become a farmer or soldier like one’s father or a seamstress or teacher like one’s mother. Nowadays, on the surface at least, everyone is free to choose to do whatever they like. Families aren’t meant to interfere – and most don’t. Not overtly at least.
Nevertheless, a lot of our inhibitions around our career moves can be traced back to the subterranean influence of parental models. Beneath the surface, we are guided by an unconscious awareness of what would please those whom we love and still want – perhaps despite everything – to impress and delight.
Many parents would never dare to say ‘no’ to a move we’d make. But we can fear a subtle withdrawal of love just as much. We sense our parents’ wishes and excitements and, because we love them, try to align ourselves with them. It’s very natural. But it may be tragically at odds with doing the kind of work that could actually bring us fulfilment.
We should take courage from the fact that very many families are, for a short time, upset by children’s career choices. But almost no families ever stop loving their children on account of what job they do. At worst, you’ll be facing a short interval of frostiness, not the excommunication your childhood self may deep down fear.
- If I changed my job, I might displease my…
- If I stayed put, I might displease…
- In a life lived according to my parent’s wishes, I would probably…
- Imagine that it might be possible both to upset one’s parents a bit – and fundamentally retain their love.
Career change is frightening. So as to gain confidence, we should more often dwell on something even scarier: how soon we will be dead. Next to this ghastly idea, the slight discomfort of moving jobs or of retraining will – redemptively – be revealed as essentially trivial and easily mastered.
We’re often behaving as if we were immortal. Why else would we fail again and again to square up to what we need to do? We are not terrified enough for our own good. We are behaving like gods or superhuman entities who have centuries to get it right.
To overcome our tendencies to delay and evade, we need to bring the pressure of another – and even greater – fear to the situation. We need to scare ourselves of something very large in order to liberate ourselves to think with greater energy about the myriad of immediate challenges before us.
Death should also liberate us somewhat not to mind too much if we do hit obstacles in more ambitious ventures, for if everything is in any case doomed to end in the grave, then it might not matter overly if we fail wholeheartedly. The thought of death may be at once terrifying and the harbinger of a distinct kind of light-heartedness and requisite irresponsibility.
- Calculate how many more years you may have to live in relation to an average life span in your part of the world. Frighten yourself by cutting off 20 years for cancer or a heart attack (the two great killers).
- Could you imagine that if you had one year you’d want to spend a lot of it working? What would your job need to be like to make you feel that way?
- What kind of jobs open to you continue to look noble and serious in relation to death?
- What achievements would you like to be remembered for?
One of the few ambitions shared by politicians across the political spectrum is that of creating a fully meritocratic society, that is, a society in which all those who make it to the top do so only because of their own talents and abilities (rather than thanks to unfair privilege: upper-class parents, a friendship with the boss etc.). Throughout the Western world, all governments have (in theory!) the common goal of trying to create a hierarchy based on actual ability, replacing posh, chinless halfwits with the meritorious, wherever they may be found and whatever age, colour or gender they might be.
This meritocratic ideal has brought opportunity to millions. Gifted and intelligent individuals who for centuries were held down within an immobile, caste-like hierarchy, are now free to express their talents on a more or less level playing field. We have largely turned the page on a western world that was once filled with rulers who were too sick or stupid to govern, lords who couldn’t manage their estates, commanders who didn’t understand the principles of battle, peasants who were brighter than their masters and maids who knew more than their mistresses. No longer is background an impassable obstacle to advancement. An element of justice has finally entered into the distribution of rewards.
But there is, inevitably, a darker side to the idea of meritocracy: for if we truly believe that we’ve created (or could even one day create) a world where the successful truly merited all their success, it necessarily follows that we have to hold the failures exclusively responsible for their failures. In a meritocratic age, an element of justice enters into the distribution of wealth, but also of poverty. Low status comes to seem not merely regrettable, but also deserved.
Of course, succeeding financially (without inheritance or contacts) in an economic meritocracy endows individuals with an element of personal validation that the nobleman of old, who had been given his money and his castle by his father, had never been able to feel. But, at the same time, financial failure has become associated with a sense of shame that the peasant of old, denied all chances in life, had also thankfully been spared. The question of why, if one is in any way good, clever or able, one is still poor becomes infinitely more acute and painful for the unsuccessful to have to answer (to themselves and others) in a new meritocratic age.
