In the first two decades of my adult life, I was convinced that I had a problem with work. I could never successfully force myself to stay at a job for long if I wasn’t really enjoying it, not even if I desperately needed the money - and there were times when I desperately needed the money! In fact, until I finally began my own private therapy practice, I had never lasted more than two and a half years at any one job. I never got fired, and in fact, I was a dedicated and enthusiastic professional. As a clinical social worker, I’d worked in private and non-profit agencies, groups homes and runaway shelters, drug treatment programs, foster care, mental health clinics and even a VA hospital for a while. But in the end, which always came sooner rather than later, the limitations and frustrations of bureaucratic work – the time clock, the paperwork, the regulations and excessive caseloads that prevented one from making really creative interventions with clients, and the general malaise of the social service work force, plus the rush-hour commuting in New York City led me to throw my hands up and give notice. These seemed like good reasons to leave a job at the time, yet a creeping judgement in my mind said I was being irresponsible or self-indulgent, that I had a problem.
I took two hiatuses from my chosen field during those first twenty years, both times going into my family’s small home improvement business, once even starting my own house-painting company in Westchester County, just outside of New York City. What I particularly liked about those two stretches of non-white-collar work was that the jobs felt more project-oriented. Small crews of workers would come together – plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters – and like a team, they applied the skills of their individual trades in harmony (mostly) with each other to transform or build from scratch a new living environment. Then, the various tradespeople would separate until they might meet again on another project. This made sense to me as an efficient way of getting things done, each person invested in the completion of a project, rather than just putting hours in at the same repetitive task day after day, and somehow, the coming together, accomplishing a task, then separating made the work experience more exciting and festive.
It also made sense to me intuitively that work should be fun, compatible with one’s personality and integrated into the "rest" of one’s life, just as "rest" should be an integral part of one’s work-life. I knew all of this in my gut (though before I started doing bodywork psychotherapy, I wasn’t always sure that gut feelings held true wisdom – see the section on "GUT FEELINGS" in my article entitled: "Feeling Human" - coming soon).
I often recall an older man I knew in my teen years named "George", a very kind man who hated his work. He used to say that even though he hated his job, he was okay because of his attitude towards it: "Work is just an 8-hour interruption of my day", George would say proudly. At the time, I thought he was really a sage, and I tried that attitude on for size when I entered the work force in earnest in the 1970s after getting my degrees. It hit me almost immediately, though, once I actually started working, that eight hours was a third of a day, a third of my life! Way too much time to spend in a state of "interruption." As my transient job history evolved, I felt resigned to the fact that I would be a work-force rebel in a world of nine-to-fivers who were responsibly slugging it out in work-days they couldn’t wait to just get through and at jobs they weren’t gratified in.
In 1994, however, I found vindication in, of all things, Fortune magazine! The September 19 cover story of Fortune that year was entitled "The End Of The Job." It heralded the changes to come as the new millennium approached in terms of work-life. "The job is a social artifact", Fortune proclaimed, born of early industrialization and assembly line production methods that were no longer relevant. "We cannot afford the inflexibility that the job brings with it…Jobs discourage accountability because they reward people not for getting the necessary work done, but for ‘doing their jobs." The article pointed out that before people had jobs, they worked in "shifting clusters…in a variety of locations, on a schedule set by the sun and the weather and the needs of the day."
Although no longer for reasons like daylight or weather, but more to do with advancing technology and mobility, and the elusive "quality of life", it has once again become more effective to work that way. Consultants, sole proprietors, temps and subcontractors have become today’s versions of the itinerant craftsmen of the past. Working by the hour is being replaced with working by the project, as it had always been done in most of the blue collar trades.
Furthermore, the article predicted that leisure time, vacations and retirement as they currently are structured would dramatically change. "Without the job, time off from work becomes something not taken out of job time but something taken during the interims between assignments or between project contracts. And retirement? As ever more people become businesses in themselves, retirement will become an individual matter that has less to do with organizational policy and more to do with individual circumstances and desires."
All of these prophetic declarations by Fortune 13 years ago are now commonplace realities in 2007. People do work differently structure-wise, much more independently, solo or in make-shift teams, and it is now the rare exception to meet someone who has been at one job or with one company for ten years, let alone an entire career. (I hadn’t realized that I was part of a pioneering professional class back in the Seventies!) Now, as feature articles recently in the New York Times Magazine have declared, everybody is quitting their jobs.
My favorite essay from the late 90's was in fact entitled, "The Joy of Quitting", written by Michael Lewis. In the piece, Mr. Lewis not only describes the sound economic and creative reasons for regularly changing jobs, he points out that there can be destructive effects from "sticking it out to the bitter end", as we are often instructed to do in childhood. "Finish what you started!" is a common admonishment that so many of us heard from parents, teachers or other authority-figures. In relationships or jobs, this rigid, often shame-based mindset can in fact cause a person to miss or pass up opportunities for greater accomplishment, growth and happiness that could only come by letting go of a current stagnant situation.
Some things have indeed shifted in our attitude towards work during the last decade, and in the ways mentioned, for the better. Yet, a different problem has re-emerged in recent years as part of this transition, perhaps born out of anxiety about not having the security of a "steady job." People, and especially Americans, work too much!
