Part I: The Project of Self-Realisation
1. We devote major portions of our time on earth to working and we want our careers to go well. But there’s a range of problems that can blight our working lives: we can face squabbling colleagues, unsympathetic bosses, a turbulent economy, a low salary. We see others getting ahead but we feel unsure how to make progress.
In this class at the School of Life we focus on a specific but fundamental area of suffering that occurs around work: the feeling that we have a bigger potential inside us that we haven’t properly identified or managed to place at the center of our careers. Or – to put it another way – self-realisation feels unavailable in connection with our jobs. We feel inauthentic and frustrated.
2. What do we mean by self-realisation and the search for authentic work? We believe that we all have within us a range of native talents and skills that are deeply embedded in our personalities: what we can call our ‘potential’.
However, this potential doesn’t signal itself clearly enough to us and we can easily misunderstand its actual nature. An authentic working life depends on understanding our potential in good time. We can also add: we’re left very much alone with this task.
A self-realised life is one in which we have had a chance to understand this potential and given it outward expression in the world. It has become an activity or object that others can see, that can please them, help them and gain their interest and approval. It may also make us money. What was deep inside has been ‘realised’ in the world.
3. Not everyone is interested in self-realisation around work. Many people don’t feel that their job needs to reflect or express who they are, that there needs to be this intimate connection between their ‘deep self’ and their work. This is, in a sense, a huge advantage. It gives them leeway to choose from a very wide range of careers: freed from the need to ask so narrowly what would suit their ‘deep self’, they can simply be guided by what is available, what they already know they’re good at and what might pay well and have good benefits. They also don’t need to spend ages introspectively wondering what they want to do: they don’t need to understand their deep self very well, because their deep self isn’t what they’re interested in engaging at work.
However, the person who does want a job that reflects who they are, who does want authentic, self-realising work, is facing an additional task. They have to solve two problems:
a) How can I make a decent living/gain status/be comfortable?
b) How can the job suit my deep self?
They are bringing a difficult but impressive demand. Their job has to meet the needs of the soul as well as earn a living.
4. It’s only relatively recently that people have been, on a mass scale, interested in authentic work and self-realisation. Work was, for most of human history, simply a source of suffering. Asking ourselves what we really want to do is a very modern question – which is good to realise because it can lead us to sympathy for our troubles. We’re at the dawn of working this one out.
5. We can get a powerful glimpse of the movement from potential to self-realisation when we consider the childhoods of people who have gone on in later life to establish very successful careers that seem exceptionally well suited to them as individuals.
6. A report on the boy in the middle – aged around seven – would have read: David is quietly confident, greatly interested in animals and rocks, and prone to form strong opinions. Enjoys learning. Adventurous, but likes to have a goal. Surprisingly canny with a strong sense of initiative. Very earnest.
7. Eventually, David Attenborough went on to have a hugely influential career as a nature broadcaster. His career developed out of the building blocks of potential that were already present in sketchy form in his childhood character. As a child he wasn’t a television personality, of course; but the potential was there. In his films (and all the organisation that went into making them) he was turning his childhood enthusiasms (his potential) into actual things that could make him a good living and transmit his ideas and interests to others.
8. Eleven-year-old Barbara likes going on long car rides through the countryside with her father, looking at the hills and the clouds. She enjoys drawing. She’s good at playing the piano (very sensitive touch on the keys); she loves watching the waves on holiday at the seaside; she has a collection of rocks on a shelf by her desk. She often enjoys rubbing them together, or stroking them against her cheek. Very diligent.
9. Barbara Hepworth went on to become one of the leading British artists of the twentieth century. As a child she couldn’t make great works of art. But in adult life she was activating and putting to work her childhood potential. She was turning her daydreams about waves and clouds into objects that other people could admire. She was taking private moments of inner experience and giving them physical expression that could touch others’ deeply. Some of the key psychological pieces – out of which her adult career was made – were already there in embryonic, unfocused form when she was young.
10. We tend to revere people like Hepworth and Attenborough on the basis that they had extraordinary talent. But we might, on closer examination, say something else. Great talent is very widely distributed. What is in really short supply is a reliable route from potential to its realisation. Most people don’t manage to get their talents out. It is normally only exceptional fortitude or good luck that leads people to hit on their talent in time.
The French writer Saint-Exupéry spoke of seeing the faces of commuters on the Paris metro and of wondering which of these belonged to ‘Mozart assassinated.’
In a similar vein, the 18th-century English poet, Thomas Gray, mediated on the melancholy theme of unrealised potential while looking at some headstones of farm labourers in the graveyard of a small country village. He wondered who these people had been and what, in other circumstances, they might have become.
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire….
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest
– Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
1. Historically, there were many social and economic barriers why people never fulfilled their potential. For us, today, it’s often the case that the external world is not completely stacked against us, the barrier may be more internal. We don’t quite know what we want to do, or we are inwardly inhibited from acting upon our wishes.
2. In this class, we’re going to look at a range of psychological obstacles to self-realisation, we’ll be led by some of the most common complaints people have around self-realisation.
Do you recognise the idea that there is something in you to externalise?
On a scale of 1-10, how worried are you that it will never come out?
Part II: ‘I don’t know what I find pleasurable…’
1. Although we may feel restless and unfulfilled, we don’t necessarily have a clear sense of where our greater potential actually lies. What are the things in us that aren’t currently getting enough opportunity? How can we locate the parts of ourselves that would ideally be engaged in authentic work? The way we can best address these questions sounds – initially – rather odd. We shouldn’t ask ourselves fruitlessly what ‘job’ we would like to do. We need to look for answers in an unexpected place, which is to ask ourselves what sort of things we enjoy doing: what we find pleasurable – even if it doesn’t at first sight seem to have any obvious link to working.
2. The idea of getting to know our own potential by means of an examination of our varied pleasures sounds strange, in part, because the education system doesn’t encourage us to think this way. Education usually focuses on success in a range of academic subjects (most of which are far from pleasurable) as the central route to a good career. What we happen to enjoy is pretty much irrelevant. Indeed, we tend to imagine that because a lot of academic work is unenjoyable, lack of enjoyment is a sign that we are on the right path. Pleasure feels not just irrelevant, but positively dangerous.
Additionally, our collective ideas about what counts as a ‘good job’ are generally defined by criteria like money and status. Whether we ourselves would especially enjoy the actual work such a job involves is not the primary issue. The issue of pleasure has understandably been pushed to the margins of our thinking about work.
However, here we are aiming for a subtly different goal. We’re not trying to track down what counts as a good career in the public sense; we’re not helping to look for a career that can make the most money, bring fame or deliver security of income over the long term (all of these are in themselves very laudable goals). We are investigating how to have a self-realised career, a career which externalises one’s deepest character in objects and actions in the world. This may or may not deliver money and status, may or may not have security of income or renown.
3. The peculiar thing about our minds is that if we ask ourselves directly ‘what we enjoy’, we are likely not to know. We have evidently enjoyed things in our lives, it would be impossible not to have done, but we have not been trained to note and remember particular moments. We are not archivists of our own pleasures, we let them flow through us and don’t give them names – which may not matter in many areas, but has a large effect in the area of locating work that feels authentic to who we are.
So we need to tease out our minds, reach inside them with the help of slightly artificial exercises. We have devised three:
A: THE PLEASURE MENU EXERCISE
- Consider a list of twelve major kinds of pleasure. For each pleasure area, we have briefly evoked some of the moments we might experience it. Don’t worry if they don’t all resonate with you, they are only intended as a very approximate guide to the territory.