There has turned out to be no shortage of people willing to answer the question on behalf of the poor. For a certain constituency, it is clear (and perhaps even scientifically provable) that the poor owe their position to their own stupidity and degeneracy. With the rise of an economic meritocracy, in certain quarters, the poor have moved from being described as ‘unfortunate’, the target of the charity and guilt of the paternally-minded rich, to being described as ‘failures’, fair targets of contempt in the eyes of robust self-made individuals, who are disinclined to feel ashamed about their mansions or shed crocodile tears for those whose company they have escaped. In the harsher climate of opinion that can gestate in the fertile corners of meritocratic societies, it has become possible to argue that the social hierarchy rigorously reflects the qualities of the members on every rung of the ladder and so that conditions are already in place for good people to succeed and the dummies to flounder – attenuating the need for charity, welfare, redistributive measures or simple compassion.
It was the sociologist Michael Young who first explored the downside of a belief in a supposedly just social system. ‘Today all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance,’ he explained in The Rise of the Meritocracy. ‘If they have been labelled “dunce” repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend… Are they not bound to recognise that they have an inferior status, not as in the past because they were denied opportunity, but because they are inferior?’ To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system has added the insult of shame.
It’s a symptom of our greater faith in meritocracy that it’s largely become impossible to explain away our failures as the result of ‘bad luck.’ While it is granted that luck maintains a theoretical role in shaping the course of our careers, the evaluation of people proceeds, in practical terms, as if they could fairly be held responsible for their biographies. It would seem unduly (and even suspiciously) modest to ascribe a victory to ‘good luck’ and, more importantly in this context, pitiable to blame defeat on the opposite. Winners make their own luck, insists the modern mantra: which would, for example, have puzzled the ancient Roman worshippers of the Goddess of Fortune. It is alarming enough to have to depend for our status on contingent elements. It is harder yet to live in a world so imbued with notions of rational control that it has largely dismissed ‘bad luck’ as a credible explanation for defeat.
But of course, there never can be a truly meritocratic system, because the ‘merit’ of an individual is far too complex and subtle a thing to be determined by what job you have. Those who have faith in meritocracy are essentially subscribing to an insane, and certainly arrogant assumption that ordinary humans (employers, customers) can handily take over the solemn responsibilities that past ages more wisely left in the hands of a God who, helped along by the angels, was due to weigh the souls of each person on the Day of Judgement.
Hans Memling, The Last Judgement (1467–1471)
To free ourselves from some of the more punishing side-effects of a meritocratic worldview, it would be wise to cease investing something as haphazardly distributed as jobs and money with moral connotations – and to retain a little of the old-fashioned, modest belief in a distinction between what someone earns and what their souls are like.
The difficulty of defining a professional goal may be both serious and widespread, but it currently lacks the generous, extensive and careful consideration it deserves. In truth, we tend to see confusion about our career paths as a slightly embarrassing failing that reflects poorly on its sufferers. Confusion is readily taken as a sign of being a bit muddled and impractical, of being unreasonably picky or hard to please; perhaps we regard it as a consequence of being spoilt (‘you should be thankful for any a job’) or as a troubling symptom of a lack of commitment or general flightiness. We arrive at these rather harsh assessments because we’re still under the spell of a big and often poisonous idea which can be termed the Vocation Myth.
This Myth originated around certain religious experiences which, although rare, were regarded as hugely impressive and significant – and were accorded an inordinate degree of publicity in the history of the West. These were moments when an individual was summoned by God – sometimes speaking through an angel, at other points, talking directly through the clouds – and was directed by the holy finger to devote their life to an aspect of the divine cause.
One significant story concerned the philosopher St. Augustine who, in mid-life, changed jobs under God’s instruction. He went from being a pagan professor of literature to being a Catholic bishop. It was a huge career change, but Augustine didn’t have to work it out on his own. In 386, he happened to be staying in Milan and one day went out for a walk. He heard a child singing a lovely song he’d never heard before. The words of the chorus were ‘pick it up, pick it up’ and he understood then that the words were a command from God. He was to pick up a Bible and read the first passage he set his eyes on – and the very one he alighted upon told him to change his life and become the figure we know today as the greatest Catholic thinker and clergyman.
However tied to Catholic theology the story might seem, we have secularised such accounts without quite realising it. We too proceed as if at some point, we might be expected to hear a quasi-celestial command directing us towards our life’s purpose.
