There seems to be this kind of unwritten consensus that the way to approach life is to get a good job, put in the hours, build a career and then continue to work hard until you retire. At that point, you can do all the things you wanted to do. Thankfully, a growing number of people are fighting back against this ridiculous way of thinking. And I’m one of them.
This is not to say that work and career are not important. Because they are. We can all thrive through personal and professional growth. We all need the sense of belonging that one can get in the workplace. We can all benefit from the sense of fulfilment that enjoyable and meaningful work can bring. And at the end of the day, we all need money, too.
The type of work that we do is important. But perhaps more important is how we choose to approach it. We might have one career and continue to build it over the course of a working life. We might move from one sphere to another as we follow our interests. We might build a portfolio of diverse professional activities that reflect the different aspects of our personalities. All are equally valid (despite what your mother might tell you.)
My work is a big part of my life. I run my own management consultancy practice and work with organisations with a social purpose on projects and activities that make a real difference to people’s lives. And I love it. But if I’m to live an intentional, thoughtful and balanced life, my approach to my work needs to be intentional, thoughtful and balanced, too.
When I started out on my career over two decades ago in a large international consulting firm, intentional, thoughtful and balanced would not have been the words that came to mind. I worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I was away more nights than I was at home. I raced from one meeting to another, from one city to another, climbing the corporate ladder as I went.
But it took its toll. I was tired. I was grumpy. And I approached each new week with an ever-growing feeling of dread. It was a dangerous path. And if I had continued down it, I would have ended up depressed, divorced and – quite possibly – dead. Rich as hell, no doubt, but still depressed, divorced and – quite possibly – dead. Not exactly a career win.
I read some time ago that if you want to bring about change, you need to change how you do things. But if you want to achieve big change, you need to change how you think about things. And so I set about reconsidering how I think about work, about life and about the balance between the two.
My breakthrough moment, if I can call it that, was when I stopped trying to shape my life around my work and, instead, focused on how I wanted my life to be and integrated my work into that. Stephen Covey calls this ‘beginning with the end in mind’, which of course seems completely obvious in hindsight. But it was a massive change in my way of thinking at the time.
And so I quit my corporate job, set up my own consulting practice and spent the next decade building up a portfolio of clients, projects and services that see me leaping out of bed each morning with genuine enthusiasm for the day ahead. I get to choose the projects I work on. I get to work when, where and how I want. I get to see my wife from time to time. And I get to hang out most days with our two Labradors.
I also embraced that fact that every aspect of my life is intertwined and interconnected. The end result is that I no longer have a ‘work’ me, a ‘home’ me and a different ‘me’ for the various other things I do. I just have me. And I bring all of me to everything that I do. To say that this is liberating, both personally and professionally, is the understatement of the decade.
All of this is not to say, however, that I don’t still work hard. Because I do. But I try to work smart, too. I structure my days carefully. I plan my work rigorously. And when I’m working, I focus all of my attention on the task at hand. (Productivity guru Cal Newport calls this ‘deep work’. And it’s a game-changer.) It’s just that whilst I do all of this I may just happen to be sat on the sofa with my laptop and two Labradors. Like I am now, in fact.
After all, if I don’t work, I won’t earn any money. And if I don’t earn any money, I can’t afford to eat. Turns out this is a big motivator.
I’m tempted to say that I’m fortunate to be in a position to structure my working life in this way. But, quite frankly, fortune’s got very little to do with it. I’ve worked hard and at considerable risk to get to where I am now. But I’m damned if I’m going to go down the tired old get-a-job-and-work-til-you-drop route just because it represents the path of least resistance.
Because there is another way. And the more of us who blaze the trail, the easier it will be for those who follow. Whatever their mothers might think.
If you’d like to stay up to date with what I’m thinking, writing and doing, sign up to receive my free email newsletter. Once a fortnight direct to your inbox. Including links to new blog posts as well as exclusive content just for subscribers. Written personally by me. Sign up now.