Work Different

I can thank my first job for introducing me to Erin, my first girlfriend. I was 14 years old, she was 13, and we both worked in a cornfield. Along with 30 or so other kids, our job was to walk up and down the cornrows and pull tassels from the top of the cornstalks, a form of pollination control. It was, and probably still is, a common job for kids in the rural midwest.

Erin and I were assigned to the same crew, and we spent long hours walking alongside each other. Our chemistry connection was instant. We talked nonstop. We walked slowly.

I was excited to finally be earning my own money. My mind raced thinking about all the things I could buy – a CD player, basketball cards, a skateboard. The work was hard, and I performed it well, but my focus while working was more on the other kids, especially Erin, than the corn stalks. We laughed, told stories, pranked each other, made friends and enemies, and fell in love. Together, the crew was a self-sustained micro-society of children (like Lord of the Flies, with less murder).

My first kiss happened here. At the end of a long day, in the middle of the field, I broke the dual barrier of the cornstalks and our youth by reaching into Erin’s row and sealing my feelings with an awkward, yet exhilarating, peck on the lips. It was the first of many kisses between us, and luckily they became increasingly less awkward.

The mood of these halcyon mornings, however, changed whenever our crew leaders – two strong and stern middle aged women with short hair – were nearby. They didn’t want us to talk. They wanted us to move faster. When they accused Erin and me of moving too slowly, after being warned more than once, we were separated. They assigned Erin to a crew on the other side of the cornfield, causing me to resent the crew leaders and resent my job.

This same drama has unfolded in some form or another at every job I’ve had since, and I’ve had several. Whatever my role in the years to come – store clerk, caretaker, assembly line worker, radio DJ, burger flipper, roller coaster operator, pool hall manager, telemarketer, graphic designer, strategist, account executive – I have usually felt pushed and pulled in unnatural directions. Most people I know have felt the same way. We have been separated, it seems, from something important to us.

 

Be your own revolution.

Between the ages of 18 and 65, the average American spends over 100,000 hours at work. This is more than any other single activity, including sleeping. Whether we love our job (the lucky ones) or merely tolerate it (most of us), the mandatory devotion to upholding an economic system without a semblance of ownership goes mostly unquestioned. We are lucky to have our jobs, we are told. We are lucky to serve.

And it’s true. A productive life is a life well lived. Our jobs – no matter what they are – are an opportunity for collaboration, growth, and education. We are healthier and happier when working toward a shared cause.

Yet it is worth asking whether capitalism is a cause worth rallying behind. In fact, it could be argued that the economic system of the past 75 years has been the most ruthless force against humanity in modern times. In a world where profit margins are king, no stone has been left unturned in sucking up the wealth and resources from 99% of the world’s population. The planet’s environment has been abused in the name of industry and the buying power of the working class has been significantly reduced in order to feed the all consuming appetite of the economic elite. This is the system that most of our jobs serve to support.

It’s time for a change. I am not asking for a social revolution. My belief is that when we focus on changing external circumstances, we meet resistance. But when enough people focus on transforming their internal state of awareness, the world will transform as a result. I am asking for a consciousness revolution.

My dozen random jobs have taught me an important lesson. While work can be the cause of modern anxiety, it can also be a springboard for self-actualization. Those 100,000 hours are too valuable to be spent sedated or, even worse, miserable. I understand that many jobs feel lacking in purpose. It’s all too easy to clock in and check out. But this approach forgets a fundamental aspect of human psychology – happiness and purpose do not result from external circumstances. Happiness and purpose are created within. Our jobs always hold the meaning we assign to them – no more, no less.

 

Make work matter.

The world is speeding up. The superhuman intelligence of technology is awakening. As far as paradigm shifts go, we are on the verge of a rather big one. People are looking for something stable to hold onto as they wake up and realize that the old ways of working are no longer working.

For example, in the age of the advanced machine, man has no place living as a cog – doing monotonous assembly and computing – because computers can simply do it better. Our linear workflow is also breaking down. The hierarchy of authority is becoming increasingly flat. In this day and age, it is wise to no longer look for leaders to guide us. Everyone is their own boss now.

Bottom line, the time is ripe for professionals to reclaim our imagination. We must offer what machines cannot. The time for vision is here.

Working different requires us to think different. We often draw separations between our work and our fulfillment, but in order to be happy during those 100,000 hours, it is essential to unify our jobs with a sense of purpose and mindful awareness. This calls for a practical philosophy in the accelerating age of data science.

The first step to any change, big or small, is a shift in perception. The following insights (let’s call them Monday Mantras) outline how to turn stress into zen and find inspiration on the clock.

your_job_title_does_not_define_you

The labels we are given by others are merely opinions and have nothing to do with who we truly are. All that matters is our vision of ourselves and the contribution we choose to make.