It started – as often happens – with artists. Up until the Renaissance being an artist was simply a kind of job that some people had, almost always because it was something that their father or uncle was involved in. Being a painter or making statues wasn’t regarded as radically different from making shoes or bridles for horses: it was just a useful skilled trade that any assiduous individual who went through the proper course of training could with time get good at. But then, borrowing from the religious stories, artists began to think of themselves as ‘called’ by fate to a particular line of work. Something within them was pulling them towards their art. Michelangelo was the most extreme example of this attitude – seeing himself as required by his soul to paint fresco ceilings and chip away at blocks of marble. He might at times have wished he could stop, but he could only have done so by betraying his vocation.
The notion of vocation features in the biographies of most famous people. For example, we learn that the pioneering French scientist Marie Curie knew from the age of 15 that her life depended on being able to undertake scientific research. She struggled determinedly against every difficulty in her path – she had no money and when she was a student she nearly froze to death one winter and frequently fainted from hunger. But eventually she triumphed and was awarded two Nobel prizes, the first in 1903 for her work on X rays and the second in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium.
As a result of such cases, having a vocation has come to seem like a sure sign of being destined for great things. And, necessarily, to lack a vocation has come to seem not only a misfortune, but also the mark of being a lesser person. We end up not only panicked that we don’t have a path in mind, but dispirited that our ignorance is proof that any path we do end up with will necessarily not be an especially significant one.
What is worse, ‘finding one’s vocation’ has come to seem like a discovery of which we should all be capable in a brief span of time. And the way to discover such a vocation should be (thanks to religious and artistic forerunners) entirely passive: one should simply wait for a moment of revelation, for a modern equivalent of a clap of thunder or a divine voice: an inner urge or an instinct pushing us towards podiatry or supply chain management.
A small but significant echo of this attitude can be traced in our habit of asking even very young children what they want to be when they are grown up. There’s a faint – but revealing assumption – that somewhere in the options being entertained by the child (footballer, zookeeper, space explorer etc.), there will already be the first stumbling articulations of that crucial inner voice announcing the individual’s true destiny. It appears not to strike us as especially peculiar to expect a five-and-a-half-year-old to understand their eventual identity in the adult labour market.
All this helps to explain the relative societal silence around the task of working out what to do. Well-meaning friends and family will often simply advise a confused person to wait, until one day something will strike them as just right.
But of course, contrary to what this unfortunate, oppressive notion of vocation suggests, it is in fact entirely reasonable – even healthy – not to know what one’s talents are or how to apply them. One’s nature is ultimately so complex, one’s abilities so tricky to define in detail, the needs of the world so elusive that discovering the best fit between oneself and a job is a momentous, highly legitimate challenge that requires an immense amount of thought, exploration and wise assistance and might very properly use up years of our attention. It’s wholly reasonable not to know what work one should perform. And it is indeed often a great sign of maturity to realise that one doesn’t know, rather than suffer any longer under the foolish assumption that one should.
We’re used to thinking about the good sides of work purely in terms of money and status, and tend to forget a raft of other benefits that work – however modest it might be – can bring us. We went around the world to interview a diverse range of people at their jobs, in order to tease out some benefits of work independent of purely material gain.
1. Helping Humanity
We want to help others; a basic pleasure of work is the sense that we are able, through our labour, to improve the lives of those around us. We are taught by classical economics to think of ourselves as primarily selfish creatures. What’s more surprising is how personally gratifying it can be to make things better for our fellow humans. Fortunately, the way in which we help doesn’t have to involve huge intelligence or means. The phrase ‘helping humanity’ suggests one might be engaged in advanced medicine or debt relief. But in a small shop in Birmingham, a newsagent is every day – in minor ways – bringing assistance to those who come his way; a pleasure that seems at the heart of the satisfaction he takes in the management of his shop.
Knowing what job to do is one of the hardest questions any young person has to face. Ideally, the fit between a job and one’s character brings out the best version of oneself; the job should develop latent tendencies and help an individuality to flourish. Work is a route to identity. This is what has happened to a hairdresser in Seoul, who found his vocation, and his true self, through a pair of scissors.
Work provides a structure where we can encounter some of the better sides of other human beings. Contact is limited and the code of professional behaviour dictates that the demands we place upon one another is less challenging than in personal life. On the saddle of her taxi, a Liberian young woman experiences a liberation from some of the strictures of her society.
