Your Job is not the Problem--You Just Didn't Know it Was Work

One of the best icebreaker questions I ever heard was, “Tell me about your first job.”

Our first job not only teaches us a lot about ourselves, but also prepares us for future work.

The very first job I ever had out of college was as a fitness consultant in a Ladies Only gym. Newly married with a degree in Biology, a passion for exercise, and aspirations of medical school, I thought I had found the perfect job.

Spoiler alert: that job had almost nothing to do with health and wellness and almost everything to do with high pressure sales techniques.

I haven’t had a real job in nearly twenty years. But my life has been filled with purposeful work.

In this post, I’ll show you how the way you work in every job is a clue to the real work you’re meant to do.

Problem solving, and I don’t mean algebra, seems to be my life’s work. Maybe it’s everyone’s life’s work.
— Beverly Cleary, Children's Book Author

Oh, I do believe it is everyone’s life’s work!

For the past five years I’ve been a part of an Atlanta nonprofit called Plywood People. They have a motto I’ve adopted as my own: “We will be known by the problems we solve.”

Being known.

Those two words by themselves can be really scary.

We want to be known and yet we want to remain anonymous.
We want people to understand us but we want to retain an element of mystery.

And over the past year, on Mission Driven Monday, I ask women this final question: “Can you tell me about your aspirational self?” That question is essentially, “What do you want to be known for?” The answers vary, but one thing remains consistent: all the women want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. When they talk about work, it’s in the context of the values they uphold.

We all want to do work that matters.

Even if you don’t believe in legacies you have one. And you get to choose what you want that legacy to be.

I interact with lots of women caught between the threshold of having babies and raising kids. It’s important work, but sometimes I hear the longing in their voices, the shy whispers that “one day” they’ll go back to work, that their education “won’t be wasted,” that this is “just a season” and that “real life” can begin again “when the kids are all grown up.”

What are you waiting for?

When I was a young mom, I couldn’t even imagine a day when I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night or change a diaper. I felt like I would always have someone at home and that I would always be a servant to someone else’s needs. And yet here I am, with one child out of the nest for good, one with one foot already out the door, and two more squarely in the throes of middle and high school. I will blink, and they too, will be gone.

No one ever told me that I could find intellectual fulfillment in the expression of who I was apart from paid work. I had always thought that the job I got paid to do and the work I was meant to do had to be the same thing. It wasn’t until I became a mother and set aside my so-called career that I discovered on my own what it means to live life within the context of a larger story.

Young moms tend to think that all that time spent at home is like putting a sweater on hold at Anthropologie. You’ll pick up where you left off—when you’re ready. The sweater will wait for you; the job probably won’t. You could spend the in-between contemplating whether or not you actually need the sweater or whether or not it makes sense to invest in something so seasonal and trendy. Maybe after you’ve walked around for awhile you’ll discover you don’t really want that sweater anymore.

The Tension

Our lives are not sweaters to place on a shelf. And a job isn’t just a job. For some, a job defines who we are, even though we know deep down that we are not what we do. “But if that’s true”, we wonder privately, “then why does everybody I meet keep asking me about work?”

How can we place “the job” on hold and still participate in work that’s fulfilling?

I remember someone telling me once that they never answer that question about jobs with a one word answer of their own. For example, when my friend is asked, “What do you do?” she says something like, “I inspire small children to aspire to a lifetime of curiosity.”

Ooohhh, tell me more about that.

Is my friend a teacher? A therapist? A children’s museum director?
Or is she just a mom?

A job is simply the expression of our work, so while jobs come and go, the expression of ourselves within that job is the real clue to the person we are meant to become. I wish I had known that when I was a 22-year old fitness consultant biding my time and waiting for my real break. I would have discovered that the part of my job that made me feel most alive was when I was learning something new or when I had a chance to hear transformation stories from clients one-on-one.

If you’re wondering about the work you’re meant to do, I recommend checking out The Good Life Project. Jonathan Fields developed an incredible tool called Sparketype that helps you identify the work you’re meant to do. Once you’ve taken the test, I’d love to know what you learn about yourself! Leave a comment, and let’s chat.

Bonus:

There’s a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s one of those books that comes up constantly in creative circles, but until now, I’d never read it. Let me tell you—YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. I’m only three weeks into what feels like a 12 step program to unlocking creativity, and it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve felt freedom to explore the artist within. One of the activities in that book is to write down your Imaginary Lives, those dream jobs you would do IF ONLY you had the education, training, experience, and connections to make them a reality. Two of my imaginary lives include Professional Tap Dancer and TV Chef. I will never be either one of those things in real life, but I can live my best life now by either taking an adult tap class (which I did a few years ago with some of my best friends and we had the best time) and by pretending that I have my own show and hosting demonstrations in my own house with my own kids (Fun Fact: One time I did get to cook on the Food Network, and it’s all because I believed I could when I was at home). When we give ourselves permission to imagine, what we’re really doing is giving ourselves the space to practice and discover new ways of making our dreams come true.

So whether I’m at home with my kids in my kitchen or volunteering in my community, the expression of who I am is front and center.

  1. Live your best life now. If you could be anything, what would you choose to do? How can you bring the best of that life into the life you have now? Is it a class you need to take, a party you need to host, a book you need to read, or an organization you need to to support?

  2. Identify your “why.” Think about that very first job. For example: Why did you want to work in healthcare in the first place? What do you love about marketing? How can you use your passion for systems and organization in a fresh new way? I thought I wanted to be a doctor. When motherhood came calling and asked me to postpone medical school, I shelved that dream and decided to become a certified doula. It gave me the patient interaction I craved, allowed me to work alongside real doctors and nurses in a hospital setting, and provided valuable practice scenarios for things like honing my bedside manner and researching the challenges and tensions facing healthcare practitioners today. Becoming a doula was just one of many opportunities I was able to cling to when my kids were little. As they got older, I realized I was finding fulfillment in a wide range of creative pursuits. I no longer needed to become a doctor to feel like I was adding value to the world.

  3. Your job is what you do. Your work is who you are. Learn the difference, and you’ll be able to find joy in both the mundane and the magnificent. Think about how you can describe the work you do in in a fresh new way.

Ready to take it to the next level?

Follow your mission, not the madness!