This is your life!

As I begin my 35th year in the world of business and my 61st year on this planet, the career counseling gurus say that it is quite natural for me to do a little soul searching and review about professional and life path choices.

These thoughts came into sharper focus recently when I was helping a good friend, who is a painting contractor; get through a very busy time by putting in some hours on a Saturday with him on the interior of a very elegant loft construction.

The new owner, a recently transplanted bank CEO from California, came by while we were finishing up and, not knowing that I wore a different hat during the week, said to me, “It must be great to be your own boss, have a skill, and actually see things get done.” I said something pleasant and non-committal in reply—after all, the man was paying us to paint his home, not wax contemplative.

But later, when I chewed a bit on what he’d said and the implications of it, there seemed to be a good many people who would agree with him; from the many business suited onlookers at construction sites to the admirers of sporting events throughout the country. For the desk jockey, the allure of physical endeavor can be intense. Frankly, I think we could all use some cheering up.

My own work record includes construction, intern psychologist, army aviator, and instructor of various high-risk sports such as hang-gliding, kayaking, rock-climbing, skiing, etc. I have been in the world of commerce for 35 years and now I am a management consultant for both non-profits and for-profits, mainly in health care, and I feel that I can lay some claim to having seen both sides of the fence. Based on experience, I offer you this conclusion: the grass is greener on both sides.

What is attractive about physical labor—from swinging a bat to wielding a paintbrush—is that it is straightforward. Skill, training, and judgment are aimed in one direction only: completion of the task. In physical activity, artifice must be cleared from the mind. It is the time of the fabled “100%”

It is impossible, for example, to actually play a good game of tennis if one is constantly thinking, “I am playing a good game of tennis.” in the midst of physical effort, labeling, mental or otherwise, is seen for what it is: irrelevant.

Office life appears different. Here the task itself does not necessarily take precedence over everything else, and labeling can be important. Here, skill, training, and judgment are often aimed in several directions at once, split between the goal itself and the necessary maneuvers among other workers required achieving it. In addition, there is a far greater distance between the individual and the result of his or her labor. A “good” job in the office may offer the worker a chance to glow, but it seldom affords the opportunity to shine. Everyone would like to shine - hit a home run - once in awhile.

At the risk of offending those who resist or resent examining attitudes, I would like to offer several of my observations on the ways we look at the various jobs we do. The Protestant work ethic runs strong, deep, but subtle in American society, but the plain fact is that work itself has no intrinsic value at all. Others may praise or criticize its’ results, there may be rewards or reprimands, but work itself does not necessarily make a person better or worse, more or less admirable, more or less responsible. The horse is the worker, the cart is the work.

Power and money may be part of a better life, but they do not ensure that life. I think there are two ways to be rich: one is to have more; the other is to want less. If there is any doubt about this, look at those who retire to Florida and Arizona with full pockets, only to die of what doctors are almost willing to call a broken heart.

Being your own boss has its’ advantages, but it severely disrupts one of the great American pastimes—griping about the boss. The point here is that being responsible is not easy, whatever the position.

Success is possible - failure is possible. But which is more sensible: to make a million dollars or to enjoy the attempt? An attitude that only allows for success is probably a failure from the outset.

A lot has been said about the Chinese economic juggernaut. What makes it possible? My own feeling is that the core of that power lies in a lack of confusion among those human beings—the confusion between who I am and what I do. Again, the horse is the worker, the cart is the work.

I can hardly suggest that any of this is new or even very encouraging. So, you ask, “what’s your point, Steve?” What’s the good news here? The point is that this is your life. My own feeling is that people’s lives are far more interesting than a description of their work would indicate. The social pleasantry, “what do you do for a living?” cannot possibly elicit the rich complexity that might erupt if one were to try honestly to answer the question, “who am I”, a query that is often reserved in our society for college sophomores.

And yet, perhaps the introspective sophomores of this world have a point. After all, to the man or woman who can answer this question thoroughly to his or her own satisfaction, work is a matter not only of identity, but also of personal choice; a matter of attitude influenced not only by a society full of Jones’s to keep up with, but also by a private stock of values and experience.

It seems to me that you are not what you do, you are not what you eat—but rather—you are the person who makes those choices.