Four or five years ago, I remember starting to feel trapped by the bargain I’d made with “work.”
This, despite working for a company that ranks admirably high on Fortune’s annual list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.”
The feeling was likely overdue. But I’m a second-generation American whose implicit job had always been to decipher and learn for myself what corporate America was all about. I deciphered and learned for years and years until I was well and truly baffled. Not to mention a tiny bit angry: with two little kids at home, calls beginning by 8am and the obligatory so-called “second shift” were now deeply tiresome in a way they hadn’t been before.
I trained a lot of that anger on myself. Wasn’t it my own responsibility, after all, to set boundaries and priorities and avoid burnout? To adjust my own expectations of what was reasonable for me to accomplish? To infuse my daily work with purpose and wring meaning from it? To keep striving?
I couldn’t help but cringe at my own privileges and wonder how on earth anyone who has a job with rigid hours, a commute, fewer benefits, less autonomy, less flexibility, less pay, less psychological or physical safety, or less support makes it work.
What baffled (and angered) me most were the more systemic questions. How is it humanly possible, I wondered, to work for most of the daylight (plus some of the nightlight) hours of (at least) every weekday and feel like one is living anything close to a full life? How does one cram the rest of living into the non-working hours—especially when there is still so much work outside of work (caretaking, cleaning, cooking, coordinating, and so many more gerunds, I’m sure, that do not start with the letter “c”) that also needs doing? How does one sign up to do that for decades on end, when decades are all we hope to have on this planet?
And—at my most cynical (or is it idealistic?)—how is the average corporate job worthy of all that energy and effort? If we weren’t preoccupied, where else and how else in this world could we commit our individual and collective human capacity for pulling off seemingly impossible things? What is the real work to be done?
From what I observed around me (in corporate America), the most popular “solutions” to the above questions seemed to be some combination of:
- Make work your life.
- Trust that who you are is very thoroughly represented by what you do at work.
- Don’t be a parent.
- If you are a parent, be a parent to happy, well-adjusted older teens or young adults who can pretty much already take care of themselves.
- Be very senior (so you can delegate and set boundaries guilt-free). But not too senior (unless #1 applies).
- Be comfortable outsourcing a lot of the gerunds that start with “c”.
- Have a devoted partner who can almost always be more flexible than you and also couldn’t care less about adhering to or flouting gender norms.
- Be single.
- Be very young.
- Never define “full life” for yourself.
- Live for a glorious retirement.
When most of the above do not or no longer apply, we gradually, sometimes suddenly, feel that something is wrong.
More often than not, we look at everyone around us and believe that something must be wrong with me.
There is a framework I love (from the Hudson Institute of Coaching) called the Cycle of Renewal. It’s a kind of map to the experience of change in our lives, and the fundamental premise is that we are always living either in a “life chapter” or a “life transition.” Both are valuable; both are necessary to our ongoing, personal evolving.
In a “life chapter,” we are sustaining a particular set of roles and goals for months or even years. In a “life transition,” we are deconstructing and then reconstructing who we are and, ultimately, what our next life chapter will be about.
The feeling that “something is wrong,” then, is a gift. It is a personal invitation to consider:
- Is this life chapter still the right one for me?
- If yes, what do I need to make it feel right again?
- If no, how do I create the necessary time and space to begin to imagine the next one?
Or, perhaps consider this poem, “Clearing,” by Martha Postlethwaite:
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself to this world
so worthy of rescue.