The world generally resists our desire to impose our will upon it, but in work, we can – in a limited arena – become the masters of things. On his land, a farmer in Yorkshire exerts his benign rule over animals and nature.
5. A Better Self
Ideally, work invites us to create things that are a distillation of some of our best qualities: our patience, intelligence or creativity. This doesn’t have to mean great art or science. In a small shop in Accra, Ghana, a dressmaker puts the best of herself into the garments for her customers.
A job becomes meaningful when it either increases the pleasure, or decreases the pain of another human. A brain surgeon from Texas recognises the privilege of having one of the most meaningful jobs around.
Meanwhile, in Mongolia, an architect takes pride in helping her society transition from a nomadic to a settled urban life:
With a job to our name, we can enjoy a modicum of dignity. We can be respected by our community, we can contribute to the lives of others, we have a role. These are some of the satisfactions in the otherwise very arduous life of a baker from Mali – and a cattle herder from Cameroon.
A lot of work is bearable so long as our intelligence is engaged and our faculties exercised; so long as we feel that we are growing. Despite a lack of obvious heroism, a taxi driver from Istanbul has found a way to make the humble cab ride into a constant educational experience:
People more or less give their lives to their office jobs. They’ll make huge sacrifices for companies. The problem is, dying for the yearly target has none of the grandeur of dying for your country. Good leaders know how to remind their teams of their higher purpose.
Offices exist to help people collaborate. But lots goes wrong in the attempt. Some of the hurdles are procedural: meetings go on too long, everyone talks at the same time, the agenda isn’t right, there aren’t enough whiteboards, or the windows or breakout spaces are meanly proportioned. But many more of the problems are psychological in nature. People aren’t collaborating well because there’s too much defensiveness, irrational rivalry, people-pleasing, negativity, bluster, over-controlling behaviour, secret manoeuvring, unfriendliness or not-listening.
Trying to overcome these hurdles is at one level a matter for every individual. But there are also office-wide solutions that companies can introduce to hugely improve the atmosphere among co-workers. We can address personal issues in a political, that is, collective and institutional, way. Issues that feel like they are intimate and purely personal – like being too bossy or a poor listener – can be usefully and constructively addressed at the level of an organisation’s habits and practices. An ambitious organisation can help people to do nothing less than mature. It can put in place practices that help individuals to recognise and deal with their emotional flaws (which, of course, everyone has in some way or another). That is a great contribution to the development of each person, but it is also precisely focused on improving how efficiently and effectively people work together.
For a long time, the idea of IQ – intelligence quotient – had currency in evaluating people. It sought to assess the level of a person’s logical and reasoning abilities. And to some degree this was correlated with ‘employability’. The idea was that people in the upper percentiles would do better at work. However, close up, we can now see that whatever a person’s raw intellectual ability, their actual contribution at work is going to be hugely dependent on their degree of emotional maturity: their EQ.
IQ is understood as something that doesn’t change all that much across a life. EQ, on the contrary, can change dramatically. It’s built into the whole idea of maturity that we’re capable of acquiring it – though we tend to do so in unreliable and uneven ways. In the workplace, we can improve the level of emotional maturity that we all attain. An organisation committed to raising EQ sets out to help people develop emotionally, by examining and resolving areas of immaturity and failures of collaboration.
Here are a few steps to take on the path to a more mature and collaborative workspace:
Collaboration is hard; we’re all crazy
One of the great enemies of good collaboration is the sense that collaboration should essentially be easy, and that people are generally straightforward. A more helpful starting point is that collaborating is always hard and that all of us are a little crazy. There is no such thing as a wholly sane person and by the time you have 20 people in a room, the challenging psychodynamics are of mind-boggling complexity. Recognising this should lead to humility and a greater readiness to tread carefully, to apologise, to give way and – where necessary – to laugh warmly and generously at our foibles.
In a good collaborative office, there should be an attitude of honesty towards the challenges of working together. Getting frustrated with someone, starting to cry, falling into despair – these aren’t anomalies, they are what happens in any good life, when clever people get together and try to do difficult things.