- Give each Pleasure a score out of 10, 10 being the pleasure that most resonates with you.
1. The Pleasure of Making Money [Score]
- Making a profit from correctly guessing the needs of others ahead of the competition.
- The sense that money is an endorsement of your insights and skills.
- Money feels connected to a set of down-to-earth virtues: understanding, hard work, efficiency, discipline and canniness.
2: The Pleasure of Beauty [Score]
- It’s appealing when a table is nicely laid: an elegant water glass harmonises with a well-designed knife and fork and maybe a very plain earthenware plate.
- A birthday present is greatly enhanced by being very carefully wrapped: when the ends of the wrapping paper are crisply folded.
- It’s irritating when two buildings are misaligned; it would be good to go back in time and put them right.
- It’s very satisfying to have high-quality writing material: perfectly sharpened pencils, steel rulers, a pen with exactly the right thickness of line.
- It’s very moving to look at a brown ploughed field in winter, bounded a line of grey, leafless trees on the horizon.
- It’s very exciting when the hotel room is just right.
3. The Pleasure of Creativity [Score]
- It’s fun turning over possible future scenarios: should we go into the American market? Is it worth making greetings cards? Should we get involved with the Turkish company? These sort of thought experiments come easily to you.
- There’s a lot of satisfaction in imagining ideal versions of things: what would the ideal education system or the perfect city be like?
- It’s very interesting considering which images will work best with a presentation. It can seem trivial but it isn’t: an image can make an idea much more engaging and powerful.
- Novelty for its own sake is unimpressive, what’s exciting is hunting down better solutions in unexpected places.
4. The Pleasure of Understanding [Score]
- Though questions, even quite abstract ones, are interesting: can happiness be defined (and if it can’t be defined, does the word ‘happiness’ have any meaning)? Why are the richest countries in the world all democracies? Are there any significant common features amongst successful corporations?
- It’s satisfying to lay down your thoughts on paper. It helps organise the mind. It can be very exciting going through the process of working out what you think.
- It’s irritating when people express an opinion without properly explaining why they think it is right.
- It’s thrilling when a mass of seemingly conflicting facts can be given a coherent explanation and when a simpler, clearer underlying pattern can be discovered.
5. The Pleasure of Self-Expression [Score]
- It’s always nice when people ask your opinion (though it can be frustrating if you can’t nail your ideas on the spur of the moment).
- Acting is (or sounds) exciting when it’s possible to expand on and give free reign to an existing feature of one’s character.
- It’s very irritating when other people don’t listen properly.
- Even quite elaborate self-expression isn’t narcissistic, it’s a kind of generosity: a desire to share the one’s thoughts and feelings with others.
- Sometimes feedback forms are too short.
- It’s exciting to be asked good questions about one’s experience.
6. The Pleasure of Technology [Score]
- It’s great fun taking things apart to see how they work.
- It’s fascinating to think seriously about the question: what might life be like in 2180.
- It’s irritating when people associate future technology with gimmicks.
- Technology doesn’t exist for it’s own sake or just to sell more gadgets. It should (and can) genuinely improve our lives.
- It’s very satisfying to use a well-designed piece of technology even if it’s very simple (the perfect corkscrew).
- It’s exciting to see the latest gadgets.
7. The Pleasure of Helping Other People [Score]
- The pain of others is often very apparent.
- It’s deeply satisfying to solve someone else’s problems for them.
- Work is meaningful when it makes a difference to other people.
- It’s very important to feel needed.
- Sometimes it’s too painful to watch the news: there’s so much suffering in the world.
8. The Pleasure of Leading [Score]
- It’s always interesting to be asked for advice, and remarkable how a fresh pair of eyes can spot opportunities and solution that others miss.
- It’s very rewarding to solve practical problems that baffle other people.
- Being trusted by others is very very satisfying.
- When other people get in a panic you find yourself getting more focused; you like that about yourself.
- It’s exciting to think not just about what’s happening now but about how the landscape will look tomorrow and the day after that.
9. The Pleasure of Teaching [Score]
- Helping someone correct a mistake isn’t a chore, it’s satisfying.
- It’s always wonderful to share an idea.
- It’s intriguing to find out what’s blocking someone from making progress.
- Seeing the progress of others isn’t a matter for envy.
- It’s very satisfying to be able to encourage others when they feel lost or down.
- A clear, precise explanation is one of the most beautiful things in the world.
10. The Pleasure of Independence [Score]
- It’s great getting up very early in the morning, to have time to do things before anyone else is around.
- Growing up means the satisfaction of making your own decision, away from people who can control you.
- It’s fun to be alone; boredom is rarely an issue.
- Guided tours and tour groups are very irritating.
- A quiet evening is always appealing – it’s the chance to plot and think and escape social chit-chat.
11. The Pleasure of Order [Score]
- Filing is soothing and quietly satisfying.
- It’s very appealing to arrange a set of colouring pencils according to the colour spectrum …
- It’s irritating when people jump around telling a story and keep on saying ‘oh I forgot to mention …’
- A tidy drawer is a miniature work of art.
12. The Pleasure of Nature [Score]
- It’s annoying that so many modern windows don’t open.
- It was to get down on one’s hands and knees and look closely at a hedgehog or a snail. Their lives are as rich and interesting as that of any human.
- Camping can be delightful, especially if the weather isn’t perfect. It’s more of an interesting challenge to put up a tent in a storm.
- It would be fun to wade in the swamps of the Serengeti plains during the wet season or clamber over the rocks of the Galapagos islands: mud and a grazed knee are part of the adventure.
Finally, pick out the four pleasure areas to which you have given the highest scores. Hang onto them. They’re going to be used shortly in the next couple of exercises.
5. We’ve uncovered a range of key pleasures. But at the moment they are pretty abstract: the pleasure of order or the pleasure of teaching. In order to extract more guidance from our enjoyments we need to flesh them out. What is it about teaching that’s pleasing? What kind of order is satisfying and around what sorts of things? To get more granular we need to start to investigate our own experience in more detail and the actual ways these pleasures have turned up in our lives.
6. We’ll look first at childhood. It might seem like a long time ago and we’ve changed since then, of course. But childhood is a very useful point of reference because it can reveal what we instinctively like rather than what we’ve come to feel we should like. It was a time when we were able to engage with activities for their own worth, rather than because of social approval or financial benefit. Childhood was a peculiarly useful sort of laboratory.
B: THE CHILDHOOD PLAY EXERCISE
- Look at the list of the four pleasure areas of most interest. eg. Order, Nature, Leading and Teaching.
- For each one, consider whether this pleasure was present in your childhood.
- What activities or situations were connected to that pleasure?
- Describe your experience of this pleasure in more detail. For instance, around caring: I used to really like making a hospital bed for my knitted rabbit; I was always pretending she’d a broken arm and needed to be looked after; I really liked it when my mother was agitated and I could calm her down by making her laugh.
- Finally, build a bridge from these childhood pleasure to adulthood. Translate from the child to the adult version of the pleasure. What might be the adult equivalents?
For example, we translate: ‘love of leading a team of boys into the woods…’ to ‘leadership’.
