Work is a common cause of stress for many of us but when you get to the heart of it, there are really two main reasons for this.
One is probably the first that springs to mind; the people you work with suck. Your boss has no idea how to organise their sock collection, much less lead a team and your colleagues are forever gossiping away and see the job as something to get around to once the water cooler is empty.
In short, work is stressful because it generally involves interacting with people. So really, it’s back to common causes of stress 101: relationships.
Nothing new there.
But there’s another reason work can be stressful and it’s one I’ve struggled with ever since I was kicked out of the comfort and warmth of full-time education into the long-grass of employment.
Sadly, one in no way contributed to my survival of the other but that’s another post for another day 🙂
Once upon a time
Do you remember being five years old and knowing exactly what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Perhaps it was a doctor. Or a teacher. Or maybe a pilot. And then suddenly you’re 15 and your ideas have changed, although the certainty remains you want to change the world for the better – maybe research or politics is for you now.
And then you hit 25 and you realise that actually you have no idea what you want to do at all. By 35, you think it’s all too late.
Here you are, still desperately trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’m still waiting for the epiphany too.Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? Nope? Me either.Click To Tweet
Work is part of daily life for the majority of us, and given we spend around a third of our adult lives participating in it, it makes sense to give it the attention it deserves.
We’re introduced to work long before we get involved – schools set us up for the question that follows us throughout adolescence and the one every teenager dreads, ‘So, what do you want to be when you grow up?’
Whether you gave your 5-year-old or 15-year-old answer, it was probably disregarded because the grownups knew something you didn’t. You had no idea what you wanted to be. You only thought you did.
They never actually told you that your dreams were simply that; their plan was to let time do its thing and let you find out the hard way.
A proper job
A ‘proper’ job was always the goal and was generally considered to be along the lines of lawyer, doctor, vet, and so on…
But let’s be honest, quite a few of us end up in a general, non-specific ‘job’ which can be rendered down into stating that we work in an office, shop, factory, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it meets your needs.
Most of us need money and a job offers us that money (sometimes enough, sometimes not). But if you require something beyond that material aspect – fulfilment or purpose being the obvious suspects – then it has to be more than just a job.
Let me take this opportunity to say I’m not suggesting that a ‘career’ is the alternative to ‘just a job’ or that we should all aspire to having one.
While some of us need a more structured working life filled with ladders to climb to attain a set level of salary or status, not everyone needs a career to be fulfilled or to make them want to get out of bed in the morning. A job can fit the bill perfectly well.
There are plenty of people happy in their jobs and plenty of people miserable in their careers. Money and status can certainly help soften the blow of 7.30am every Monday but that’s not enough.
Surely there has to be something more…
Is work only about the money?
Let me put it another way. If you didn’t need the money, would you still work?
If the answer is no, that’s absolutely fine. But if the answer is yes, the next question has to be: would you stay in your current job or would you do something else?
If you’d stay in your current job, that’s fantastic. I’m genuinely pleased for you, but I suspect you’re in the minority.
Most of us would likely answer that if we didn’t need the money, we would like to go and work in the area we’re really interested in, the thing we’d really like to do. Does this sound like you?
I’m writing this in London and I often travel during rush hour.
Or as I prefer to think of it, the dreaded standing-on-a-tube-of-metal-for-an-hour-with-a-hundred-other-silent-strangers-waiting-to-be-taken-to-a-concrete-box-to-sit-in-all-day-emailing-a-person-sat-30-metres-away.
You can’t help but wonder what the point is. If that had been the pitch of the careers adviser at school, would you have signed up for it?
Nope, me neither.
Yet that’s daily life for many of us. The metal tube could be your car or the bus; the concrete box may be a shop or factory. But the pattern is the same.
Of course we do it because we have the mortgage to pay and children to feed. But did you choose it? Would you choose it?
In some cases, there isn’t much of a choice to be made, and if this is you, then I hope this will change in time. But for many of us, it is a choice; we just fail to realise it because we’re never told.
You grow up, you get a job, you get married, you buy a house, you have children – these are all expectations made clear to us from an early age.
Asking the wrong questions
The ‘what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up?’ question is almost forgotten about once you’re considered grown up. Ironic.
What you want no longer matters! It’s irrelevant, apparently.
It’s replaced with questions considered far more relevant and realistic, such as, ‘What do you do for a living?’ or ‘What jobs are you applying for?’
Nothing implied around wants or interests; the bottom line concerns only skills, experience and what you’re considered capable of earning. Does your job allow you to pay the bills? This seems the only criteria that matters.
What you’re unlikely ever to be asked is what you want to do, although you may be asked what you wanted to do when you grew up – past tense – or what you would have liked to have done.
Both suggest a fixed future, free from pesky choices and trivial matters like that, where the path you’re now on can never be altered.
That, dear reader, is my idea of stressful. That I’m supposed to have a path all laid out, with only a few jobs lining the path between now and retirement.
It doesn’t matter whether I enjoy them, it doesn’t matter if they are fulfilling or are meaningful or make the world a better place. What matters is that I turn up and I never ask questions like the ones in this article.I’m supposed to have some kind of punchline or brilliantly insightful conclusions to offer. I don’t.Click To Tweet
I’m probably supposed to have some kind of punchline or brilliantly insightful conclusions to offer.
But I do have several mantras I live by and one of them is that answers to these types of questions are rarely as important as having the cognisance to ask the question itself.
Another mantra, or principle, I try to live by is to regret the things you have done and not the things you haven’t.
What has this got to do with work? Simply this: there are lots of ways to earn (legal and ethical) money in this world.
If you haven’t found the one that works for you then keep looking until you do.
Whether it’s the people, the environment, the culture, the money, the purpose or something else at odds with what gives you a warm fuzzy feeling on a Monday morning then don’t give up.
So, what do you want to be when you grow up?
You may not have known when you were knee high to a grasshopper what you wanted to be when you grow up and perhaps (if you’re me), you still don’t. And because you’re still looking, the work you are doing isn’t right for you – that’s enough to cause anyone stress.
We may choose to cope with this in different ways and look to resolve it by different means. All of this is perfectly ok, how many times do you get it right on the first go? So why should work be any different?
I’m afraid I was telling you the truth when I said there were no answers here.
Even if I had the answer for me, it probably wouldn’t be the right answer for you.
But I do know this – one of the best questions we can ask ourselves as we get older in the hope we may also get a little wiser is this: ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’
And then go and do it…