I think somewhere along the line, work became a dreadful thing for me. I remember approaching the end of my high school years and not knowing if I could go through university. Then I remember approaching the end of my university years and not knowing if I could go through working a job, five days a week, until retirement.
Work meant strain because work couldn’t be average. It couldn’t be widely accepted. Work had to be special and unique. Work had to be exceptional. I had to be the best at any work I did. I had to be incredibly successful. I had to be an object of pride, for myself and others.
I joke around saying that in the 7 years I spent at startups, I was burnt out 3 times. I think I was probably burnt out from before - starting in my competitive schooling years.
And I think this past year, the pause I made, the time I spent resting and exploring what I really like, what I really want to do, is unique. It has never happened to me before. I had never truly allowed myself an exploration like this.
My negative perception of work becomes even more apparent in my relationships with others. My good friend Silvia, who is a linguist, and who therefore pays a big amount of attention to every word, noticed one day how I cringed and contracted when I uttered the word “work”. “Maybe you can use other words,” she said. “You can use write, create, teach...”
I’ve been playing around with this. Changing my choice of words has helped position work differently in my inner world. Words such as write, create, teach induce more joy and help me be more specific, more intentional about what I’m doing, rather than clustering everything under the dreadful category of “work”.
The second person holding a mirror to me is my partner. He always likes work. When I ask him if he’s bothered to work on a Sunday, “No, I like work,” he says. When I ask him if he’s bothered to work after a long day, or before a stressful deadline, or when we are in Greece, “No, I like work,” he says. No matter the circumstances, he likes work. He sees work as a fun, engaging, rewarding thing to do. His logic around work is simple: if he’s alive, then he will work, because it’s fun to work.
My grandmother had a similar attitude toward work. I would sometimes complain to her over the phone that I have a lot of work. Upon hearing this, she would first express gratitude, and then would pray for my work to never end. Work was a source of life for her, something to take only as positively, even when it felt too much.
Taking my partner and my grandmother as example, I’ve been practicing more gratitude for my work, especially for this new work that I love doing.
My partner also has a healthy expansion around work. The time spent preparing to work, he sees as belonging to work. The time spent procrastinating before work, he sees as belonging to work. The time spent chatting with people to compare ideas, he sees as belonging to work. In fact, I haven’t yet been able to find something he doesn’t think belongs to work.
Generally speaking, I’ve always agreed with him. Best ideas come in the shower. Our brain works in the background even when we don’t consciously work. But in the past, I would still categorize those times as “outside of work” hours. I would discriminate against them. I would prepare, procrastinate, or chat with someone about work, and then say, with frustration, “I didn’t work… I wasted time...”
Finding a healthy expansion around work, a sense of connecting all these hours around work to work, a deeper respect for the pathways work has to pass through in order to give fruit has been helpful to me.
Continue reading this series: Routine vs. Flexibility
Go back to the start: Containing Work When Working For Yourself