Or: ‘Loved to build imaginary cities’ to ‘imagining the future, making models/forecasts, perhaps around economics…’
7. To continue the process of getting more detail about the kinds of things we really enjoy, we can turn to what initially seems like the opposite of pleasure: the awkward and potentially embarrassing to admit experience of envying someone. It’s not enjoyable to feel envy. But envy always points to the idea that the other person is enjoying something that we feel deprived of. So behind the scenes envy gives us access to areas of enjoyment we feel are very important to us but currently missing from our lives.
C: THE ENVY EXERCISE
- Once again, scan your eyes down your four top ranked pleasures and consider each one in turn.
- Think of people who you feel have this pleasure in their work: that is, people whose working lives you rather envy. They might be well known public figures or they might be friends or slight acquaintances.
- Think in more detail about what they are doing in this area. Explain why what they are doing seem attractive and exciting – enviable – to you.
We tend to get stuck at the level of envying a whole person, but once we reflect, we tend to find that it is aspects of a person’s life that appeal to us. We need to get clearer about what in particular about their life we’re interested in.
For instance, we might start by envying a business person who is engaging with beauty. The more we reflect on them, the more we find that there’s something in particular that they are doing: they are engaging with beauty in a mass market, not just for the few. Or that they are operating a successful business with only a small staff and with an ethical stance. Or, they are helping others in the same community they grew up in.
- A key thing is not to get bogged down in all the exact specifics of what they are doing: ‘they helped design the extension to the Egyptian Geological Museum in Cairo’; ‘they marketed New Zealand wine in Brazil.’ Instead abstract slightly and say: ‘they worked on interesting construction projects overseas’ or ‘they expanded the market for a product I like.’
- Gradually add to your sheet of paper, under the four ‘favourite’ pleasures, a rich list of semi-abstract details i.e.:
Working without high-tech machinery
A constant sense of surprise
Making money from agriculture
- Finally, reflect on what sorts of activities you might undertake which would copy the best bits of the lives you envy.
8. Across this series of exercises we’re building up information about our own pleasures and starting to imagine how they might shape a working life. Before pulling all the threads together there’s one more expansive thought experiment to undertake, which is to consider our fantasy work: the work that would be ideally pleasurable for us. The point of considering a fantasy is to help shake off (for a moment) the dutiful restrictions we place on our own thinking. A fantasy isn’t a direct guide to anything in the real world. But it can help unlock important information about ourselves which, in a suitably modified form, can be put to constructive use.
D: THE FANTASY JOB EXERCISE
- Looking at your four key pleasures, imagine – if there were no obstacles – what kind of work would you be doing that would really satisfy you in these areas. You are designing your fantasy world and work.
- Be a bit crazy. You could be living on Mars, be the world dictator, serve in a Roman legion or be invisible. Don’t worry about money, practicalities, reputation, or whether your friends would think you mad. Even more, don’t worry that it might fail. Imagine it wouldn’t.
- The crucial thing is to concentrate on what you’d be doing around work: what would you be producing and selling, what would be the purpose? What tasks would you be undertaking and why would they be so attractive to you?
9. We’ve now got a lot of material from different sources about your own experience of pleasure. Cast your eye over your list of Pleasures. You should have identified Four central pleasures, and additionally, added details drawn from 1. What you did in Childhood 2. The people you envy 3. Your Utopian Fantasies. What you have assembled is a first draft of what we call a PORTRAIT OF PLEASURE.
With this portrait in hand, we can now start to interrogate the job market. Normally, when we look at possible areas of work, we have a range of questions on our mind. We ask things like:
- What am technically I qualified to do?
- In what areas of the job market are there plenty of openings?
- What kind of job will pay enough to meet my financial needs as I see them?
Clearly, these are very sensible questions to be asking. But they don’t target the particular thing we’re currently investigating: how to find work that feels authentic and to which it would feel meaningful and pleasurable to devote large parts of your life.
10. However, if work is to feel authentic we also need to audit any possible career area in terms of the ways it might satisfy (or fail to match) our pleasure wish list.
When it comes to hiring employees there’s a familiar approach of having a set of key characteristics that a candidate is expected to have – which will show they are up to doing the work. We can adopt this strategy and apply it in the reverse direction. We can – as it were – interview a job. How might a prospective job perform in the key pleasure areas we’ve identified for ourselves?
We can also try to imagine a real job that would offer significant scope for at least some these pleasures. What might you be doing day-to-day in a job that would bring you the pleasures on the wish-list?
PART III: ‘I know broadly what I like to do… But I am vague’
1. Sometimes, we have a firm-enough grasp of the kind of pleasure area we’re looking to work in. But the idea is – inconveniently – too big. It feels stuck at a level that is very general and vague. We say things, perhaps with dispiriting circularity, like:
- I want to do something creative – but I don’t know in what specific field.
- I want to help others – but I don’t have a very clear idea about what kind of help I’d like to be providing.
- I want to be entrepreneurial – but I don’t have any precise ideas about what exactly I’d be doing.
2. Or we might be able to name the industry sector, we say we want to:
- work in the media
- be an architect
- do something around food
But we don’t seem able to advance beyond this.
3. A big term reverberates in our minds but we struggle to get more specific. If a well meaning friend asks – so what exactly do you want to do? we go blank. And understandably a sense of panic starts to mount. We wonder if we’re just daydreaming and deluding ourselves. Perhaps we can’t really be cut out for this kind of work after all.
Actually, we deserve a lot of sympathy around this uncertainty. Unfortunately our culture has inherited the idea that we’re supposed to automatically know what particular kind of work we want to do. We’re still under the spell of a big and often poisonous idea which can be termed the Vocation Myth.
4. The Vocation 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 God to devote their life to an aspect of the divine cause.
5. Without quite realising it, we’ve developed a secular version of this idea. The notion of vocation features in the biographies of many of the world’s 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. We hear that Picasso knew from when he was 7 that he would be a painter. In this context, not knowing comes to seem like an argument for having nothing to offer. We end up not only panicked that we don’t have a path, but dispirited that our ignorance is proof of mediocrity.
6. Our vagueness has a straightforward cause, deriving from a natural frailty of the mind. At various points in our experience a number of prompts have accumulated to give us a very positive view of some aspect of a field of work. Somewhere in the background we actually know why we are enthusiastic in this area and what it is in more specific terms that actually excites us. But we have forgotten the details and only a vague (but strongly positive) impression remains. There’s nothing sinister about this at all. If you think of a film you saw few years ago you might only recall that you really liked it, but it could be difficult to recall the details. So if someone pressed you about why you liked it you’d feel embarrassingly vague. Yet the reasons are all there in your head. If you saw a couple of key clips from the film it would all come back and you’d be able to explain in detail what you liked about it.
Something similar might happen around travel. We might be going to a foreign city and have a powerful wish to stay in ‘a nice hotel’. But we might, on scanning a travel website, be daunted by news that there were 8,000 hotels, many of which could be described as attractive by a lot of people. How would you ever find the hotel that was nice for you? The good news is that you do know what a nice hotel is for you, you’re just not consciously aware of the criteria that have been forming for many years. So it’s with the help of an exercise which asks a lot of questions in particular areas, that you might become consciously aware of your hitherto background beliefs. The questionnaire might ask:
- do you like modern or classical furniture
- is it important that the hotel is central
- does service matter more than price
7. The same mental process can occur around our interest in work areas. We’ve reached our positive impression for quite important reasons, only we can’t currently identify what they are – which is why we feel vague. But if we get the right prompts we can reconnect with the reasons for our enthusiasm and explain to ourselves and others what it’s all about. We need to give the mind triggers to remember what it already knows…
8. The particular thing we need to get clear about is what we want to do, to produce, either a product or service. The thing we’re vague about is what specific product or service we’re really interested in. We have devised an exercise to help us get clearer:
A PRODUCT/SERVICE CLARIFICATION EXERCISE
- We start with with an area of product or service that interests us. We might say ‘Creativity’ ‘Helping Others’ or an employment area like ‘Design’ or ‘Media’.
