My clients are not afraid to give me an earful about the “real world.” The people that come to me for coaching are looking for more freedom and creativity in their work. Yet they chasten me frequently that in the “real world,” their aspirations about work are impossible. Don’t I understand that working in something meaningful, having a flexible schedule or working less – doesn’t pay? They argue for limiting beliefs. They shake their chains.
If you ever want to pressure check a real world concept, find a 3 year old. For a time, my own used to run off into neighbors’ property. I have chased him up steps and into a backyard, bemused faces looking on from the front window. Another time he ran onto a porch and rearranged the artfully-placed watering can and chairs. In each case, when he finally returned, by force or coercion, I would explain to him the concept of other peoples’ property and why it wasn’t OK to just run into their yards. But even as I said the words, the explanation started to ring hollow and I could see a blank stare lay claim to his face. Inevitably he would ask, “Why?”
Why indeed? We all really want to run free at work. But we feel constantly constrained by the “real world.”
Sometime this past March, everything we thought we understood about the real world was put into question. Society as we knew it was shut down by a global pandemic that exhibited all the symptoms of the flu AND no symptoms at all, baffling science and trapping most of us in an existence we had never heretofore contemplated. Our kids stopped going to school. Many of us stopped going into the office. The stock market tanked then skyrocketed. 10% of us lost our jobs, including doctors during a health crisis. White people finally, after 400 years, grocked systemic racism.
For this moment, in the real world, all bets are off.
So what to do when work is still operating in those old conceits? Recently a client and I were talking about a holiday weekend when her boss asked everyone to get on a call.
She has a young daughter. As working mom, she never feels she has enough time with her. The weekends were their time together. This request pinched the blood supply to her heart. My client lamented. “Why do we always choose work over our children, even though it doesn’t feel good?”
So powerful is this cultural narrative about how we have to work in the real world that even the vaunted echelons fall victim. Remember Elon Musk’s manic Tweets about being exhausted from how hard he was working? At his own company?
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In another example, a friend was telling me about a job offer that she was waiting for. She sounded deflated. “It would just be so great for my career,” she weakly insisted. I pointed out that she didn’t sound that excited. She went on to tell me that if the money was good “there really wouldn’t be another choice.”
That ick we feel, when we tell ourselves we must take the call or take the job, is because we have constricted ourselves. We have allowed ourselves, by abdicating our voice and our choices, to become less.
Maybe during COVID you have taken up the guitar, or gardening. Or you’ve gone back to reading. Or you eat lunch together everyday as a family. Or maybe you’re baking sourdough bread. How do you feel in these pursuits? The rational mind wants to dismiss these as not important. We allow ourselves to see them as inconsequential because we believe they are not attached to money.
But aren’t they? The wholeness we feel in these moments is the same wholeness we want to feel at work. It is true, there is no LINEAR relationship between learning to play the guitar and your Zoom meeting for work. But there is indeed a connection. Guitar playing and sourdough bread are spiritual and emotional growth. It is a way to expand the amount of space that we personally take up in the world. It is an equalizer – stepping out of the zones of rational competence that we exist in at work into something where we are open and free to learn. We ally ourselves with a new dimension of humanity – bakers of bread, pluckers of strings, learners and masters alike. It is an “and” that didn’t exist in our lives 6 months ago.
When we are whole because of bread and guitars, we are better able to be whole at work. We are better able to take up equal space to the boss’ boss – who may also be struggling with their loaves rising. After all, why should their weekend be more important than yours?
I’m not saying it is easy to tell Jeff Bezos that you can’t make a Saturday call with him. I am saying it is our choice to believe Jeff Bezos’ time is worth more than our own. I am advising to observe our feelings. I am advising to find small moments to build muscle tone around saying no to work when our hearts call us elsewhere. I’m asking, how can we allow ourselves to believe that to be guided by our feelings – at work, in life - will serve us, not harm us. Courage, after all, is rooted in the French word coeur, for heart.
People come to me with their sight problems. Coaching is ultimately about holding space for something we can’t see yet – our own success, our own happiness, our own purpose. Most of my clients know what they want, but they have built an obstacle course in the way. They have obscured the path. The first thing we do in a session is close our eyes. It is not to see the path. It is to feel the truth of it being there.
I asked my client about her boss’ request, “If you were in your full-hearted self, what would you say?”
She closed her eyes. “I would say that the weekends are my time with my daughter. And that this call is bullshit.”
My neighbor told me yesterday that she and her husband had taken an evening walk at the lake and a coyote had followed them back up the hill. Her eyes widened with concern. But I felt a flicker of excitement. I imagined the twilight street and the eerie, lone coyote, trotting up freely through the mid-century houses. Our street had been the coyote’s street for thousands of years. It was only recent history that created a boundary around private property. But try explaining this to the coyote. It’s like talking to a 3 year-old.