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On finding contentment in your work. Don’t.

This is one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever written. I have been writing it and rewriting it for days. I can’t seem to finish it. I’m still not sure I should have posted it. But in the spirit of vulnerability and authenticity, here we go.

If you are like me, you find great satisfaction and value in your work. That’s a good thing. That’s the way it’s suppose to be.

But as much as I enjoy being productive and getting things done, there is a reality I am coming to grips with: My worth as a person has nothing to do with the amount or quality of stuff I can accomplish. I am not defined by what I do. And doing more will never make me more content.

This might sound arrogant and I don’t mean for it to, but when it comes to my job, I think I’m a pretty productive guy. I’ve worked tirelessly to figure out ways to get a lot done in a short amount of time with very few resources. For instance, in the first quarter of 2013 we shipped 45 finished videos. The “we” in that sentence is me and a few freelancers that almost add up to one full-time person. That’s more than the company I used to worked for produced with an entire staff of full-time employees. To say I run a high-performance scrappy little outfit would be an understatement.

That should be something to celebrate. But here’s the unfortunate truth: I’m a workaholic. Productivity is my drug of choice.

When the afterglow of a job well done fades too quickly, I’m out looking for my next fix.

The harder I push, the faster we move, the bigger the invoices get.

But when will it be enough? That’s the crux of this post.

We have been indoctrinated to believe that progress will eventually lead us to some ideal state. It will not.

We learn this from a culture obsessed with success. Some go so far as to say finding your life’s work is worth losing your marriage and your sanity for. There are thousands of books, blogs, websites, and consultants dedicated to helping you get more done. Brands tap into it too. With that next cup of Starbucks, you’ll be able to send twice as many emails in half the time. And that Pinterest project will make you look like Supermom to all your friends.

Just push a little harder. Do a little bit more. Find a hack to make you slightly more productive than the rest. These things are not inherently evil, but our over-worked, over-caffeinated, over-achieving culture glorifies them ad nauseam. And yet, at the same time, we’re inundated with more ways to stay distracted than we’ve ever had. Interesting.

Think I’m being too dramatic? Have you looked around lately? Probably not. You’ve been staring down at your phone checking “important” emails and Facebook all day. Why? Because you get a tiny thrill each time that little red notification appears. You do. I do.

When was the last time you went more than an hour without checking your phone? When was the last time you spent more than an hour working on one big idea, something meaningful?

I started writing this post at an empty bar, with pen and paper, iPhone off at 3:30 on a Monday afternoon. Normally I would be writing on my iPad in a coffee shop, sipping something with too much caffeine, watching people come in and leave, flipping back and forth between Facebook, email, Twitter, and Instagram, and expecting something substantive to flow effortlessly forth. Sound familiar?

Please hear me, I’m not necessarily recommending the bar as an ideal place to do meaningful work. It’s just that for me, writing at the bar punctuates a shift I want to make. It’s a shift away from forcing progress, away from the status quo, and away from my addiction to technology. Don’t worry Pour Jon’s, it’s not a shift away from coffee.

It is a shift toward finding contentment in the moment, and as I wrote about in my last post, allowing my natural rhythm to lead me into productive zones.

Yesterday I needed to get out of the office for a walk and find a quiet place to think and write. So that’s what I did. And I made progress on something much more important than emails and projects.

I made progress on my wellbeing.

There are a thousand more “productive” things I could have done. And in a corporate job, I would have pushed through the day and probably just sent a few more emails that would be forgotten as soon as they were received.

I’m not saying we should give up or stop trying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t work really hard at things we love. Not at all.

What I’m saying is that when those things start to define us, we’re walking a dangerous line. We each have a primal longing to be accepted, celebrated, and validated for the value we bring. Our Maker gave us a desire to be productive and creative. But that’s not our sole reason for existing. I think it’s easy to forget that because for a lot of us, work consumes most of our waking hours.

And it’s not that I love working more than other things in my life. I really don’t. I love my wife exponentially more than I love my work. But it’s easy to get out of balance because of the ratio of time and the pressure we feel from ourselves and the societal expectation to achieve.

To keep myself in check, it’s important for me to think about holding my work loosely. To remind myself that it is only one aspect of my life, not even the most important aspect. And to force myself to stop long enough to realize what I’m obsessing about.

Not to get all new age on you, but meditation is one thing that helps keep me centered. Even five minutes of stillness is enough to clear my head for most of the day. Try it once. Sit still, breathe deeply, and try not to think about anything for five minutes. It feels like an eternity. Yet, five minutes is less than one half of one percent of your day. You start to realize how incredibly noisy, busy, and frantic our world is. And you realize how empowering a clear mind can be.

Just don’t confuse being productive with producing meaningful work. There’s a big difference.

How’s that for a disjointed pile of words on a screen?

To put a nice bow on it, I leave you with some words from Macklemore, one of the great philosophers of our day:

And I had to find out who I really was
Who I really wasn’t
So sick of who I was becoming
Yeah, tired of running
Time to look at the man in the mirror until I can learn to love him

Make the money, don’t let the money make you
Change the game, don’t let the game change you
I’ll forever remain faithful
All my people stay true

4 Comments

  1. This really resonates with me. I have been having similar thoughts for months – I battle with this actually. For instance – quiet time. I literally had to force myself to sit still. So this winter I would spend the last 15 minute or so lying on the floor in front of my fireplace trying to clear my mind (first thing in the morning!). It works. Now I just have to find a nice summer spot… Thanks for this insight, and the inspiration to live life differently.

  2. Spot on! Glad you posted this. This is a much-needed message in the “do whatever you can to get ahead”, “climb the corporate ladder” modern business culture (especially as an entrepreneur where you feel the burden of your entity’s success/failure weighing on your shoulders).

    In the end, it all comes down to priorities: “What do you value more: family, prestige, money, faith, progress, health, etc?” The arrangement of those things determines how and why we work.

    Too often we let how we work define who we are instead of letting who we are define how we work.

    • You’re right, it really does come down to priorities. It’s so easy to get them out of whack. Great thought, “Too often we let how we work define who we are instead of letting who we are define how we work.” Thanks Lawson!

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