- This isn’t a plan as such. These terms cover far too many different products and services. We need to get sharper. There are many different ways of being involved around innovation or of being creative. The task is to close in on what really it is (at the back of one’s mind) that one is drawn to. We can probe the mind by a series of oppositions.
- The ideal product or service would be [ring the opposition that appeals to you most. You may at points not want to ring anything or sometimes to ring both]
Helping the mind / Helping the body
Must bring social recognition / Obscurity is OK
Long-term / Ephemeral
Costs a lot / cheapish
Helping the rich world / Helping the developing world
A Problem of subsistence / A problem of complex modern life
Mass market / Niche
Created by a team / Created by me especially
‘Live’ / Recorded
Bringing Excitement / Bringing reassurance
Entertaining / Useful
Scaleable / One-off
Coloured by fashion / Classical
Quick turn over / Long product cycle
Anonymous / Personally flavoured
Hands on / At a distance
Big institution / Workshop
Entrepreneurial / Big System
Peer evaluated / Market evaluated
B2C / B2B
Big / Small
Words / Images
Hard wearing / Fragile
Domestic / Public
Innovative / Classical
No 1 / No 2
Intuitive / Procedural
OK if takes a few decades / has to be 1 year or 2
Regulated / Unregulated
Market mature / market open
Fluctuation / Stability
Helps you do something else / End in itself
In the shadows / Upfront
Sensory / Intellectual
Degree of Risk / Safety first
Bit glamorous / quite sober
Everything you ring is telling you something about your ideal product/service:
Always ask: Why did you ring one rather than the other?
Your answers should be providing you with a lot more detail about why your area of work is attractive to you. We’re closing in on the sort of work that you are actually interested in within your chosen area.
9. The process we’re using here is directly comparable to the way Michelangelo thought about his work as a sculptor. On his view, the statue was already there inside the block of marble. ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’ The lump of stone was full of potential – and the method for realising that potential was to chip and gouge away all the irrelevant, excess material. Moment by moment the sculptor moves around the block, as each new portion is focused on there’s a decision to be made: keep, or cut away? Is this a detail of the emerging statue or does it need to be removed?
10. In a group of statues that Michelangelo never finished – known as the Captives, we can see this process in mid-operation. In some places Michelangelo has clearly identified and revealed the figure hidden in the block. But in other places he hasn’t yet got round to removing the external covering. It’s like a half formed idea that’s gradually being formed in the mind.
11. Our minds are like the blocks of stone: they contain the knowledge we need, they have a big insight trapped in them. But we can’t gain direct access to it. In our case, the liberation of our hidden idea occurs not by using a mallet and chisel but by firing questions at our minds. Each question puts the spotlight of attention on some small portion of the block and forces us to accept or reject it. Gradually the underlying shape of our interest emerges.
Each question knocks away a little portion of the surrounding material and gradually allows us to see the idea that is lurking in our minds.
PART IV: ‘I know what I want to do, but I’m (psychologically) blocked about moving forward…’
The are situations where we may know exactly what we want to do, our problem does not lie in identifying our pleasure, but elsewhere; in making this pleasurable occupation a part of our lives. For a range of reasons that owe more to psychology than economics, we can know what we’d ideally want to do do, and yet feel blocked from moving forward on our plan.
A: ‘This seems a strange thing for me to be doing’ (Family Scripts)
One of the most stubborn obstacles can traced back to our families. 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. Choices were cruelly restricted and penalties for deviating from the intended trajectory could be severe. Then, in the early 20th century, under the sway of a Romantic ideology, societies gradually freed themselves from class and parental strictures.
We’re now supposed to be able to do whatever job we want. We firmly believe we are free to decide just as we please.
But this idea of freedom has had the curious effect of hiding from us just how much familial expectations continue to matter and therefore restrict the course of our careers – except that they do so without us realising. Our parents may no longer have a legal power to block our bank accounts or physically restrain us – but they have expectations of us and because we (usually) love them, we have a natural tendency to try in some way to fit in with their ideals (even if they have never spelt these out directly in any way). Love can control us as much as force or the law ever did.
In the back of our minds, there are always what we can term ‘family work templates’ in operation – restricting what sort of jobs we feel able to devote ourselves to and encouraging us towards a set of favoured options. Our backgrounds makes certain forms of work more or less available.
At the most benign level, our family work templates are the result of what our families understand of the working world. Every family has a range of occupations that it grasps – because someone has practiced them and, in the process, humanised them and brought them within the imaginative range of other family members. There are families where, as long as anyone can remember, there have been doctors around. From a young age, one has heard about the often comedic habits of patients, the rivalries on the ward, the eccentricities of senior doctors and the fun and agony of medical school. It hence comes to feel normal and possible that one might, when the time comes, decide to join the ranks of the medical establishment. Other families have generations of lawyers or accountants in them, sailors or hoteliers, blacksmiths or butchers. A child might hear constant anecdotes that stress the fascinations of the courtroom or the impressive character of saving lives, the benefits of education or the vigorous dignity of running a kitchen, the excitement of making a successful deal or the honor of policing the city streets. Exposed to family members in the relaxed settings of home (where the gap between the professional and the personal is at its narrowest and where impressive destinies therefore come to seem very possible), certain jobs naturally end up feeling more plausible than others. Our uncle’s career as an air traffic controller won’t appear unapproachable when it is practiced by someone we remember mowing the lawn and enjoying jokes with.
Seldom is stepping outside of familial experience presented as plain wrong, wicked or stupid. But it may just not be something that seems imaginatively available to us. We wouldn’t know where to start when no one in the family has ever gone into, say, sport, electronics or the theatre. The people on whose affections we depend can’t help us to become confident in such areas. They restrict us not because they are mean, nor because they have carefully studied all the facets of our characters and are refusing to accept our true inclinations, but because their own experiences are simply and necessarily rather narrow.
This said, at times, more value-laden dynamics are in operation. The family work template emerges as the result of what parents esteem and aspire to; and conversely, what they are afraid of and in flight from. In many families, there will be certain career options which the parents speak about with particular reverence: perhaps being a great writer or a senior judge, a headmaster or a civil servant. These frequently aren’t the things that the parents are themselves engaged in; they are what they once wanted to do (but never did). Many parents quietly hand their dreams onto their children to fulfill – without usually telling them that they have placed these burdens on their shoulders. Yet a message is conveyed that following a given route will be the chief way to secure love and admiration; the son or daughter will be the architect that the parents were too timid to be, or the entrepreneur they were barred from becoming. Nothing like this is ever stated, but the ambitions hover in the psychological ether nevertheless. It doesn’t seem like anyone is being strong-armed, but it’s remarkable how much we can be influenced by fifteen years of admiring glances cast in particular professional directions – and vice versa.
