I was heading to my office early in the morning last week after the holiday break. The streets were full of people like me. Walking with purpose, headphones clamped to their ears, striding towards their working day.
You will find a similar scene playing out all over the world. Morning comes and people head to work. Whether they walk, drive, take a bus or a train they move against the clock because they have to be where they are going by a certain time, put in the hours required and then make the reverse journey home again.
In the UK you get around four weeks paid holiday a year plus a few national holiday days like Christmas and so on. In other countries you might get a bit more or less but five days a week, at least eleven months a year, you are probably working. The rest of the time you are "on leave", which is a revealing phrase that suggests when you are living a life of your own you are actually only momentarily escaping from your life’s main purpose, which must therefore be your job.
This assumes you work "full" time of course, which is another interesting phrase when you pause and reflect on it. If something is ‘full’ then by definition there is no room for it to contain anything else, which anyone with a full time job can probably relate to.
If you don’t work full time you probably work part time, which might suggest you have time to do other things, like relax or read a good book, but people who work part time usually are working full time it’s just the rest of the work they do - childcare or some other responsibility?- ?is unpaid.
So far so obvious, but does it have to be this way? Assuming you were not born rich, is there any choice when it comes to work?
The alternative seems to be unemployment, but as anyone who has been unemployed will tell you (I was in my late teens and again in my mid thirties) it is no fun. No fun at all. You may have your time back, but when it is not filled with work you discover what work gives you alongside a wage. Something money can’t buy. It gives you a sense of identity. A purpose.
Unemployed time doesn’t feel like time off from work either, which is time you feel you have "earned" or "deserve" and usually goes far too quickly. Unemployed time is slow. It expands and fills with a growing sense of dread that never reaches a crescendo and the relief that might come with it. To be unemployed in a world that admires and celebrates work makes you less than someone who is employed. In your own mind as much as anyone else’s, and the judgement of others is never far away. Poverty also digs a deep well of self loathing inside you. All you can see are the things you can’t afford to buy. People who are unemployed do not choose to be. It is a circumstance you have to fight incredibly hard to overcome.
You might expect the word "freelance" to emerge in a piece about work around now, which has lots of attractions in theory but is similar to being part time in practice. You get no sick pay or holiday pay. As someone who freelanced for over a decade, I can tell you a monthly salary landing in your bank account on time feels a lot like freedom if you are not used to one.
So how do we reconcile the need to work and our desire to be in control of our own time? Is there a choice, or a path we can walk, in between?
There is an answer to the work/life conundrum. And like the Unifying Theory of Alcohol that questions the role alcohol has in your life, the Unifying Theory of Work starts by questioning the role you expect work to have in your life too. Because in the same way that for many alcohol has become a ritual synonymous with how we experience fun and relaxation, work is the ritual we have chosen, however unconsciously, to deliver meaning and self worth to our lives. It’s not the only thing that gives our lives meaning of course, but it is the thing those of us in full time work spend most of our waking lives actually doing, so it has become the prime focus of our identity even if it causes us to spend less time with family and friends.
Even if you work part time because of some other responsibility (for seven years I worked part time and was a stay at home dad two days a week with my first two children) you will have experienced the gnawing feeling that you should be doing a "proper" job. You know being a present parent to your children is far more important, but it doesn’t feel like that when you are out of the "career" loop.
So imagine for a moment if work didn’t have this hold over you. What if you didn’t expect your job title to deliver your sense of status and self value? Difficult isn’t it? Especially if you have fought to find a way to make a living doing something you enjoy, blurring the lines of your identity even further.
Try the following thought experiment. It might help.
Take a deep breath and clear your mind. Now detach yourself from any perceived value you draw from your work. I don’t care if you are a famous actor, a pop star, have a million followers on Twitter, if you’re a nurse on a ward helping children with a terminal illness or a partner in a global law firm. These are just clothes you wear. Take them off. If you are unemployed you are free from this label too.
