How to slay the "work myth" (and do more stuff you love)
"Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten" - G.K. Chesterton
I can't make any sense of the term "work/life balance". For me, it has always been a strange way of approaching the way that we see work and our life interacting. It's about time that we move beyond this term and embrace something we can all believe in. You see, “work/life balance" creates a false duality between two things that are actually inseparable; your work and your life. It presupposes that you have to even out both sides to “find balance”. It creates an impossible goal that we can't ever achieve. Why? Because, unless you've worked out a different way, we all have to live through work. If you're anything like me, both work and life can create an imbalance. There is a lot that I love about work. But, with kids and a mortgage, sometimes the “life” part is pretty damn stressful. I can't balance something that already exists together.
Instead of work/life balance, what we are all seeking is simply the freedom to do more of the stuff we love. The opportunity to pursue (and do!) the things that actually bring us contentment, fulfilment, and satisfaction.
To feel that freedom and fulfilment, many of us have an internal battle to overcome with the myths we've created around work. For me, those myths coalesce into this big, ugly, fire breathing dragon. It has manifested in trying to live up to my own “potential”. In placing my “production” above all else. It's the way I defined work as primary and so many different things in my life as secondary. It's feeling guilty for not working when I "should" be. It's equating output and status with my self-worth. It's the constant need to be more, have more and do more. This drive may have come from me, or it may have come from the protestant work ethic or my parents telling me how much I could amount to. Or, it could be a function of our society.
That is in no way diminishing the value of good work itself. Work is important; we have to pay the bills, feel a sense of accomplishment and we should work hard. I have nothing against hard work. But, for many of us, our internal values and mental approach to work give it priority over everything else.
This is the “dragon” that keeps us from the things that we love. Slaying this dragon will give us the freedom to pursue what we truly value, deep down. These thoughts and habits are the monster that keeps us from what we value; being content, fulfilled, connected and free. To win back this treasure, we need to slay the dragon!!
But, this is a battle only you can wage. You, and only you, can slay whatever “work” myths that are keeping you from doing more of the things you love. I've used four weapons to fight my dragons, and if you're prepared to wield them, then you too can destroy some myths.
My four weapons? Self-realisation, taking action, embracing your creative side, and having a spirit of exploration. These weapons can change your internal values, create new habits, and slay the dragons that will steal your treasure and stop you from doing the stuff you love.
Your first weapon: Self-realisation through reflection
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up, if you only try” Dr Seuss
Reflecting upon, and acknowledging, our thoughts and values is the first step.
For me, I had to start asking myself the hard questions. Why do I feel guilty for spending 5 hours a week working out, when I spent 60 hours at work? Why is doing my job more than 10 times worthier than my workout in my head? Why am I less fulfilled and content even though I seem to “have it all”? What do I actually value as opposed to what I have been chasing? Is there a disconnect between the goals I have and having the freedom to do the stuff I love?
They're tough questions to ask yourself, and even tougher to answer.
“Dragons horde gold because the things you most need are always to be found where you least want to look.” Jordan Peterson
For many of us, we live our life actively trying to ignore the “dragon”. We pretend that there is no treasure. We argue that there is no such thing as “the freedom to do more of the things we love”. We console ourselves in the reality of our work; the reality of chasing status and the need to always have more. Deep down, we know the dragon is there. We've all heard stories of the treasures it protects, and we know people who have more of that treasure, but we still settle for the work myth.
When I started to ask questions about my relationship and values around work, I realised that my entire mindset was broken. I realised that there had been times in my life when I was my job. My ego and sense of self were completely wrapped up in being successful and productive... Until, I wasn't. And then I realised that I am a lot more than my work - so, why was I making it such a priority?
I had become the end result of the “protestant work ethic”; of production as paramount. I had lost touch with the things I loved.
It was difficult when I realised this. I had become “conditioned”. I realised this, but even then it was hard to change. Even running my own business, I would show up to work early and stay back late. Even when I had nothing to do. I had no boss and no need to be there, but I was there anyway, because I thought it added value to my life. I thought being there was worthy. I had invested so much of my ego into my work and my view of it. It was difficult to start thinking about what I valued.
This self-realisation can be pretty jolting. If I'm not my work, then what am I? How will people see me now? How, if I prioritise other things, can I live up to my potential? What have I “done with my life” if I don't have work product to point to? What am I then?
Honest self-reflection is very tough. Once you let that genie out of the bottle, once you start to reflect, there is no turning back.
It doesn't mean you stop working hard. It doesn't mean you don't try hard. It simply means that being less attached to your work can allow you to do more of the things that will actually make you happy. It's a strategy to do better work!
Being reflective may mean not thinking that hard. It may mean pressing pause on the internal judgment and (in the words of Mark Manson) “stop giving a fuck”. It isn't about searching for happiness; it's about the self-realisation of what you really want, without the self-flagellation of wanting that.
Self-realisation through self-reflection is a powerful weapon. Stop judging the value of the things you love against someone else's view of success. Realise when you are giving more than fair value to work as opposed to other things in your life. See how silly and self-harmful the guilt trip is and refuse to play that internal mind game. Take back the mental high ground to inflict some serious wounds on your “dragon”.
Your Second weapon: Taking actions to create new values and habits
Every hero walking into a dragons den needs a big sword. For me, the key to fighting the dragon has been small actions. Taking small actions, day in and day out, is powerful in helping you to slay the dragon. Once you realise that you want something better, taking small actions is what is going to get you there. Actions are very much your dragon slayer.