We’re equally liable to receive little messages that certain careers are beneath us and not quite right for our sort of station in life. Modern parents don’t put up absolute barriers. It’s not that they’ll never speak to us again if we go into asset management or become a sound engineer. But they can create a forceful mental atmosphere in which the negatives of particular kinds of work comes across especially clearly. Parents can subtly convey a low regard for jobs that are otherwise perfectly acceptable to society at large; they may quietly give out a sense that no reasonable person could ever wish to work as a dentist or that accountancy is a profession for the timid; they might imply that being a teacher is a waste of a life or that only unscrupulous individuals could even consider a career in advertising; they may have intimated a view that architects are all slightly deranged or that anything touching on psychology is the realm of charlatans and cranks.
We sense our parents’ wishes and excitements and are impressed by them 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.
What distinguishes modern societies from their predecessors is how quietly the messages about what it is wise to do are emitted. Yet this is not necessarily the same as giving a child true freedom to do whatever he or she thinks is right. Because the family work template is mostly just implicit, we don’t necessarily see what a powerful effect it may be having on us. In order to free ourselves, we have to actively make ourselves consider the net of family expectations we are likely to be enmeshed in.
We should ask ourselves what lies within the circle of familial work experience and what outside of it – and consider whether certain legitimate options have been discounted for arbitrary reasons. We should ask ourselves what unfulfilled dreams our parents had for themselves and whether these may be resting on our shoulders in ways that don’t align with our deeper selves. We should wonder how our parents privately ranked careers. Even if they overtly said – of course – that all jobs can be good (‘we just want you to be happy’), we need to grasp the particular way in which they nevertheless did really imply that some jobs were very much more worthy than others.
Then, through such patient explorations, we will start to see what influences might still be lingering, foreclosing certain important options and perhaps holding us back from wholeheartedly embracing a career which we suspect in our heart of hearts, really is right for us.
- Make a list of the jobs or kinds of work which felt familiar to you as you were growing up.
- Make a list of 10 jobs that you never met (before the age of 15) anyone who actually did.
- Do your assumptions about work you might have any connections to either of the lists.
- Did you ever get the impression that your parents regarded some kinds of work in a negative light?
- Make another list of the jobs your family held in high regard.
- How do your own views today compare with those lists?
- Amongst your friends is there rough consensus about what kinds of jobs are good or bad?
- Do any of the ‘bad’ jobs appeal to you – or might they appeal, if you could set aside the views you’ve been exposed to?
Look at the following statements. Don’t answer them for yourself. Imagine the answers the most influential person in your earlier years would give. Put a tick next to any statement they would broadly agree with and a cross against any they would broadly disagree with.
– Clients always want the cheapest thing and don’t understand the vision
– Big companies ruin things
– Small firms always get eaten by big ones
– Teaching is a dead end
– You have to develop a whole life plan before you even get a job
– No one ever knows what they should do, we all just wing it and hope for the best
– There are lots of people who get away with being rubbish at what they do
– Merit is the key to all success
– Colleagues are often lazy, selfish and stupid
– It’s great working with people who are a bit better at something that you, that’s how you learn
– It’s no good doing anything unless you get to the very top
– The bosses are always just in it for themselves
Are there particular elements you have reacted against?
Are there opinions and views you have endorsed as prominent parts of your own world-view?
B: THE DUTY TRAP – WHAT I ENJOY FEELS IRRELEVANT AROUND MY WORK
1. We start off in life being very interested in pleasure and fun. In our earliest years, we do little but hunt out situations that will amuse us, pursuing our hedonistic goals with the help of puddles, crayons, balls, teddies, computers and bits and pieces we find in the kitchen drawers. As soon as anything gets frustrating or boring, we simply give up and go in search of new sources of enjoyment – and no one appears to mind very much.
Then, all of a sudden at the age of 5 or 6, we are introduced to a terrifying new reality: the Rule of Duty. This states that there are some things, indeed many things, that we must do not because we like or see the point of them, but because other people, very intimidating authoritative people who may be almost three times our size, expect us to do them – in order, so the big people sternly explain, that we’ll be able to earn money, buy a house and go on holiday about 30 years from now. It sounds pretty important – sort of.
Even when we’re home and start crying and tell our parents that we just don’t want to do the essay about volcanoes for tomorrow, they may take the side of Duty; and speak to us with anger and impatience – beneath which there is simply a lot of fear – about never surviving in the adult world if we develop into the sort of people who lack the will to complete even a simple homework assignment about lava – and want to build a treehouse instead.
Questions of what we actually enjoy doing, what gives us pleasure, still occasionally matter in childhood, but only a bit. They become matters increasingly set aside from the day-to-day world of study, reserved for holidays and weekends. A basic distinction takes hold: pleasure is for hobbies, pain is for work.
It’s no wonder that by the time we finish university, this dichotomy is so entrenched, we usually 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?
The dutiful way of thinking has such high prestige, because it sounds like a road to safety in a competitive and alarmingly expensive world. But the Rule of Duty is actually no guarantee of true security. Once we’ve finished our education, it in fact emerges as a sheer liability masquerading as a virtue. Duty grows positively dangerous. The reasons are two-fold.
Firstly, because 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 (a state quite compatible with being exhausted and grumpy most of the time). Only when we are intrinsically motivated are we capable of generating the very high levels of energy and brainpower necessary to shine out amidst the competition. Work turned out merely out of duty quickly shows up as limp and lacking next to that done out of love.
The other thing that happens when our work is informed by our own sense of pleasure is that we get more insightful about the pleasures of others – that is, of the clients and customers a business relies upon. We can best please our audiences when we have mobilised our own feelings of enjoyment.
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 stick with the truth: 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.
It can sometimes happen that – although we are aware of the things that we enjoy and can identify our pleasures – we don’t take them into consideration when thinking about work. It doesn’t feel to us as if our pleasures are allowed to have a say in any of the decision we make around our careers. We don’t take our pleasures seriously as relevant information about what we should do with our working lives. There are several factors that can push us into this attitude.
Education; particularly if we are quite good at formal education, there’s a strong tendency to simply think about doing what is required in order to get a good grade in a course. It’s completely irrelevant whether we particularly enjoy or are especially interested in the material we are studying. Someone tells us what we’re expected to know and understand and we give them our best attention. And we’re liable to carry this ingrained habit with us into our later careers. We focus on what we’re supposed to do. We scarcely think about whether we feel any particular personal inclination towards or love for what we’re doing, we just do it, though over time we might find that we feel restless and unfulfilled and increasingly unmotivated. And we’re liable to get let down quite badly. We do what we think we’re supposed to and then get sidelined, or we don’t make much progress or our role gets eliminated in an efficiency drive.
Cynicism: we might not be at all cynical about life in general, but there’s a kind of cynicism that can emerge around work. We get very familiar with the world of deadlines, sales targets, quarterly figures and performance reviews. We think that it’s all very well in theory to imagine pleasure being an important part of work, but the reality seems totally different. The figures don’t ask ‘did you have an nice time?’ or ‘did you find it interesting?’ They simply track what actually happened in terms of profit per unit or the growth of market share. It’s very tempting to dismiss pleasure as an irrelevance when faced with these demands.
Work is the opposite of pleasure: there’s a long cultural tradition of seeing work as an unattractive necessity. For centuries the moment people had enough money to live on they’d stop working and turn to a life of pleasure. They’d travel, garden, attend lunch parties and maybe collect old books. A version of this sometimes turns up in the way people think about retirement – the time when, at last, we can stop working and start enjoying ourselves. If such attitudes linger at the back of our minds they encourage us to make a big distinction between work and pleasure. It ends up feeling strange to bring them together and imagine that pleasure might be a key component of work.