If you take pride from the size of your house, garden, your car or have a favourite pair of shoes that you wear to make yourself feel confident you don’t have them any more either. Even accepting status for being a loving parent isn’t allowed. We are looking at what you carry inside yourself alone. What are you left with? What is there inside you when everything you are currently using to give you a sense of status and self worth is taken away? What would be left if you didn’t have the roles, or any of those things you derive status from, tomorrow? How would you feel? What would you do? Does anything remain?
Don’t worry if this makes you feel a bit vulnerable. The point of the exercise is to feel discomfort. Stripped of the things you base your identity on might give you an inkling of who you really are. Or what you really are not. Because you are not your job, your followers or the clothes you wear.
The more you give these things responsibility for delivering your sense of value and self worth the further from self worth you will find you are. It doesn’t mean being a parent, having a job or spending time on your home has no value. These are all wonderful, enriching, human experiences. The point is not to diminish the way you spend your time. Simply to help you understand that if the loss of these things causes your sense of self worth to decline then they are not giving you self worth at all. You are borrowing it from these roles at best. But like all debts you have to pay them back. With interest. In this case you spend your time and energy pouring status and value in to these roles, and things, instead.
It is the combination of us all doing this collectively - handing responsibility for status and self worth to the roles we all perform in the world and the things we buy - ?that explains why we all feel so powerless, angry and frustrated. Relying on external proofs of status - money and responsibility - to give us self worth doesn’t work.
If you want to see the further evidence of this, talk to someone whose children have recently left home or who is approaching retirement and see how they are adjusting to their roles changing or being taken away. When the roles you expect to give you status are lost, or changed, the value they bring expands exponentially as you realise how much of your life has been given to them instead of to yourself. You may think it is worth it in the case of raising children or your career, but you can raise children and have a career while growing a sense of inner value too. You’ll actually be a lot better at the roles you have if you do.
So how do you make the job you rely on to give you your sense of status start to work for you?
By using your job, or lack of one, to grow your own sustainable sense of self worth. Mental, emotional and physical strength in the core of your being. That’s what you’re after. If you seek these things you are someone on a path to having self worth regardless of what you may or may not achieve within your job. And this is where your job can help - whatever it is and even if you don’t have one. All you need is a challenging situation of some kind to deal with day to day to act as your learning environment. In my experience, the ups and downs of your life and relationships will be enough.
I was not born rich so I will always have to work to pay the bills, but a change in perspective can stop this situation feeling like a trap. If I can find a way to make the inevitable hours I will spend at work deliver the goal of increasing my own strength - ?mentally, emotionally and physically - then I will be using work to bank a sustainable, lasting sense of self worth that I will keep even if my job changes or is taken away through no fault of my own.
This is the Unifying Theory of Work in practice. You must change what you expect your job to do for you.
I like referring to myself as a writer. I enjoy that label, perhaps a little too much, but the words I write do not make me who I am, much as I may enjoy it when people say they like my work. I may also be a CEO and this label feels pretty alluring too, especially when I’m asked to give talks about myself and Unbound in front of generous audiences, but this is not who I am either. And the more power I give the idea that these labels provide me my status and identity the more of my status and identity I am unwittingly handing to these labels.
The uncomfortable truth is I am who I am when alone with my thoughts in the night. This is what I see whenever I look in the mirror. This is when I yearn to feel strong. This is when those external labels give me no comfort.
So every day I use my job to work on increasing my mental, physical and emotional strength through the ritual of my career. In my job, and since becoming a parent, weaknesses in my character and flaws in my patterns of behaviour have been painfully revealed to me that act as a compass pointing to what I need to work on. These are what I must face and confront to grow sustainable and lasting self worth. If something makes me angry or defensive, then I pause and try and understand why instead of allowing myself to react to my emotions. It is usually a sign that I have failed or made an error of judgement that my anger or frustration is trying to protect me from having to face and accept. So I look into it and ask myself the difficult questions this perspective poses. The answer - what I am unconsciously trying to avoid - ?is usually a quite obvious if uncomfortable truth. Once I am aware of it I can try to do something about it and avoid this response, this pattern of behaviour, in the future. And so sustainable, lasting, self worth begins to grow.
