Whenever I hear people talk this way about work, I am reminded in our relationship with work we have to figure out WHO WE ARE and who we could be in the relationship. By that I mean when someone is struggling or frustrated with work, I guide them to start with listening to and understanding themselves, from the inside out. That's where the healing begins.
What do you know about yourself, what do you ask of yourself, what do you tolerate, what do you feel obliged by, and how are you willing to invest in yourself to be a better version of who you can be in one of the most important relationships in your life? What do you want and need in relation to work to feel and do your best most of the time? The great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you learn by living,” and so it is with figuring out what we need from work to thrive. It’s only by working, through victories and false starts, self-observation and critical reflection that we learn about ourselves at work. Here are two stories of what this personal investigation has revealed for recent clients.
Bigger isn’t better
A client started his research career in a pharmaceutical lab right out of graduate school. He’s excellent at what he does, and over the years has shown that he can manage projects and people well. He's a clear communicator. He's effective with people outside of his technical expertise. He’s a wonderful collaborator. And so as often happens, he's been tasked with more and more leadership, taking on a team of researchers, and then two, and then three la
rge research teams. When I came in to work with him, he was simultaneously overwhelmed and bored, often wondering where the day went and what his impact really was. Through exercises and coaching conversations, he realized – remembered really - that the thing he loved to do, the thing that provided energy, was the research itself. He was doing less and less research as his managerial responsibilities and other tasks took on more and more time. “I want to go deep on projects. I want to be lost in my research again, deeply curious and invested, and I don’t get to do that anymore. I know as a manager I want be letting my experts be close to the work, but I miss being an
expert myself. Everything has gotten too big and complicated and it pulls me from what I’m best at and really enjoy. It’s like, I imagine being an artisanal baker, and how great it must feel to make small-batch, excellent product you’re really close to. I don’t want to be a big team leader anymore, I’m better as a small-batch leader.” Convention says more responsibility, more title, and more pay is better. My client is figuring out that his most invested and productive self needs something else.
Old thrills aren’t good for me right now.
A senior creative marketer was laid off earlier this spring and is considering what’s next. After many years in agency life, she loved being part of and leading a team in-house, working inside a mid-sized, privately-owned company. She’d like that again, please.
A colleague at her former agency called: We could create something for you here, do you want to come back?
We used a few sessions to talk through her choices: take what’s available and not quite what she’s looking for, or keep up the search? “Let’s look” I said, “not only at the jobs themselves, but who you are in those jobs. What does that reveal?” Agency life used to be exciting to her, demanding and fu
ll of pressure and deadlines. She worked with deeply creative people who pushed her talent and thinking. She thrived on late nights and billable hours. Agency life also wore her out and brought out the parts of her subject to unhealthy competition and overwork, to breaking her own boundaries and promises even on weekends and on vacations. “It’s like the guy I dated before my husband, who always surprised me with exciting things to do: concert tickets or weekends away or dinners at top-rated restaurants. He was so fun, so spontaneous and we did things I might never have done on my own. It was thrilling. But he wasn’t after the same things I was in life and actually wasn’t a great partner to me. It’s easy to think I gave up something really exciting, but I wasn’t able take care of myself in that relationship. That’s what an agency feels like right now – exciting, but not good for what I want in my life right now.”
Realizing what she needs in this season of her life to be healthy and productive at the same time may mean giving up the sure thing in of search of the better thing.
What do these stories have in common?
Both clients are getting better at understanding themselves, their work histories, their habits, their needs and desires. They are figuring what they’re like at their most creative, resourceful, and whole, and what conditions make that possible to sustain. They are getting specific about the difference between what ‘looks good’ on LinkedIn or an alumni magazine, and what looks (and feels) good on them. This is often the work: slow, patient excavation to hear ourselves, remember ourselves, honor ourselves. Thinking about this for yourself? I’d love to hear about it.