A sense of duty: as young children we never give any thought to what we ought to do. We simply pursue whatever we find exciting and pleasing. But there’s a crucial stage of development when we encounter the idea that sometimes we have to go against our inclinations and meet the demands of others, however irksome they might be. We have to help tidy the kitchen, even though we don’t want to, we have to get a school assignment done, even if we find it boring. We are being painfully introduced to the idea of duty: the things we have to do whether we want to or not. Questions of what we actually enjoy doing, what gives us pleasure, still occasionally matter in childhood, but only a bit. They become matters increasingly set aside from the day-to-day world of study, reserved for holidays and weekends. A basic distinction takes hold: pleasure is for hobbies, pain is for work.
6. Powerful though these tendencies might be, the idea that our pleasures are irrelevant to work is, however, very misleading. There are X big factors that push in the opposite direction and show how deeply work and pleasure are (ideally) intertwined.
Firstly, success in the modern economy will generally only go to those who can bring special levels of dedication and imagination to their labours – and this is only possible when one is, to a large extent, having fun (a state quite compatible with being exhausted and grumpy most of the time). Only when we are intrinsically motivated are we capable of generating the very high levels of energy and brainpower necessary to shine out amidst the competition. Work turned out merely out of duty quickly shows up as limp and lacking next to that done out of love. In a competitive environment the person who likes what they are doing is probably going to be better at it than someone who is just going through the motions.
Secondly, many kinds of work involve shaping or selling products and services intended for the pleasure of others. Our own pleasure, here, is a central resource. If we’re disengaged we are missing out on a vital source of data. We don’t really understand what people are looking for or why – and that’s a serious drawback. We can’t intuit why others might like something or what might be going wrong. We have to rely on data, which can be cumbersome and opaque.
Thirdly, we are jettisoning a key component of entrepreneurial insight. At the core of much entrepreneurial activity is the realisation – based on one’s own experience – that a pleasure is missing from life.
9. We can get a snapshot of the role of pleasure in entrepreneurial thinking by giving a little attention to the invention of the sandwich. John Montague – better know as the Earl of Sandwich – had access to all the best options for lunch in his era (1718-1792). He could have had a steak served on a silver platter, or some grilled chicken wings with roast beetroots; he might have been offered an onion pie or a bowl of white soup. But he was acute enough to realise that, while he was playing cards with his friends in his central London club, he would ideally like something that would enable him to eat with one hand at relative speed and without the danger of getting his fingers greasy and so called for some meat to be held between two pieces of bread. Rather than be (as it must have at first appeared to a startled waiter) a mere eccentric whim, Sandwich was identifying an unnoticed – but brilliantly precise – answer to a need that had never been attended to. He deployed his own instinct for what would please him to uncover an almost universal satisfaction, with more than US$ 60 billion worth of pre-made sandwiches being sold every year.
10. The underlying drive of the entrepreneur is to identify and supply the things we’ve all always wanted but didn’t quite realise we did. The longing has been circulating in our lives, but we haven’t latched onto it properly. The 19th-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson defined what happens: ‘In the minds of geniuses, we find – once more – our own neglected thoughts.’ In other words the genius (or the entrepreneur) isn’t someone with strange thoughts. On the contrary they are the person who has what are actually ordinary thoughts, which they happen to take very seriously, while the rest of us neglect the insights we actually possess. We could often usefully tweak the quote: ‘in the products of entrepreneurs we find – once more – our own neglected pleasures.’
1. Entrepreneurialism doesn’t just exist on the heroic level of inventing the iphone or the electric toothbrush. We can be entrepreneurial about making a meeting more interesting or about making a report more engaging. So it turns out that taking pleasure seriously is not a way of bowing out from the rigour of work. It’s actually a crucial – though easily underestimated – ingredient in working well.
2. Fourthly (and finally), the sense of duty and the accompanying discounting of our own pleasure, is tied to the curious phenomenon of having too much respect for others. Duty is premised on the idea that other people and other tasks deserve our unremitting labour, even if we’re not having a good time. But this isn’t usually true around work. Taking pleasure seriously is actually a bid on our part to be doing things that do properly call for our very best and deepest efforts.
Exercise: You and Duty
- Do you feel more enthusiastic about hobbies and leisure pursuits than about work?
- When you were growing up, did you think about work as something you were supposed to enjoy? Try to remember specific occasions. Did you imagine work as exciting or more like a chore? Why do you think you had the attitude you did?
- If you were guaranteed an adequate income but had to do something (anything) for at least 40 hours a week what would it be?
C: I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME LEFT
Quite often the prospect of moving to a job you can love looks very difficult because it involves a period of humiliating retrenchment. There’s going to be – at least for a while – a drop in salary, you are going to have to acquire new skills; you might have to move back home, there’s going to be a period of relative incompetence; others your age will be much further ahead in this particular line of work; you’ll be condemning yourself to perhaps a few years of low status. It can feel humiliating and slow: and it goes against the grain for ambitious people – who have a strong natural drive to get going immediately, to see quick, tangible results and to make obvious progress. The idea of further training can feel deeply off putting. The job investment trap looms when another career looks very alluring in principle but the investment in time and dignity required to get there feels so negative that one pushes the whole idea aside and gives up – to one’s great eventual cost.
Ironically, the job investment trap is at its most potent when we are young. Imagine someone who is twenty; they’d been planning a career in chemical engineering and they’re well on the way to gaining the right qualifications. They selected particular subjects at school, took the right courses at university, did some relevant work experience, got to know a few people who were already in the kinds of jobs they’d had an eye on. They’ve already made a big investment. But now they start to think very seriously that they should be looking at an entirely different kind of career. Maybe in order to find a job they can love they should be looking at becoming a landscape architect or marine biologist. It’s probably going to mean a job investment of at least two years of life.
At twenty two, two years feels like a very long time indeed. It’s ten percent of the whole of one’s life so far. And psychologically it’s even bigger than that. At twenty you’ve maybe only felt you were ‘you’ since you were about sixteen – before that you were in the daze of childhood and adolescence and didn’t have any real idea of what your life might be about. So two years feels like half your existence. It’s a vast commitment.
What’s so hard to grasp – and yet essential – is how things will look in the future, aged say 56. From there two years has a very different meaning. It’s only one twentieth (or 5%) of the forty years between being 16 (and starting to take a real interest in the possibilities of work) and being at the climax of middle age. Over time, the length of further study grows relatively small against the backdrop of a whole working life, while the consequences of not having undertaken it grow ever larger.
A similar thing happens around what we might call The Love Investment Trap. You’ve maybe been with someone for a couple of years and though things are sometimes quite nice you sense that overall it’s not really a very good relationship. But you stick with it because the investment required to find a more suitable partner is daunting. The present looms too large and the long, long future – which will in fact constitute by far the greater part of our lives – doesn’t carry the weight it really should.
