December 5, 2013

You Are Not Your Job.

Image: baboon fan on deviantART

How do we remain authentic, mindful, and at ease when our job feels like a prison sentence that makes us tense, defensive and reactive?

Unless we are independently wealthy or totally ascetic, we have to have a paycheck. In a perfect world, we would all do meaningful work surrounded by people who treated us with compassion.

In a perfect world, I would write in a cottage by the sea with a garden outside the window and a steady supply of tea. I wouldn’t worry about selling anything because I would be an Artiste. No one would bother me, and no one would ever say anything about my work besides “you’ve done it again, Ann!”

The thing is, for 99% of us it would not only be impractical but incredibly irresponsible to leave the work that pays the Visa bill, the orthodontist, and all of the things that are part of modern life. Even if we are frugal and/or not concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses.”

I read about the benefits of following dreams and quitting the hated day jobs, and I feel a pull, a yearning to declare myself a non-materialist and stop trading my valuable time for money in order to buy stuff.

But I don’t buy a lot of stuff. I have a 100-year-old house, we’re upside down on the mortgage, and things break all the time. I have a teenager who needs clothes and (lots of) food and haircuts and braces. I have animals and I pay for their food and veterinary care.

I am just not, right this minute, in a position to leave the world of working and earning a paycheck.

And that reality, that “stuckness” coupled with a job that just feels wrong, can lead to bitterness that colors not only our working hours but the time we spend with the people we love.

I have walked this walk.

I got a job as a ghost writer, and I was thrilled until I actually started working. Because I was writing as someone else, I could never write the way I ordinarily would. Everything I did was wrong.

I said to my husband  (in tears) “Why would you find someone’s writing on the internet, hire them on the basis of that writing and then ask them to write in a completely different way?!”

I needed the money, and I’d made a commitment, but it wasn’t pretty.

I came to dread the work, and to doubt myself as a writer.

Then I had this epiphany: it wasn’t about “me” at all. There was no attack. My boss was not a writer, so she had found someone who was a writer and assumed that I could write in a different style if that was what the job called for.

And, actually, I could do that. I didn’t like it because I was attached to “my” writing as an extension of myself.  When I let that go and saw it as a task, a puzzle, a thing outside of my snotty little ego…I could do it.

My work-related suffering came from that ego, the idea that there was a unique and special self that was being stepped on. I’d decided who I was, and what I liked, and when that was challenged, I felt pushed, hurt and irritated.

I wanted to control it, to push back, and to shape the universe so that it was more comfortable.

By picking and choosing what was a “good” thing or a “me” thing I was choosing not to be present or mindful. I was choosing to fight reality because I was so busy thinking about all the things I would prefer.
When I took ego out of the situation, and looked at it objectively, I saw this: my boss and I had very different ideas about writing, but her opinions were no less valid than mine. She was paying me to do a specific task. It did not change me or diminish me to do it her way, because I was not my job.

(Let’s say that one again: I was not my job).

It was a moment-by-moment thing, for the duration of our working relationship. I would get criticism and I would flinch. Then I would bring myself back to the present, and tell myself that all I needed to do was to take the next step mindfully and without judgment.

There were a lot of resets.

Over and over I felt that hot rush from my stomach to my head, and thought about unfairness and ridiculousness and how I Did. Not. Deserve. That. Crap.

Over and over, I let the feeling wash through my body without letting my brain spin off into a festival of complaints. I got on with it, chopped wood and carried water.

It was hard, but it was a great chance to put my practice where my mouth was. Or something like that.

(And when I was done with that job I knew that I would never do that kind of work again, or work with that person again, no matter how good the money was. Because we have to ride the wave we’re on, but we don’t have to go hunting for 20 footers).

So if your job feels all kinds of wrong, you’re not alone and you are not without options.

Catch yourself at the first rush of anger or resentment, even if your employer is making a decision that you know objectively to be ineffective, unfair, counterintuitive or (let’s call a spade a spade) really crappy and likely to create 10x more work for everyone in the long run.

Catch it, feel it, and move on to the next moment, doing the task at hand and knowing that there is no threat to “you.”

It just is what it is.

Because there are things in life we know we can’t control, like weather and death, but we don’t fight them because we understand that our protests will change nothing.

The truth is that everything in life is like those things—we control nothing.

And if we remember that, our blood pressure stays down, we are at peace, and our job stops feeling like a soul-sucking cesspool of negativity and a conspiracy to make our lives a living hell.

It’s just a job.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise


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