Another big one is fear. Whether consciously or not I am often motivated by fear. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of getting something wrong. Fear of not being good enough. But what I am scared of is another compass showing me what I have to look at and deal with if I want sustainable, lasting, self worth to be nurtured inside me.
If I had a big and stressful thing to deal with in the past, fear usually took over my mind completely while I wrestled with it. But this approach actually causes failure because it drains your focus towards the fear and away from the issue at hand. So now I write down what I am scared of on a piece of paper. I fold it up and put it in pot on my desk to remove it from my mind. My fear is still there but it is in the pot and I can let go of it for a moment. Then I focus on the issue itself. Freed of the fear?- even momentarily - ?I am usually able to find a way through the problem. Then I have a plan I can act on and I know that if I spend my energy on the plan and do the work required rather than wasting it worrying, the fear will loosen its grip on my mind. This kind of exercise is like doing pull-ups in the gym of self-knowledge. By doing this over and over again, the grip fear has over me in stressful circumstances has declined.
I work on these weaknesses in myself, allowing the job I have to reveal them to me, every day. And knowing I am using these frustrations and challenges to evolve myself means I am nurturing a sustainable, lasting, sense of self worth I will retain no matter what comes along that is beyond my control. Over time you will see less value in your job title and realise you are building your own value that is not tied to it at all.
Applying the Unifying Theory of Work to your life means that even if a great storm comes and wipes your career away, you will still be strong. Your sustainable, lasting sense of self worth will not be harmed. Because you have found a way to align your need to earn a salary with what you need, which is to reduce your reliance on external things that only give an illusion of status and self worth.
Of course the massive irony is that what happens as you build your sense of self worth and inner strength is you become much more valuable in a work context. You become a true leader. Of yourself initially, crucially, before you can hope to lead others. This path leads to promotion, but as a confirmation of the value you have started to identify and exhibit within yourself through your behaviour rather than a job title you yearned for because you thought having it would bestow these qualities upon you. The crucial difference is that in the first case you are effectively promoting yourself beyond what you previously thought you were capable of. In the second you are waiting for someone else to promote you within their judgement of what you are capable of.
As you work on developing sustainable, lasting self worth you’ll find the concept of work has begun to evolve in your mind too. You will find new ways to help you align it with what matters to you. Now you are truly making work work for you.
If this all sounds logical but you’re not sure where to start in a practical way, look out for things you have already decided you can’t do when you’re at work or in your normal life. Thoughts like ‘I’m not the kind of person who can do that’ is an example of something you need to work on. Ask yourself why you think that. What was it that made you decide you are not the kind of person who can do whatever it is? What was the first instance of you having that thought and placing that limitation on yourself? Ask yourself if that definition is valid now, if it ever was. Most of the time we place these limitations on ourselves when we are far too young to be objective. Another one is when you find yourself thinking or saying ‘this is just the way I am’ when you repeat a pattern of behaviour that makes you miserable. Again, ask yourself why you believe you are incapable of changing this type of behaviour. Look back in your life and find the earliest example of you deciding you can not change. Be brave and question that assumption. Seek the truth about yourself. The only place you will find it is in your own mind.
The biggest one to look out for though is defensiveness. This is a siren blaring in your sustainable, lasting, self worth emergency service system. When you feel that rush of self protection lifting inside you that will combine with anger and indignation if you let it, stop yourself and try to see what is hiding behind it. Take a deep breath and pause your train of thought before it drags you away. What are these feelings trying to stop you seeing about yourself? What are you so afraid of? Do you actually need to be protected from yourself? Have the courage to stare down the feeling and look behind it. Your self worth compass is showing you the way.
This is an extended piece about an idea included Dan Kieran's latest book, The Surfboard.
Dan will be speaking at the Future of Work is Human literary festival on 29th January. Book your tickets here.