There are two big reasons. One is that the long future is linked to a narrative of decline. The idea of getting older isn’t something we embrace and feel excited about. We’re squeamish about ageing. We don’t usually look forward to being fifty six or sixty seven – and so we find it easy, even appealing, to avoid thinking about what our interests and needs will be at these future stages of existence. We live in a culture that is very impressed by youth. We’re constantly reminded of why it’s nice to be young and rarely encouraged to dwell on what might be appealing or interesting about getting older. So we don’t imaginatively invest in working out what will help us live well in middle age. To counter this tendency we should draw up time lines to force ourselves to see that the period from 16 to 24 is quite short in comparison with that between 24 and 48 or 48 and 72. In the cultural utopia, when we’re 22 we’d frequently watch films and read books about the lives of the middle aged. We’d regularly remind ourselves that people’s mid-fifties are typically the high point of their working lives, the period when they they accomplish and earn the most. We’d be doing this to build up our imaginative engagement with our own future existence, so that we’d weigh up investments now not against our most recent experiences but in the light of a more accurate picture of the shape of a whole life.
The other key factor – which makes it fatally easy to discount the long-term – is that we typically live in time zone bubbles. We spend most of our lives around groups of people who are roughly of a similar age to ourselves. So we don’t get enough intergenerational experience. We don’t get drawn into the inner world and experience of people considerably older than we are, and so don’t get the full sense of the reality of their stage of life.
We need to have a more active strategy. We have to push people to try to explain their life experience to us. We have to ask leading questions, we have to probe and follow up. We have to ask them to go into more detail. We need to ask specifically how their outlook has changed across the years, what they’ve come to see differently and why. And we should do this not just with one individual but in a general and regular way. It can seem very strange – but on reflection it is actually reasonable and practical – to think that in order to make our way towards a job we can love one of the things we might need to do is spend time developing relationship with people quite a bit older than we are. Not necessarily people involved in careers we’re actively considering. The point is more general. We’re in search of assistance is taking very seriously something that is crucially important, and yet amazingly easy to discount: the reality of our own future decades of life.
We’re in search of ways to help ourselves think more fully and realistically about the future, so that we can take major decisions in a more clear-eyed way. It’s maybe only then that we can properly evaluate the worth of a difficult but important investment that will – at a cost that might come to look worthwhile – help us find a career we can really believe in.
If you knew you were going to live to two hundred (and retiring at around 173) how would you view spending two years retraining for another career? Would it change your thinking?
Often it’s interesting to imagine that one is short of time – which is a good way of focusing on priorities. But it is also useful to take the opposite view. What if there were no urgency? You could give scope to parts of your personality that usually get edged out. You might not worry about getting a ‘proper’ job so soon because there would be decades later to get round to it. You wouldn’t worry about retraining or switching careers because the future would be so long it would be worth it. This is a thought experiment that helps us see what’s on our minds but normally suppressed because of anxieties about time.
Think back to conversations you’ve had with people you know well, who are twenty or thirty years older than you, apart from your parents and extended family. Our thinking about future stages of our own lives is hugely shaped by the experiences we’ve had (or may have lacked) of a close up view of people’s lives at stages far removed from our own.
Leaving aside the negatives for a moment, what might be nice about being 45 or 60 or 75? We live in a culture that tends to be very admiring of youth – and that can make getting older feel only like a disaster, which curiously makes it harder for us to think seriously about our own long-term flourishing. But if we can at least sometimes think it might be rather nice to be older, we get a better perspective; we can care more readily about our long-term future and perhaps be less anxious too.
What regrets or worries can you anticipate having when you hit those numbers?
PART V: ‘I know what I like, but it’s practically impossible…’
One key thing that can go wrong in our thinking about a career is that we get fixated on a particular kind of job which – for one reason or another – turns out not to be a promising or realistic option. It may be that the job is extremely difficult to secure, it may require long years of preparation or it might be in an industry that has become precarious and therefore denies us good long-term prospects.
Here we call it a fixation – rather than simply an interest – to signal that the focus on the job is proving problematic because we have an overwhelming sense that our future lies with this one occupation and this occupation alone – while nevertheless facing a major obstacle in turning our idea into a reality.
We might, for instance, get fixated on literary publishing, but find that there are few openings and that the pay cannot possibly cover the rent that would be required to live anywhere within commuting distance of the office. Or we might develop an interest in serious long-form journalism, though its economic base has been substantially eroded. We might become obsessed with the idea of a political career, though in reality the chances of effecting major change are painfully slim; we might be fixated on a career in films, though the level of competition is ferocious and therefore the chances of success are tiny and horribly unreliable.
The solution to such fixations lies in coming to understand more closely what we are really interested in, because the more accurately and precisely we fathom what we really care about, the more we stand to discover that our interests and their associated pleasure-points actually exist in a far broader range of occupations than we have until now been used to entertaining. It is our lack of understanding of what we are really after – and therefore our relatively standard and obvious reading of the job market – that has pushed us into a far narrower tunnel of options than is warranted.
Fixation doesn’t only occur around work. In relationships too, we can become fixated on a particular person, whom we love and admire and cannot stop circling – even if, sadly, they happen not to be interested in us or treat us extremely shabbily and unreliably when we are with them. Despite the abuse, we say to ourselves (and concerned others) that we just cannot imagine an alternative life without them, so special are they (perhaps they are uncommonly funny in certain moods or play a musical instrument brilliantly or have a wry pessimism we adore).
The move to unfixate ourselves is not to tell ourselves that we don’t like this person or to attempt to forget how much we are attracted to them. It is to get very serious and specific about what the attraction might be based on – and then to come to see that the qualities we admire in fact exist in other people who don’t have the set of problems that are currently making a fulfilling relationship impossible. The careful investigation of what we love about someone shows us – paradoxically but very liberatingly – that we could in fact also love someone else.
Understanding what we like – what gives us pleasure – is therefore a central anti-fixation move. By strengthening our attachment to qualities, we are weakening our attachment to specific individuals or jobs. When we properly grasp what draws us to one job, we necessarily identify qualities that are available in other kinds of 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 – which is where the problem started because over-conspicuous jobs tend to attract too much attention, get over-subscribed and are then in a position to offer only very modest salaries.
Yet, in reality, the qualities can’t only exist there. They are necessarily generic and will be available under other, less obvious guises – once we know how to look.
Imagine someone who has become heavily invested in the idea of becoming a journalist. The very word ‘journalist’ has become a coveted badge that captures everything they feel they want. From a young age, the job suggested glamour and stimulation, excitement and dynamism. They got used to parents and uncles and aunts referring to them as future journalists. It started when they were 12. However, the sector now happens to be in terminal decline and pitiably over-subscribed. A block and angst results.
The recommended move is to pause the fruitless job search and unpaid internships and ask oneself what might truly be appealing in one’s intuitive excitement around journalism. What are the pleasures one is really seeking here – and might they exist somewhere else, and somewhere more favourable, in the world of work?
We’re prone to a very natural vagueness here. We often just like the broad sound of a given job. But if we pursue the pleasure-point analysis, we start to prise off the lid and look more assiduously at the pleasures on offer. Once scrutinised, we might find that journalism offers some of the following pleasures: an ability to engage with serious political and sociological issues, to analyse policy, to write up thoughts with elegance and to be respected for one’s critical powers.
Once such elements are clarified, it becomes clear that they cannot be uniquely connected to the sector we call journalism. The combination can’t only exist – and isn’t only needed – in newspapers and magazines. It’s not really tied to any particular sector. The qualities can, and do, turn up in a lot of other places. For instance, a financial investment firm might have a huge need to analyse emerging markets and explain their potential and their possible weaknesses to clients; a university might need to analyse and understand changes in its competitive environment and explain these in clear and compelling ways to its staff; an oil company might need to analyse its future likely employment needs and convey this to its recruitment teams around the world. These industries don’t sit under the heading of journalism – but they all have needs and opportunities which in fact offer exactly the same pleasures which were initially and rather superficially associated with journalism.