There’d be a company-wide atmosphere of tolerance towards the quirks and eccentricities of human nature. The company would revere not just the strengths of great people; it would also honour and remember their weaknesses: Coco Chanel’s secrecy, Eisenhower’s inability to listen, Napoleon’s dogmatism, Henry James’s tardiness, Van Gogh’s scattiness…
The good collaborative office would know that the real problem isn’t having problems – it’s the attitudes of denial and the failure to be able to feed back on, and work through, issues that causes trouble. We don’t need people to be perfect: but we absolutely need them to want to recognise their flaws and to try to improve on them.
Once the campfire is lit, the tension goes down; it’s the end of the day, the pressure is off a little. It’s the time to be honest and to share how things really are. In an EQ committed organisation, there are regular campfire meetings, usually on a Friday at 5pm. For an hour, everyone gathers, in groups of no more than twenty.
A central purpose of the meetings is to develop a culture where it’s normal to confess to problems around working together and collaborating. There’s no stigma around having these problems, since it’s assumed from the start that everyone has difficulties of one kind or another. The issue isn’t whether there are psychological flaws: it’s a question of working out which ones and how they are interacting with those of others. The benign group pressure makes it much easier to admit to a failing.
Stigma does, however, remain but in a different area. The topic for discussion is often: ‘What unhealthy dynamics do I feel in myself and how might I improve?’ It’s socially unacceptable not to have anything to say around this, not to try to do anything to improve or deal with issues. It’s normal to be crazy and it’s normal and indispensable to be committed to maturity. Confession isn’t an excuse. It’s tied to development. The EQ office is a Continuously Maturing Office.
The meeting runs through points in the recent past where people lacked EQ. And there’s discussion of where individuals might develop specific skills or make use of particular insights. The meetings enforce a feeling of normality around maturation.
An EQ Environment
Emotional development, and dealing reasonably with the difficult emotional circumstances that work inevitably throws up, isn’t just about special occasions or one-off moments of revelation. Our minds are leaky: we are continually forgetting things that – at our best moments – we know are important. We require regular topping up, a little nudge here and there to keep us on track. We’re not committed to bad habits, we just need reminders of the good ones.
So a good HR department sees it as its responsibility to foster a good EQ environment. It might send around emails about some of the main EQ difficulties which help us recognise them in ourselves and give encouragement in addressing them with others.
But it isn’t enough just to write essays or give lectures. The way something is said – the form the crucial reminders are delivered in – has to be sufficiently seductive to overcome resistance, compete for attention with a thousand emails and lodge themselves in our memories powerfully.
The good EQ office might send around this sort of email, among many others:
The Direct Chat
An EQ office has a culture of direct chats. It formalises these, so as to put them more forcibly on the agenda. It calls them Direct Chats or DCs.
A great deal of trouble within teams, the lion’s share, comes from people not speaking honestly about their hopes, disappointments and frustrations. Things are bottled up, and then explode or seep noxiously through an office.
There are good reasons why most of us are so indirect in our modes of communication. Politically, it’s only been a few generations since we’ve enjoyed freedom and the ability to speak as we like. Inside though, we retain an inner serfdom. Moreover, many of our childhoods didn’t promote direct communication. We were small, vulnerable infants in the hands of large, powerful adults and we may not have dared, or known how, to speak up and clearly about our needs. Indirectness is a strategy in conditions of unequal power.
Most offices are filled with power inequalities which work against any capacity to communicate directly: What if I speak and they fire me? What if I speak and they resign? What if I speak, and they don’t buy? It can seem as if there are ample reasons always to lapse back into habits of indirectness.
But the EQ-committed office doesn’t accept this, it knows – perhaps from experience – how expensive indirectness always ends up being, and how much wisdom and good practice come to the fore when people dare to be direct.
That’s why it accords huge privilege to the practice of The Direct Chat. Any employee can at any point put in a request for A Direct Chat with any other, right across company hierarchies: the receptionist can request a DC with the boss, the middle manager in sales or the IT guy on the floor below.
There are strict rules around how a DC can go. Company videos show workers the format of a DC. There are three training sessions around this for every new employee. Crucially, there are responsibilities on both sides of the equation, the speaker and the listener. For example, the speaker can never directly accuse the listener. They cannot say, ‘You never listen to me in meetings.’ They have to say, ‘You make me feel as if you are not listening to me in meetings…’
This avoids the suggestion that the speaker has deliberately meant to upset the listener. It leaves room for misunderstanding and for the idea that the speaker might be transferring an emotion from elsewhere. The tone cannot be accusatory. One can show upset, but no desire for vengeance; one can be sad but not furious. One cannot broaden the complaint exponentially (one cannot, as marriage counsellors say, ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the other).