The thing with dragons is that they are rarely flayed in one foul swoop. Daily actions, moving in the direction of your choosing, are the small blows that will eventually lead to the dragon's death. It's all good knowing "something has to change”, but you have to make that change in a physical sense as well to get the treasure.
US Special Forces soldier, MMA fighter and podcaster, Tim Kennedy, recently related his approach as making 1% improvements every day. This is a classic example of small action leading to big results thinking. How can you make small changes, the 1%, every day, to get where you want? Even .1% every day?
It might be “stealing” 10 minutes to do a meditation each morning. That's less than 1% of your entire day but is an action that can change your entire outlook on life. It might be going for a walk to clear your head for 10 minutes, breathe a bit and get a bit of sunshine.
As human beings, we are doers, players and creators. The physical act of doing is important. So much of what makes up life is mere thought, but action cuts through this. Actions are tangible - you can hold them and you can measure them. Many of our battles with work are simply battles in our head - but, to change them, we need to have that change represented in our actions.
Not only is taking action the key to making real change, but it can also reveal what we want in the first place. We all have times in our lives when we are unhappy but we don't know why. Sometimes, simply doing something new, or something you haven't done in a long time, can reveal what you have been missing out on. There are times when we can't even imagine what doing more of the stuff we love looks like, without a taste-test. We don't know what we don't know. But, through small actions, we can reveal these things.
So, go and do something different today. Read something new. Hang out with new people - or people you haven't seen in a while. Try something you have always wanted to do. Enjoy your favourite indulgence without guilt.. Even if it is only 1% of your day, you'll never defeat the work dragon with thoughts alone. You'll never defeat the notion that work is primary by simply thinking about it. You are more than your work product.
Your third weapon: Creativity that brings your thoughts and actions together
Creativity takes courage - Matisse
You've reflected and you've started to take action, but it's tough piecing it all together. Your Kintsugi, the gold filling that helps you to connect reflection and action, is creativity.
Creativity is a powerful weapon to fight dissatisfaction and do more of the things you love. It is “action” that is intrinsically connected to you. How about using your creativity to give you moments of enjoyment? Why not use creativity to bring your thoughts and actions together?
The very act of being creative can start to unlock things you may have forgotten about yourself, and help you reconnect to that better self. For me, starting to write in my own voice again was a massive shake-up to my work and life. I'd spent the last 15 years writing as a business and, once I found my voice again, it switched something creative back on in my brain.
So, how can you fight the dragon with creativity? Do something creative! This doesn't have to be for public consumption. In fact, I wrote my first blog post just for the sake of writing again. Maybe you could pick up the guitar you put down 10 years ago. Or, you could go for a walk and take some nice photos. All you have to do is approach something in your life with a creative mindset.
Once this shift happens, you will see that a lot of what you do has creative flair, and it is your own creative flair. I realised Jiu-Jitsu was a creative outlet for me; it's a representation of myself through movement. I chose how that representation is made, the strength, colour and feel of it.
This might sound a bit far-fetched for you. That's ok. You could go along to a concert, sing in your car, or enjoy a movie. Go along to an art gallery. Turn your next run into a creative outlet. Read something completely different. If you engage in the creative, even simply by changing your mindset a bit, it's amazing how other things can inspire a mindset of creativity.
Through this creativity, whatever it is, you will find a better path to doing more of the things you love. It will become easier to bring your thoughts and actions together, as your actions will start to better reflect who you are.
Your fourth weapon: Exploration and embracing change
“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Oscar Wilde
In our fight to do more stuff we love, we need to try lots of things and constantly explore what that means to us. The freedom to do more stuff we love is a precious prize. It requires both experimentation to find it and vigilance to keep a hold of it. It is something that we always need to remind ourselves not to be complacent with especially when new life pressures come along.
For many professionals, it is hard to understand how these life changes affect the pursuit of what we love. We reflect on our life through the lens of our own experience. So, we struggle to take a proper long-term view and understand how life changes will affect our thoughts and habits around work. The older I get, the more I realise that everything in life is always changing. Your problems and responsibilities now will be different in 5 years. Maybe you're single now, but in 10 years you might be married with kids. We need to realise that our ability to keep fighting the good fight requires constant vigilance.
For example, when you have kids, your thoughts around your role as provider and the importance of your work change. However, this change isn't necessarily a good thing. For a lot of people, it paints them into a corner where they're even more stuck than before. Now, things change, and your priorities also need to. But, I've found the more external factors forcing me to work harder (that aren't aligned with doing stuff I value) the worse I've felt. So, you end up feeling guilty about something different but feeling guilty nonetheless.
Even on a more micro basis, things are going to change and not every day will be filled with things we love. Actually, sometimes you only need a taste. Using exploration as a weapon may mean trying lots of different ways to “get enough of what you love”. It may mean taking the time to acknowledge that you need to try different things to work out the right balance and what it actually means for you. No one can tell you a specific formula. You can't simply say “take 1 hour a day and do stuff you love and you'll definitely be more balanced”. You have to work through how it feels, what works for you, and how you can manage different things in your life. That is the art of the balance. Sustaining the fight
And so, as hero of your own story, you leave today with four powerful weapons to help you fight your dragon. Go forth and slay them. Show them no mercy. And when you do, have the audacity to teach others your fighting ways. Even if only as an example for your kids, showing them that life doesn't have to be all about work. That work can be loved as well. That fulfilment and satisfaction are just as worthy as productivity and output. That you are allowed to pursue something better.
Good luck on your heroes quest. Slay lots of dragons, and enjoy the treasure.