Investigation reveals that the pleasures we are seeking are more mobile than initially supposed. They don’t have to be pursued only in the world of the media, they may be more accessible, more secure and more financially rewarding when pursued in quite different sectors of the economy.
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.
The same analysis could be run around teaching. This doesn’t – it turns out – have to be done in a primary or high school; one might be in essence a teacher in an aeronautics conglomerate (you have to teach new recruits about the nature of the industry) or a wealth management firm (you have to teach executives about how to deal with difficult clients). Or, someone who was fixated on politics might realise that the pleasures they seek (influencing societal outcomes) are as much available (and better rewarded and more consequential) in a job with the tourist board or an oil exploration company. This can look like a climbdown only if we don’t understand well-enough what we are actually looking for. The surprising, liberating side of pleasure-point analysis is that it reveals that it can never be a particular industry sector that is the key to finding a job we can love. Because when properly understood a pleasure is – thankfully – generic and can, therefore, truly turn up in many different and initially unexpected places. Careful knowledge of what we love sets us free to love more widely.
Our most familiar experiences of moving on from fixations are to be found in the realm of love. Remember a partner you were once fixated with (not a current one), some years ago. What did you like about them? Make a list. Perhaps you liked how they were quiet but spoke intimately with you in person. Or you enjoyed the way they laughed, or their brown hair. Boil down these particular things into general characteristics. For instance:
Now think of times you have been attracted to these same qualities in other people.
You know (from having now moved on) that you can find these qualities elsewhere. And this lesson from love can be applied work: you might be fixated on a particular field of work – but it may not be this specific thing that you should pursue. You can find the same satisfactions and excitements that you seek elsewhere.
1. Write down the job, or jobs, you want to do (but which might be proving tricky to get into):
I.e. journalism, architecture, politics…
2. What bits of the jobs in particular do you imagine being nice? Imagine a day on the job at its best and identify the peak moments. For example:
Closing the deal
Arriving in Hong Kong
Walking onto the film set
A site visit
3. Boil these down to identify the general characteristics of the pleasure:
Being the centre of attention
Influencing how places look
4. Imagine how, around work, these same attractive activities could be pursued. For each underlying theme make a list of three other places where it could be played out.
Normally we apply for jobs in organisations and we have to fit their job description (which lists necessary qualifications, qualities, experience, being a ‘team player’ etc).
For this exercise, reverse this situation: write your own ideal job advertisement which you believe would best suit who you are, based on your description above of the fundamental things you want to enjoy about work. What would a job that actually used all your talents and embodied the kind of purposes you feel are important, actually look like?
The purpose of the task is to bring together all your thinking about what you love. Think of an advertisement describing the ideal person (you) and the kinds of general things they would do (your ideal) – regardless of whether such a job exists.
We are looking for a person who…
- loves arranging physical environments
- gets excited by large-scale projects
- loves thinking about relationships and how they can work well
- will take responsibility over a 10-year timeline
- wants to work in an intelligent team
As part of the job, you will…
- make apps that will be downloaded by millions
- design the way things look
- be involved in purchasing other companies
- have nice dinners, be picked up by a car from the airport, etc.
A very common way to identify what job we might like to do is to set our sights on industries that produce the sort of things we enjoy consuming. We enjoy their outputs – and therefore seek to partake professionally in their inputs.
This means that we’re pretty likely to write off whole areas of the economy, because they’re not obviously connected up with offering up things we enjoy consuming. If I’m visually creative, I’m likely to ridicule the idea of working in the cement industry. If I love nature, I’ll probably dismiss the energy industry as a good fit, or if I love self-expression, I’m probably not going to see the finance sector as an obvious area to look for a job I could love. We associate sectors with their overt outputs and therefore very quickly come to the view that whole fields have nothing very much to offer us.
And yet there can be huge benefit in considering jobs not in terms of how we feel about their outputs, but in terms of how our interests align with their inputs – inputs which may not be at all obvious during a first impatient glance – so far are they in tone from the outputs that define the outward character of businesses. So when we think of a given industry, we should ask more rigorously than is usual what must in reality be required to produce its goods and services. What will the people working in it actually be doing so that the obvious output can finally emerge? We don’t necessarily need to go on extensive factual missions to find out more, we simply need to use our imaginations so as to make plausible guesses at the many things that must necessarily be going on in a business that will have little directly in common with the final output.
From afar, the shipping industry might sound very far from our interests. After all, we hate the sea and aren’t in any way moved by the sight of large container ships docking in ports. But, in terms of inputs, the shipping industry calls on many skills and interests far removed from the obvious output. It will involve tasks like motivating international cooperation around long-term projects; explaining trade offs in ways that are realistic and yet bearable to all involved; there will be huge challenges around taking major decisions under conditions of uncertainty; there will be complex legal and political negotiations in the background; it will be necessary to turn masses of data into easily visualised charts showing who is responsible for what; adverts will need to be commissioned and assessed; conferences will need to be organised and catered for; there will be huge needs around internal communication. In other words there will be a great many areas of work that are not inherently bound up with sending freight down the Suez canal. So the fact that one might not be especially interested in shipping – the output – might not be any sign that this sector really is the wrong place to be thinking about a possible career.
Or imagine someone who automatically discounts a career in journalism, because they imagine (during a first, cursory glance) that it must be focused mainly on writing and analyses of current events. But if we reflect on the matter, we’ll start to realise that there must necessarily be a huge range of other inputs that accompany the production of the obvious output. Media companies will be heavily concerned about controlling costs, there will be a great need for careful organisation of resources; learning about the needs and interests of consumers will be a key factor in the success of a media enterprise; developing new business models will be critical too. So, even if one is not personally very interested in producing stories about current events, journalism might still provide many openings for the particular kinds of pleasure one is most interested in: organising other people, simplifying complex processes, time management or teaching and learning. These interests don’t leap to mind because they aren’t part of the output picture of the sector but they emerge as vital once we start to think more carefully about the required range of inputs.
What holds for the shipping industry or for journalism holds for many other sectors as well. The inputs will often look quite different from the things we initially associate with an industry. Instead of asking whether the output looks like the kind of thing we enjoy, we should therefore be asking whether our pleasures might be included within the input of an industry. It’s a modest, but hugely liberating move that can usefully expand our sense of where our best opportunities might lie.
To think about what goes on behind the scenes in various kinds of work, and therefore what kinds of pleasure are really available, it is useful to look at the inputs and outputs of a range of jobs.
Without thinking about it too much, list some jobs, sectors or industries you find intuitively
(a) rather appealing
(b) rather un-enticing
(c) indifferent – some areas you’ve just never really thought of
For each type of work:
- Describe the output: what are their main products and services?
- Then think of these jobs in terms of the input. Try to imagine in as much detail as you can the kinds of work that has to go in in the background for these products and services to be provided.
- Note how different the output and input descriptions are.
Use the list of your pleasures (from the previous exercise) and compare it with the input-side descriptions. Where might your pleasures join up?
Now that you have considered this, revisit the initial (a) pro and (b) contra and (c) intuition lists. Is there any movement in your attitudes?
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