All the while, the listener has responsibilities. They cannot humiliate, they cannot deny that there is an issue, they have to accept the courage and authenticity behind the complaint. They have to listen patiently and never laugh cruelly. The other is taking a risk, like taking off their clothes, and one has to admire the courage.
Within a DC, all kinds of slightly unusual behaviour are entirely permitted. You can cry, you can be intense, emotion is allowed. This doesn’t get used against you. Most importantly, one moves on: one isn’t allowed to hold grudges from past DCs.
Having DCs should be seen as a normal part of office life. If one doesn’t have at least five a year, something is very wrong and it counts against one. The culture of DCs signals that the office has left behind the age of feudalism and psychological humiliation; indirectness is not only emotionally unhelpful, it is far far too expensive.
We’re all in possession of insights into the flaws of others, which are true and potentially very useful. You’ve noticed time and again how a particular colleague tries to press too much work onto others; it’s struck you that one of the people you collaborate with on a major project is so eager to please that you’re finding yourself discounting whatever they say. These people don’t set out to create problems around collaboration and in an ideal world these insights could get passed along to the relevant people in an unthreatening and useful way.
But we almost never do share these with the person concerned. Because at the moment, there’s a real fear the person would take it the wrong way – as a cruel attack, rather than as an attempt to help. It would seem to leave one open to a reciprocal attack – which, again, feels too threatening.
Really, the only place where we buck this trend is in relationships; the rest of the time we are basically avoidant; we give up on people, suffer in silence or change jobs. This inefficiency costs everyone a lot. It’s a situation where a great deal of important information is in the ether, but it can’t be tapped into effectively because we lack the skill to do so. Not a technical skill. But the emotional skill of framing an issue in a way that doesn’t humiliate someone and that doesn’t make us come across as vindictive or mean.
The office can be the arena in which this omnipresent issue is addressed and solved – by developing the EQ Review. Everyone in the company needs to see an EQ Coach at least once a year. Management gives the EQ Coach a number of guidelines on how a particular individual is falling short in the ten areas of EQ immaturity. In more pressing cases (where someone is falling short in their work schedule or causing problems for other people) substantial EQ treatment can be delivered: each immaturity takes at least four one-hour sessions to treat.
Because there can be feedback from employee to employer in the course of the EQ Review the relationship between the coach and the company is – potentially – extremely valuable. It allows for the development of a deep understanding of what is going well – or not too well – in the relationship between management and employees. It’s a field in which it is crucial – but extremely difficult – to get insight.
Diplomacy arises when there’s too much tension between two parties for them to engage openly themselves. They get too upset or intimidated. And yet, there is a huge amount they could constructively share. The coach is a kind of diplomat – a go-between – and is the skilful and professional ambassador of vitally important knowledge.
For too long, sorting out psychological issues has been seen as a luxury, as something beneficial only to personal life. But this is an illusion we can no longer afford. Emotional maturity is no add-on to an effective business, it has to be at its core, it is quite simply the most valuable skill for any team of people as they pursue the big collective tasks of modern business.
Find out more about the way the School of Life works with organisations:http://www.theschooloflife.com/london/business/professional-development/
When it comes to earnings, there’s an emotionally appealing desire: ideally, we’d want to live in a world where money tracked the value of what people did. ‘Good’ salaries would mean work that was rewarded in line with how much it contributed to the lives of others. The highest pay would go to those who were most helpful to society.
There are some signs, at the moment, that salaries are not always unjust. A brain surgeon is well rewarded but a manicurist earns only modestly. The headteacher of a large school is paid a great deal more than the person serving coffee in a sandwich shop – and it’s also just and fair that a cheerful and efficient server will soon earn more than one who is surly and slow.
But then there are signs of disaster. There’s the senior person in banking who makes a fortune developing products that are more beneficial to the bank that to its customers – as opposed to the nurse who is paid well below the national average for looking after people when they are most vulnerable and frightened. In such cases, the worth of what someone does and how much they get paid have drifted far apart.
This injustice is very familiar. But why does it happen? Sober economists tell us that wages are generally determined by the law of supply and demand. And this law is rather chillingly amoral. It doesn’t ask how noble or honourable or kindly some person is: it asks simply how much the market is willing to pay.
