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The Beautiful Truth of Who We Are

Do you have to do this?

It first began when I was driving to work.  Often I drove with the radio off, in silence, because there seemed to be so much to think about.  With work there was always a lot to think about.  For starters, what was I going to accomplish today?  What had I promised to get done?  As I mulled this over there was a tiny voice.

Do you have to do this?
What?
Do you have to keep doing this?
What do you mean?
This work you’re doing, do you have to do it?  How long do you have to do it?

This would occasionally happen on the drive into the office, but it started to become a regular occurrence during the drive home. Later, I would hear the voice if I woke up in the middle of the night. And in the shower. And while on the exercise bike. And over the weekend.

Here was a voice I couldn’t really listen to. I had kids in middle school headed to college. I was still paying our loan for my older kids’ college degrees. There were many things yet to pay for, things I had promised to all my kids. To my spouse. The voice would have to wait.

But it kept asking.  Do you have to do this?

I was in my early to mid fifties when this voice experience began in earnest. I had begun to have my doubts about my career, but I had been able to push them aside. Then began a series of challenges.  Physical health issues. Surgery. Unemployment. Difficulty finding other employment. Difficulty getting even a phone screen. My mom became ill. I stepped up with my siblings to care for her despite her being out-of-state. After some time she passed away. I took on the role of executor for her estate.

Through all of this even more questions arose. What is this work thing anyway? What does it actually mean? Does it mean anything to me? You can work for almost an entire career and what do you have to show for it? Did it matter? If it did, then what exactly mattered? More often than not I realized there were aspects which did not really matter. My father worked an entire career to support his family. His work surely mattered to us but did it matter to him? These were the thoughts that spun in my head.

The work world seemed to agree with the notion that I didn’t matter as a worker. I was no longer on their radar. I could submit application after application and receive nothing in return. No feedback.  Nothing. Then the voice chimed in. Do you have to do this?  Can you do something else?

At this point, I began to think about work in earnest. I tried to figure out what was going on with work and me. I read many books. I went for many walks and bike rides. I filled up many notebooks and journals. I tried to decode the meaning of work so that I could get through this rough patch of not really connecting with work. I had worked in my industry for about thirty-five years, but somewhere I stopped understanding why I chose that career path. I couldn’t figure out when it stopped meaning anything.  It was sometime around when I first started hearing the voice.  Do you have to do this?

Work, I decided, was really only a transaction. Your employer has problems that need to be solved. You have skills to solve some of those problems. Work is just an exchange of services for pay.

Somehow that was not what work had meant to me. I began to realize that I had been trying to find validation in all my jobs. Work for me represented the potential to find a sense of worth I had been looking for. I was always looking for the “perfect job” where I was going to blossom into the exact right person they needed, and I would be valued and needed and showered with compensation, and it was going to be great. Seventeen companies later I started to realize that maybe it was not going to happen.  After all, it hadn’t happened yet. If not now, then when? Maybe that’s what the voice was about. Can you do something else?

So I write to you now from a position of having disassembled all my thoughts about what work and career mean to me. I spent a lot of time on the topic of identity. Surely if you understood your identity then you could match it to the work you do. Right? But then there was the topic of motivation. What actually has meaning to you? It is a personal question that we each have to answer for ourselves. The notion of motivation and the idea of meaningful work dance a tango together. Intimate. Dark. Mysterious. Intertwined.

I realized a mistake I had been making. I had always thought that people picked their career, got the necessary credentials, found their first job, and then worked continuously until they reached full retirement age. This strategy was what we were all taught. It seemed very straightforward. My experience, however, was anything but straightforward.

In my period of questioning and examination it became apparent that a career path could never go down a simple straight line. Why? It’s because the industry you are in is in a constant state of change. The country and the economy are in a constant state of change. Ditto for the world economy. Oh, yes, and ditto for you, too. As you work through a thirty- and forty-year career, you yourself change. Physically, for example. Your interests change. Your expectations. Your sense of meaning. Your motivation.  All of it, everywhere you look, is in a state of change. I had been wrong to think that I would just work an entire career until the magic day came where I could sign up for Medicare and reach my magical full retirement age – 66 and 10 months. Not 9 months. Not 11.  Somewhere a bureaucrat must have chuckled over that one.

I had been completely wrong about most of this process. It became time to rethink.

To me, it’s not really about work, believe it or not. It’s not even about income. I think it’s about engagement. What do you do when you have free time? You do something that interests you. You direct your intellect and energy towards a topic that fascinates you, compels you, and draws you along.

Many people view their work as something they have to do so they can earn money, and reserve doing the things that really interest them for their free time. Isn’t that completely backwards? Shouldn’t your work be the thing you would do just because it is what you would do if you had the time? Wouldn’t you want the two to be one and the same?

I have begun responding to the insistent voice.

Do you have to do this?
I do if I want to live fully.
Do you have to keep doing this?
I want to keep doing this.
This work you’re doing, do you have to do it?  How long do you have to do it?

What I have to do is contribute my best to work that engages me. How long, you ask? For life, I answer. For life.

Ron heerema 2020 1200x1200studio session 036

Meet Ron Heerema, author and photographer: My ancestors were from the Friesland Province, a group of islands off the coast of the Netherlands. Theirs is a maritime history of people who prospered against the elements of uncertainty one faces when living off the sea. We all face such elements in our desire to do our best work whether it’s living off the sea or finding the best and most productive version of ourselves in the work that we do. In this sense I can say that I feel I navigate the crosswinds that bear upon older workers who chart their course to the realization of their best work toward the end of their career. I write articles that are a kind of “ship’s log” of my experiences to this end. Reach Ron at ronheerema@gmail.com.

Together, we can support one another through this unscripted journey better than if we try alone.

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