In a New York Times editorial, entitled, "Working Better or Just Harder?", Stephen S. Roach questions the way we are currently measuring the productivity of our work force, which government statistics say is quite high. Since improving productivity is "not about working longer", according to Roach, but about "adding more value per unit of work time", then our "24/7 culture of nearly round-the-clock work…endemic to the wired economy" of "laptops, cell phones, home fax machines…" is indeed producing more quantitatively, but not producing "better", that is more productively. We are all simply working too much.
How much? Well, while there are no statistics for how many hours people log in by logging on at home to do work, a study by the International Labor Organization states that Americans put in an average of 2,000 hours at work ten years ago, which was 83 more hours of work than in 1980. Juan Somavia, head of the labor organization, quoted in a Times article called, "Americans Lead the World in Hours Worked", by Elizabeth Olson, bemoans the situation we’re in here in the US: "While the benefits of hard work are clear, working more is not the same as working better."
Let’s look at the situation from the other side by examining the stats on comparative vacation time taken around the world. The United States has now become the workaholic capital of the world, it seems, surpassing even Japan. Americans, according to the World Tourism Organization, average a measly 13 days off per year, the fewest on the WTO’s list of countries. The next closest countries are Japan and Korea, with 25 annual vacation days. Italy, of course, my ancestral country, is all the way at the other end of the vacationing spectrum with an average of 42 days per year of rest and relaxation, with France, Germany and Brazil about a week behind at 37, 35 and 34 respectively. (I was in Italy two summers ago and it was quite a revelation to witness an entire country’s work force take off for 2 or 3 hours every day at 1 PM. The Italian in me felt the organic wisdom of this break time, but the American in me wondered how they could ever get anything done!)
If all that’s not bad enough, I heard an insult-to-injury statistic announced on WINS all news radio around April 15 that crushingly declared that the average American works 124 days per year just to pay their taxes. That is almost half the work-year!
Some might make the counterpoint that Americans as a whole are making much more money these days, and it’s a tempting argument, but at what price for our wealth, and more importantly, are we happier?
In a Times article entitled, "Pursuing Happiness", Paul Krugman sites a classic survey by economic historian, Richard Easterlin, who formulated what came to be known as the "Easterlin paradox." The survey found that above a very low economic level, economic expansion does not seem to improve people’s feelings of happiness. Working with people around matters of personal happiness, I see this "paradox" validated in my therapy practice all of the time, though why it is considered a paradox, I don’t know. Conventional wisdom has always known that money can’t buy happiness. Conversely, having money doesn’t bring unhappiness either, but while people’s levels of happiness are rarely determined by their level of income, what is true is that as people become happier, and pursue their hearts desires in all aspects of their lives, including work, a common by-product is that their financial lives expand, sometimes greatly. In my experience, money is not the way to happiness, but happiness is often the way to money.
So, what then are the keys to "working better?" In my experience, both as a working person who has been in blue and white-collar jobs, and as a psychotherapist counseling those who struggle with their work-lives, I have found that there are certain essentials.
First, ferret out the mind’s illusion that we must live compartmentalized lives with separate aspects that compete with each other for time, like George’s job being an "8-hour interruption" of his presumed "real life." When a person arrives to understand that their whole life is just one "work", one creation, and that there is no inherent separation between work and play, time suddenly opens up. You are no longer worried that resting and playing are "wasting time", nor are you experiencing work as robbing you of time for pleasure. Several article recently have appeared in the mainstream press recently extolling the virtues of taking naps during the course of the work-day, as the Italians do, and in fact, several major companies have begun providing rooms at the office with pillows and blankets for that purpose. Afternoon nap breaks replacing the afternoon coffee breaks? This represents an excellent organic shift in consciousness, in my opinion. When one is tired, instead of pumping yourself up with caffeine to keep going, you refresh yourself with a little rest.
Secondly, clear out the guilt and other side-effects of rigid childhood conditioning that can make you blindly hunker down and suffer through an ungratifying work-life because you were told that quitting was "bad." If we are growing, we are continually "graduating" from things, and as with formal graduations, we benefit from celebrating what we are leaving by reviewing what we’ve accomplished, acknowledging what is still ahead to do, expressing gratitude, letting go and moving on.
Finally, and most importantly, follow your heart and do what you really enjoy doing. Working can be a pleasurable and creative experience if it is approached as a vehicle for fulfillment, expansion and pleasure. Here’s a quote on the subject from Alexander Lowen, author and creator of Bioenergetic therapy: "Every creative act begins with a pleasurable excitation, goes through a phase of work, and culminates in the joy of expression. From start to finish, the whole creative process is motivated by the striving for pleasure. Not only does pleasure provide the motive force for the creative process, it is the product of that process."
If there is any theme that we will keep coming back to in Full Permission Living, it will be the importance of pleasure - as the essence of life, as everyone’s birthright, and as Lowen says, as both the motivation and the result of our unobstructed creative process.
So, we arrive once again to the famous "pleasure principle" that’s been already referred to in previous lectures and articles in Full Permission Living. Coined by Sigmund Freud almost a century ago, the term identifies one of the main guiding forces in our lives – the instinct to follow pleasure and avoid pain. As Freud and others realized, the pursuit of pleasure is not a frivolous endeavor, but rather a built-in guidance system in human beings to provide direction for self-actualized living. We all know somewhere inside that any task is better performed when it is being experienced with joy and satisfaction. That knowing feeling in our gut is coming from our place of deepest wisdom.
Perhaps, then, we are arriving to the day when we will leave the house in the morning to go to work, or when we are assigned a task to perform at the job, and our loved one’s or boss’ parting words of inspiration will be: "Have fun!"