The law of supply and demand says one reason why some jobs are low paid is that there is a plentiful supply of people who can do it. If employers advertise posts at a low rate and plenty of good applicants turn up, they don’t need to pay more. This is what happens around nursing. The human value of the work they do is often very high, but there are people willing and able to do the job for comparatively low salaries.
The other reason for low incomes is lack of demand. A poet might be writing profound and beautiful poems but won’t make much money if only a few people feel any inclination to respond to her sensibility. And high quality milk or chickens that have led an athletic life are better than the cheaper alternatives; but unless there is strong demand, it will be extremely difficult to make money supplying them.
Equally, there are two basic reasons why some kinds of work are highly rewarded.
In terms of supply: whatever the human value of the job, an enterprise will be lucrative if few people can do a job and someone badly wants it done. For instance, being a hitman – there are not many people who can accurately shoot to order. Or restructuring the debt of a major construction company or closing a complex multi-party deal to develop a deep-sea oil field.
Alternatively, rewards will be great – at least at the top – if there’s lots of demand, even bad or low-grade demand, for a product or service. Casinos, expensive sports shoes and trash TV shows all generate very high incomes for those who own or run the businesses.
The classical economist’s answer is a tranquil defence of the status quo. It encourages us to accept how things are. We might not much like the outcomes, but we are invited to remember that they are not the result of any sinister plot. And there isn’t anything very much that can be done to change things.
Classical economics says it’s no one’s fault if people doing good things are not paid much. It’s what inevitably happens if there is too much labour supply (as with nurses) or when there is low demand for the product (which is why few poets make a fortune). And it is simply logical that people doing things you might consider pretty bad get paid a lot when there is either high demand (as with the producers of trash TV) or because there is low supply of an in-demand skill (thus a few hitmen and bankers will get rich).
There are, however, things that can be done to change this unjust – but entrenched – arrangement. It doesn’t focus primarily on trying to equalise salaries. It’s not fundamentally a problem that people get paid different amounts. We’re not too worried about people who earn little doing bad, or if people doing good earn lots. The issue of inequality is far less pressing than the issue of unfairness or disproportion: what we really mind is the disconnection between merit and earnings (equal opportunity shouldn’t really be the main issue either, for this principle doesn’t aim at a better relationship between merit and earnings, it merely tries to make sure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the chance to participate in the existing essentially distorted money-making system). If manufacturing ugly memorabilia routinely leads to poverty, that would be fine. And people who earn lots doing a great deal of good deserve their riches. What we aim at here is a Good Salary: a salary that is aligned with the contribution someone makes to the good of others.
The path to a Good Salary is Education, for ultimately, Education is the word we give to the attempt to train and guide Demand. It is also what restricts or releases Supply.
Nurses, typically, provide a very valuable combination of good will, a high capacity for empathy and an appetite for hard work. But when supply is high, even of something good, there is a danger of a lack of appreciation. It’s like with water in a rainy country: it’s key, but its value is overlooked. In principle we greatly admire what nurses do, only we stop noticing in practice. The task is to turn latent appreciation into active appreciation (so that there is an impetus for a salary rise).
This is an aesthetic-political act. In a comic play by Aristophanes, the women of ancient Greece withdraw their sexual services to their husbands, who had come to take them for granted. When the supply is stopped for a little while, the men take notice. Strategic withdrawal to increase appreciation is what, ideally, unions and strikes are for. The key thing is to remind people that they really do value this service very much, and should, therefore, be willing to pay more for it.
A strike is only one move though in a broader attempt to make a case for the merit of an activity or thing. Remember that our notion of merit is extremely flexible and prone to revision.
There are many moments when we would, as individuals, be willing to pay more for the work someone does for us – if the case were eloquently made. Collectively we would pay more if the contribution that certain people make were more active in our minds. That is the task of political agitation – and of art.
This is what can we do for those – like poets – who are doing good things but are not paid much because there is low demand for what they have to offer – or for nurses who we know do good things but whose causes we forget when supply is too high.
The route will always be via Education. If the product is genuinely valuable, it must actually have a lot to offer people but – for various reasons – they don’t see it at the moment. There’s a latent need that could be unlocked.