Society is good at giving labels and putting things, even people, in boxes – black, white, man, woman, straight, gay, weird, normal, intern, manager. But just because we are given a label does not mean we should conform to society’s expectations about how that label should behave. In life and work we are limited and empowered by our self-perception. We eventually rise or fall to the level that matches our vision of ourselves. Labels, when taken seriously, are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I was a professional designer, I thought like a strategist. When I became a strategist, I still worked creatively. What would you do if you could create your own job title? Work that way now.

think_like_an_intern

A mind held down by too much information has no room for inspiration. Creativity thrives when the mind is a blank slate – open to all possibilities.

Interns think different out of necessity. They learn fast because their minds are empty of preconceived ideas about the way things should be. What interns lack in experience they make up for with a more important skill (a skill that is exceedingly rare in management and the C-suite), and that is curiosity. Experience has the unfortunate side effect of causing complacency, and our biggest barrier for growth is thinking we know it all.

Curiosity keeps us alive. As Bob Dylan said, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Asking new questions is more important than having the same old answers.

credit_is_overrated

Seeking recognition is like hugging yourself – a little warm, but disappointing. Sharing recognition is like making love – mutually stimulating, and much more fun.

Working in a team environment can resemble post-apocalyptic warfare. On the surface, everybody seems to be working together to achieve the same goal. But (if your office is anything like mine) each person probably has their own agenda that may conflict with the agenda of others. “Get credit, avoid blame” is the unspoken mantra of workplace collaboration.

This mentality is, of course, poison, both to the team and the individual. In truth, we look better when we make others look good. Give away credit early and often. It fosters good office karma and makes people want to work with you. Getting credit benefits today. Sharing credit benefits forever.

i_dont_know

Pretending to have all the answers is the habit of fools. When we make assumptions, we make mistakes. Therefore it is wise to admit what we do not know.

I can’t tell you how many meetings I have attended where everybody in the room, for fear of looking ignorant, will bluff and pretend to know things they don’t. People rush to conclusions because admitting uncertainty is, they believe, a sign of weakness. It’s not. Admitting uncertainty, because it shows honesty, is actually a sign of confidence.

Surprisingly, the more comfortable I have become saying “I don’t know,” the more my career has advanced. Why? Because good judgement is more valuable than instant, but ultimately incorrect, answers. People can sense bullshit, and not giving any is refreshing.

When we give questions space to breathe – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – we make room for more data to become available and the correct answer to be made clear.

busy_work

Quality work is achieved by a balanced mind. Think as much as you must and no more. Become friends with stillness. Productivity without purpose is not an end in itself.

Most people with a job will agree. The pressure to be busy can feel like a dragon breathing down our neck, fire ready to spit. “Look busy” might be the most common work advice given. But you would be hard pressed to find any idea, product, or service of lasting value that resulted from aimless busy work.

When work is slow (God willing) our time is better invested in reconnecting with our work’s purpose and cultivating our long term vision. Look ahead and plan where you want to be in six months. Plant small seeds to help you get there.

There is a zen saying. “When sitting, sit. When walking, walk. But don’t wobble.” The point is to be fully engaged in the present moment, whatever it brings, and this includes our jobs. When working, work. When planning, plan. When recharging, recharge. When finished, don’t look back.

fail_faster

Success is the tip of the iceberg, the visible sliver peaking from a mountain of rock hard failure. The mass of our misses always outweighs the glory of our makes; but without failure, success would have nothing to stand upon.

Your profession does not make a difference – actor, dishwasher, congressman, yoga teacher – if you plan to succeed, you are going to fail first. The trick is to get your failures out of the way early.

Young stand up comedians, they say, don’t get laughs until they have become so comfortable bombing that failure no longer frightens them. The secret is understanding that playing it safe is more risky than taking steps outside our comfort zone. When we play it safe, we never fail. We also never learn. Life becomes stale and we lock ourselves into patterns that become increasingly hard to break.

It’s easier to take chances now, before we get too comfortable, so let’s get on whatever stage calls us and bomb. Let’s enjoy the sound of boos and gradually turn them into cheers.

innovation_inside_job

Inflexible minds hit a wall when they force new ideas. Minds that are open and free bloom new ideas with ease. Innovative work is therefore the outer reflection of thought unhinged from ego.

Everybody wants to innovate. Technology and business are evolving at a rapid speed, and our work must be different to keep pace. Professionals and companies, more than ever, want to take advantage of this change and bring innovation to their industries and the world. The question is: how many professionals are doing the inner work to expand their perception and innovate the thoughts and beliefs that subconsciously control their actions?

Innovation is the systematic deconstruction of old ways of thinking that creates space for more natural ideas to unfold. We work the same way we live. No amount of hard work can innovate when the mind is held down by ego, dogma, and self-limiting beliefs. When we expand our perception, and break the outdated rules we live by, innovation and inspiration flow like the exhale of breath. We can only break the chains of our work once we have broken the chains of our internal thoughts and beliefs. When consciousness innovates, our work follows.  

New York City, 2016