In a career we pursue, or pursued, something that is a close enough match to what we really want to do. The reward is a salary and benefits and a decent pension. And spare time. And the freedom to act conscientiously. Unfortunately none of these things really apply now. Jobs are no longer for life. Benefits are often nugatory. Average salaries, relative to inflation have gone down over the last ten years. Increasingly we are asked by large institutions to do things that are amoral if not immoral. We suspect every corporation of being a potential Enron.
But let’s say you bite the bullet and decide to tough it out. Someone has to be the CEO so why not you? But as you get higher up the career ladder you begin to notice something worrying. There are costs involved in being promoted. The institution feels it can make greater and greater demands. They make you travel, they ask you to move. Every two years your children get to know a new set of friends. Or not, as the case may be. You see that the only people really enjoying themselves in this kind of work culture are the robotic and the truly obsessive. The robotic cleave to ultra-conformity in everything. They make no waves but then they have no fun either. Besides you’re not a robot. The obsessive can be great people. Often they make things work, are inspiring, the very backbone of a successful enterprise. But you know they go home at nine and crash out on front of the TV with a double vodka, that they long ago gave up trying to manage children or marriage, that their idea of a holiday is a period of uninterrupted time to catch up on work.
The sane often end up compromising. To save their marriage, soul, sense of dignity they cease being as ambitious as they once were. They stop seeking promotion. And start looking forward to early retirement.
Many people figured this out in about 1960. Hence Downshifting. Living simply. Back to nature. Dropping out.
Downshifting seems like the perfect solution. You just absent yourself from all the nasty stuff in life and accept you have to take a pay cut. But you’re moving away from something, not towards something. Meaning is discovered by moving towards things, activities, people. Moving away may be the start. But it is not sustainable. Look at how many people who dropped out in the 60s and 70s and actually stayed out.
Actually, dropping out is a form of greed. You want better than the community you were born into can provide so you isolate yourself and hoard for yourself. Human beings are sociable animals. They live in communities- whether those communities are physically close or not. To drop out and isolate yourself from all others is a little like dropping out from being human.
Besides, it never really works. Downshifting puts the cart before the horse. The horse is work, the cart is a satisfying life. If you create a picture of what a satisfying life should be and then work to maintain that picture things are the wrong way round. Your work has to have meaning in itself.
Downshifting is trying to solve a problem by simply doing the opposite of what appears to be the problem. It’s a kneejerk reaction not a considered solution.
Now there is Lifeshifting. Lifeshifting means making a quantum leap of a career change to put the work that means most to you at the center of your life.
Humans love work, they need work, but not boring work and certainly not meaningless work. Humans are workers. But their work. Not someone else’s.
What is work? It is making something. It is making something happen. It is making the world a better place. It is making yourself a better person. It is solving problems. To argue that humans don’t need work is profoundly unnatural. Without meaningful work the human spirit perishes. To argue that all work is a kind of play is false. Play stops when you cease being amused. Being amused is not the reward of work. You can work with a playful attitude and enjoy your work more, but the playfulness is a tool to make your work better. Work is its own reward. The fruits of work (money, satisfaction, respect from others) are secondary. If we don’t do meaningful work we feel bad.
The work that means most to you.
Humans are meaning centred beings. Our motivation is a complex dynamic thing, more complex than Maslow’s ladder of selves would have us believe[…]. Underpinning all motivation is meaning. The woman who lifts a saloon car off her infant cannot do the same thing when the car is parked on her own foot. She means less to herself than her child does. That’s how complicated it gets. Meaning is tricky, but it is meaning that motivates us not money, sex, food, big houses, fast cars. In the absence of meaning we may pursue these things, but they cannot supply meaning.
Meaning is tricky. One person may find raising racing pigeons the most meaningful thing in life. For someone else racing pigeons are about as meaningless as it gets. Meaning is diverse. There’s no one great meaning that fits all. We have to find our own. Or build it up by amalgamating things, which by experience we know we like doing.
What do you want to have said about you at the end of your life? That you had a fast car and a big house? Or that you left this world a better place? That people were grateful to have known you? Our own small world is a better place when we do work we find meaningful. The big world is just a lot of little worlds joined together. We leave this world a better place by finding and doing work that we ourselves find meaningful.
This has to emphasized. Just because our culture depicts certain jobs as more meaningful than others (doctor beats poker player, policeman beats builder, teacher beats just about everyone) it doesn’t mean that they are more meaningful to you. In fact I have met and interviewed at length a physiotherapist who only found meaningful work when he lifeshifted to become a diving instructor. One of the con-tricks of received opinion is that some work is a priori more meaningful than other work. NOT TRUE. It is we who give meaning to our work, not the other way around. You have to find your own meaning in this world- otherwise life would be just too damn easy.
Paradoxically, by doing work that is meaningful to ourselves we imbue it with passion, love and sincerity- all of which may bring substantial financial and material rewards. Success, huge success, very often follows meaningful work. But success is like the shadow- move towards it and it moves away. The sun is work that is meaningful. Move towards that and the shadow follows.
Work that means most to you at the center of your life.
If you allocate only your spare time to doing work you find meaningful it may never flourish. When I worked as a teacher (a job I found meaningless by the way) and did aikido, the Japanese martial art, in my spare time I knew deep down I would never be any good, I would never reach my goal of a blackbelt and my desire to do martial arts was always compromised by having to give it so little time. I should also add that a lot of the time I didn’t particularly enjoy aikido but at the time it was the most meaningful thing for me. I was disgusted by my lack of physical fitness, my inability to fight, to be tough as I perceived former generations as having been. But it wasn’t at the center of my life.
The single most important change I have ever made was putting work that had meaning for me at the center, not the edge, of my life. In this case it was doing a full time course for a year with the Tokyo Riot Police and becoming not just a blackbelt but also gaining an instructor's license at Yoshinkan aikido. After that writing books did not seem such a big thing after all.