In order to unlock demand, the product might need to be tweaked. At present, the poet is devoted to a specific, technical form of writing. But that might not be the most effective way of communicating what is uniquely valuable in their thinking. The task is to define more accurately the good that is on offer in something like poetry.
Ideally, Education teaches us a truer account of what we need. Better Education shifts Demand in good directions. So the key move would not be to have – for instance – more poetry taught in schools by government decree. But, rather, to develop education that is more focused on self-knowledge, which would increase the demand for carefully-expressed insight, thus boosting the market share for poets and taking them a step closer to a just reward for their work.
What can we do when people are paid more than their just salary?
The most obvious answer is the flip-side of the one we have just given: we need to decrease demand, get people to be a little more cautious about certain media, or clothes, or foods they currently invest in.
At the same time, education should play a role in breaking the monopolies that are responsible for over-elevated demand in some professions and sectors of the economy. The reasons why lawyers and property developers earn so much is not that their services are so highly valued, but because they sit at the head of tightly controlled cartels. They are exploiting Demand by restricting Supply. Not enough people know how to get into their ranks. It’s – broadly speaking – an Education and access problem.
Education – at the moment – typically teaches us to be workers, rather than capitalists. We know how to work for others, but initiating a profitable venture or taking the lead in enterprise feels to many people mysterious and closed.
Part of the reason that there are outsized profits in some industries is that these are operating as cartels and quasi-monopolies. Education and anti-trust laws have a role to play.
The short-term emotional solution
These moves however, won’t bring about a quick change. For a long time value and money won’t track each other anything like as well as they should. We’re going to have to live with rewards that are higher or lower than the ideal Good Salary.
To stay sane, in the meanwhile, we have to embrace a tricky (but emotionally calming) move. We have to fully accept that for the time being money is not a good indicator of worth. To some people this sounds so obvious it’s shocking even to have to say it. But – collectively – we are very far from giving it whole-hearted assent. In fact, we do tend to see money as the primary marker of success. A few enclaves aside, the poet who sells little is not granted anything like the esteem that is given to the producer of a mass – but vulgar – television show. In theory we believe that the primary school teacher is making a more valuable contribution to society than the Victoria’s Secret-girlfriend of a premier league football player. But our society in general gives much more admiration and respect to the latter.
The problem isn’t simply that money has come adrift from value. It’s that we frequently act as if money did indeed tell us the crucial thing about a person. This attitude has been taken up by the mainstream Left. They often speak as if the fundamental thing that’s wrong with society is financial distribution. They want profits to be shared more widely, with the average income getting higher and the highest incomes being severely curtailed. While this can sound laudable, it actually endorses a deeper misconception. It says: what matters is how much money a person has, and tries to reduce income differences out of a sense of fairness. In other words, it accepts the proposition that salary is the central mark of the good life and therefore wants to raise salaries for the many.
The deeper contention, however, is that salary isn’t a reasonable test of value. This has been taken much more seriously by Christianity, which at its best moments simply admits that, given the state of the world, money has little relevance to assessing the worth, or worthlessness, of a life. Its thought-experiment of being judged after death by a merciful and omniscient God, is never imagined in terms of asking how much money a person made. The judgement is projected as being about such things as how loving an individual has been, how sorry for their failings, how tender to the weak and lonely, whether they forgave those who wronged them. Whether they were in the top or bottom ten percent of income distribution in their country doesn’t come into it.
In line with this, Christianity – at its best – has strongly advocated other markers of value: humility, generosity (relative to how much or little one has), piety. Its saints, who function as moral celebrities, were often poor. A great many of its clergy have taken vows of poverty. Its foundational figure, Jesus, comes across as simply not being very impressed by people who have money; while feeling compassion for them, as people especially exposed to spiritual danger.
Without remotely taking up the whole Christian world view, one can be impressed and inspired by this concerted effort to develop a scheme of values which gives only a small role to a person’s economic status.
The earnings-worth indicator
The earnings-worth alignment is one of the most important indicators of how well (or badly) a society is functioning. We should have a public index that measures where we are. In the Utopia, value and salary are in harmony. It is impossible to get rich doing something essentially worthless, and everyone who contributes well is well paid. In the dystopia, money is standardly made in harmful, degrading ways and those who aim at the public good never get properly rewarded. Every society is somewhere between these, but tending on the whole more to one or the other. The Good Coefficient would put a number on where we are and let us see whether we were moving in the right direction or not.