The Beautiful Truth of Who We Are
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?
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.
About The Author
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 email@example.com.
There’s nothing like an extended job search to make you wonder whether you belong anymore. Could you belong somewhere again?
Where do you belong?
There’s nothing like an extended job search to make you wonder whether you belong anymore. Could you belong somewhere again? Could you be valuable to a company someday? Will this ultimately make sense in some way?
I wrote that first line in my journal just a week or so ago. The thoughts following it are paraphrased from the rest of the entry. We have no idea what the duration of our search is going to be. It feels like a journey which, at times seems to have a destination and at other times seems to be going nowhere.
What I learned about my half year in the job search wilderness was that my experience of looking for work came directly from how I felt about myself in relation to others. It was really about whether I could be accepted or not. It was just about whether I could find a place I could be part of. It was all about whether I felt I could belong.
The process of searching for a job necessarily involves putting yourself out there and facing possible rejection. When it’s an impersonal rejection in the form of an email from a potential employer which says “thank you for your interest but we’ve identified other candidates”, that can be easily brushed off. When we get deep into the selection process with one particular employer and are then eliminated, that can be harder to accept. I think it’s because it speaks to our fear that our elimination is somehow a reflection of our lack of value, in some intangible way. At a fundamental level we need to belong, and rejection is the ultimate statement that we don’t. At least to that employer.
Before I write anything else I really want to say one thing to all of you: you do belong.
Do you remember past employers and former teams you were on? You belonged there with each and every one of them. Do you remember contributing and producing work of value? I’m sure you do, because you did. You were recognized and rewarded. You were valued for that work. Do you remember the friendships you gained? I’ll bet you do. Your membership in those groups, the friends you developed, the problems you solved, and everything about those experiences lives on inside you. It has not disappeared. You still belong. And you will belong yet again.
It seems that we humans have a bit of a tendency to be hard on ourselves. We constantly search for evidence of how useful and valuable we are. We often discover the opposite — reasons to be embarrassed and even ashamed. This only adds unpleasantness to a day that is already too long. I for one would like to smooth out the wrinkles somehow. It’s getting harder to get through the day where I’m getting beaten up frequently and most often by my own attitude about myself. I don’t need applicant tracking systems to pile dung onto the heap. I don’t need company rejection emails. I’m already heaping enough on myself.
To make this a little more real I thought I’d categorize some of the forms of friction I have waded through in my career. Some may be familiar to you.
I struggled with a sense of belonging in many jobs because I felt at times that I was only emulating a sort of “ideal employee”, and it was a matter of time before they figured it out. How could I feel like I belonged when I was concerned they were going to show me the door, maybe next week?
The “dad-provider” thing
This stipulates that a good dad puts his role as provider above all else in his life. (This applies to moms, too, of course, but I’m just telling my story.) I often felt like I didn’t even belong in my own family because somehow I often felt I came up short of being the ideal dad who provided all the things his family deserved. They deserved so much more than I was able to provide for them. Or so the narrative goes.
Your worth is tied to income and influence
We are taught this from the moment we cry out to clear our newborn lungs. In both subtle and overt ways we have been taught this by our parents, the educational system, our society, and our culture. Since I was never at the top of the heap in terms of income or influence, how could I even consider myself as belonging to a company, our society, and even our culture? Good grief, my car is over ten years old. How can I even leave the house?
You can only be one thing
In job-search terms that equates to what you’ve been doing in the most recent ten years. All you could ever be is what you’ve done in the last ten years (and that has to be very tightly defined and a simplistic concept that even a search engine can recognize). The depth and breadth of what you have to offer has to take a back seat to search-engine recognizability. I often felt like I didn’t truly belong because I had much more to offer than the person in the profile I was required to present in LinkedIn and Indeed.
All this friction is why I have felt, many times, that I didn’t belong. We can’t let these artificial mandates — which have been thrust upon us — be the guiding rules for deciding whether or not we feel like we belong.
Too often I find myself answering to these internal monologues. They’re like little programs installed in me that say things like…
- They’re going to find out that you’ve been faking it.
- You aren’t doing enough. You could do better. Your kids are paying the price.
- Other people earn higher pay and have more responsibility. Aren’t you worth that, too?
- You’ve always been a banker/barista/steel worker. You can never be anything but a banker/barista/steel worker.
- Your car is over ten years old.
These little program voices are so critical. And they’re in my head. How do I shut them up? How do I uninstall them?
I’m not sure of the answer for me, personally. For you, however, there are some things I am certain of. You’ve been legitimate at what you’ve done through most of your career. You built things, you wrote things, you helped people. You were respected. You were valued. And there is a reason why: because you were authentically you. You always belonged.
You did a great job with your spouse and your family (if you had one). If your kids have grown up, ask them. You’ll find they understood more than you could have ever guessed. They saw how hard you worked. They saw what you did for them. They always felt that you belonged.
It turns out that what really only matters are the friendships and relationships you’ve had. It didn’t matter so much whether you took high-end vacations, or gave cars to your kids for their graduations. They really only wanted you to be a part of their life. And you were. So you always belonged. Even when you weren’t sure you did.
You probably did volunteer things. You helped your community, your neighbors, or your place of worship. You used all the skills and capabilities you had, those you’ve always known about, but your job didn’t tap into. In doing so you found that you belonged with your friends, with groups in the community, and in volunteer organizations. They all felt that you belonged. It was important to them when you showed up.
So don’t let the search engines, rejection emails, or interviews without offers leave you questioning whether you belong or not. Maybe that next job is not in your binoculars right now, but I am sure it’s somewhere just over the horizon. Somewhere out there is a workplace where you will be valued. You will be needed. You will contribute. You will find that you belong.