As the last weekend of the school holidays is upon us, I’ve been thinking about going back to work and reflecting about the nature of work itself.
Work to serve the life you want to lead
I was in a local hotel, writing over the summer and I could overhear the bar manager as I sat drinking my tea and typing. He had been up late with a function the previous night and in early for Sunday lunch. He looked tired even though he was young, maybe in his mid twenties. Then, he stated to talk to a customer about horses. It turned out he had ridden at Badminton and Aintree and was pretty good at the time. His tired, grey face lit up as he talked about the horses.
As I payed the bill I asked him if he still had anything to do with horses and he said; ‘no. He said he didn’t have enough time because of his work, but that one day he would like to have enough money so that when his children wanted to do it, he could get pleasure from them doing it.
Firstly, we should never, ever live out our dream through our kids; they have to chose their own.
Secondly he has it the wrong way around. He’s doing a, frankly awful job, so he can get the money so that sometime in the future he might actually get back to the thing that lit him up.
So many of us do that don’t we, work so that some day we can do what we love, but then we never do because work takes over.
Instead I really believe we have to start with the thing we love and find work to support it. Liz Gilbert (who wrote Eat, Pray, Love0 in her book Big Magic talks about how she has never, ever made her writing pay, but did take jobs which allowed her to write. I heard Sheryl Strayed who wrote ‘Wild’ talk about how she used to work with young people but then it took up too much head space from her writing so she waited tables instead, to pay the bills while she wrote.
Find the thing you love to do, which lights you up and then find work which allows you to do that.
Do the work you love
For some of us, work IS the thing we love. I love teaching psychology and coaching kids and teachers almost as much as I love writing, but even better, the holidays allow me time to write too. A friend who is a venture capitalist loves supporting start-ups and seeing them flourish. Another friend had just left teaching and loves her new job as a gardener.
Work as Meaning and Service
I have a couple of people in my life at the moment who are living off savings and have all the time in the world, and it is doing them no good at all. They feel directionless, lost, and without purpose. We all need meaningful activity where we feel we are making a contribution. A friend has just given birth. Mothering an infant is for sure meaningful service and contribution, even if it isn’t earning her money.
Meaning and service overlap and yet are different in how the effect us. ‘Meaning’ is when we are doing something which is meaningful to us. The 2 people I mentioned above are struggling because without work they don’t have such a strong sense of identity, of who they are in the world. They have both done things which have given them status, identity and direction before and now they don’t have that, they are struggling.
‘Service’, in contrast, is when we are doing something which is meaningful to others. So working in a cafe may not be your idea of your life’s purpose, but you are being of service to the people who visit; making their day nicer as they take a break from their busy lives. When I take my kids to football, it doesn’t give my life meaning as football is of no interest to me, but I am being of service to my kids which gives me huge pleasure to see them have fun and keep fit.
Work as a source of belonging
I went into school for A level results day and it was soooo nice to see my colleagues and students again. We caught up on our summers so far, watched the kids open their envelopes, hugged and cried with them and smiled a lot. I like the people I work with and for that reason am looking forward to going in on Monday. When my mum died it was the people at work who kept me going in. When I got divorced, it was the people at work who saw me through that. Although I love the silent solitude of sitting writing, I also need the sense of belonging that work gives me.
Work for life
I was listening to Michael Marmot being interviewed about his work as a health epidemiologist and his research showed that people who continue to work into later life, live longer as they continue to keep mentally and physically active, continue to have a sense of meaning and purpose and continue to have a social network all of which protect them from the decline of old age.
I don’t intend to retire. I intend to adapt the work I do as I get older.
I have done that already. I used to love teaching the younger secondary school kids until I had my own children and then it was too much so I now only teach adults and A level students. I used to work full time and then I had kids and wanted to be around for them so I went part time.
We need find ways to adapt work so it fits in with our stages of life. I fully intend to continue teaching this oldere age range, coaching and writing into my latest years all being well. Last year I learned Indian Head massage and this year I hope to be starting my yoga teacher training and both of these things are ways in which I continue to work as I age.
I have seen too many colleagues work really hard ‘for retirement’ and then they have fallen ill or died young, so never got to enjoy their life. Work needs to part of what we enjoy, but also be the thing we enjoy. So when my son starts his GCSE courses in 2 days time, I hope that this is the start of his journey to finding out what he loves and what he is good at so that he can build his working life around that and his beloved football.
Wishing all you teachers out there a happy new year and all you working parents, well done for juggling child care over the holidays. May we all use this new term to just check in with ourselves whether work is working for us rather than us working for it.