Teaching our kids how to be happy at work

For years I’ve told my kids that when they grow up, move out and get a job, what they do for a living won’t be as important to me as me knowing they’re happy.  I’m sure many parents tell their kids the same thing, but I bet few of us have a clue about what our kids are hearing or thinking when we encourage them in this way.  After what most of our older children have observed in the world, I bet a lot of us would be hard pressed to convince them that work and happiness aren’t antithetical to each other.

I know through direct experience that work and happiness can go together.  But, I’m also convinced a person must do their work “with purpose” if they expect to be happy with their work.  No matter what their work happens to be.  To me, working with purpose means working as if you are an extension of the task-at-hand.  It means being “collected” together with your work so that you and your work become a single, combined purposeful experience.  Even though working with purpose might be a simple concept, it takes thought and determined practice to pull it off.

A good way to describe purposeful work is to describe what it is not.  Two prime examples of not being purposeful are working toward a college degree in a subject in which there is no genuine interest and working at a job which provides no sense of mission.  Many of us know young people who worked hard for a college degree only because their parents made them do it and we all know plenty of people who hate their jobs.  Both of these situations are examples of personal effort not translating into purpose.  I believe we owe it to our kids, as well as our wallets, to do what we can to help them avoid both of these situations.

There are few concepts which are more intimate and emotionally charged than one’s personal effort or one’s purpose in life.  A disconnect between these two values can have profound consequences on everything about a person, and without them ever understanding how or why.  When effort and purpose are separated there becomes what I call a “negative-duality” between the person and how they spend their time.  How a person spends their time is how they live their life.  So, being mentally disconnected from something as basic as how you spend your time is really profound if you think about it.  Eventually, that negative-duality has the potential to manifest into a bad emotional split that a young person associates with any type of work.  And, this can spiral into a lifetime of unfulfilling jobs.

So, I believe this emotional split between effort and purpose is a big deal.  Unchecked it creates an imbalance that forces a person to dwell on the past or future instead of being fully purposeful with their current work. They might spend their work-time daydreaming about the “good old days” or fantasizing about “someday when I’m doing something I like.”  This grasping for something that only exists in their mind and avoiding the reality of the task-at-hand at that moment, can lead to chronic frustration and unhappiness at any job.  These are some of the things I believe can happen when people aren’t purposeful with their work.

Of course, a conversation about work and happiness is not complete without mentioning money.  Just like a lot of other parents, my kids have asked me about the relationship between work and money.  Don’t people work just because they need money?  As long as you’re making enough money isn’t that a good job?  How much money is enough?  These are common and logical questions, but they can make the subject of work and happiness confusing.  Work, happiness and the moral relativism of money are related, but distinct subjects.  Money is no more or less evil than a socket wrench.  It’s an inert tool.  And, just like any other physical or conceptual device, it’s what a person does with money that matters, not the money itself.

Therefore, as in the example of earning a college degree, if a student’s mission is to earn more than average amounts of money, securing a professional degree could be a way of doing that.  Going to law school without any particular passion for the law might be just fine if the student considers it merely a course of training to earn a higher income.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that mission if the student is mentally aligned with the mission of studying law to earn more money.  What’s wrong is when students have no clue why they’re studying the things they’re studying.

Likewise, doing manual or information-based labor at a job one isn’t particularly interested in, solely to provide for a family, can fulfill a duty to a very honorable mission.  There are many people in the world that even consider this type of work circumstance a form of enlightenment.  I agree.  Again, IF the person is mentally aligned with their mission.

In his book, Seeing Things Hidden, Malcolm Bull explained it this way, “When a man sells his own labor as a commodity, his own activity becomes something objective and independent of him.  In consequence, not only do capitalists see their workforce as an impersonal object, a machine for the generation of profit, but the workers themselves see their own activity as something alien.  However, if the worker becomes conscious that his labor is not something alien, and that he is the subject AND object of his own consciousness, this effects an objective change in the object of knowledge, and with it the potential realization that all the so-called facts of existence are merely the reified aspects of total process in which thought and existence are dialectically unified.”

What Mr Bull’s words mean to me is that the process of work often creates an environment which fosters the separation of people and what they do.  Because of this, all too often we sell our time to our boss in a transactional, non-purposeful way like we would sell a commodity such as food or fuel.  Since we then see ourselves as little more than a labor factory producing units of labor, it should be no surprise when the boss views us merely as an object; a machine that either produces profit or doesn’t.

But, I also believe Mr. Bull is telling us that if we don’t view our work as something separate from ourself, if we collect ourselves into being one-and-the-same with what it is we do, we have a chance at our thoughts and our work being unified into a single purpose and, most importantly, we can create an opportunity for our work to become our MISSION.  Not soulless blocks of time we sell like pork bellies to the highest bidder.

When our work is our mission, we don’t daydream about something better.  We focus on our current job and the opportunities which are obvious as well as the ones which are hidden.  Regardless of the work a person is doing, once they can focus on what’s happening right in front of them, right now instead of the past or future, they can widen their scope to what is truly available to them.  Things like new knowledge, skills and other professional tools.  And, also things like awareness of relationships and compassion within those relationships.  But, all of those opportunities, hard and soft, technical and personal, must all be bundled up within a larger mission to achieve happiness at work.

Many years ago a wise, older business man told me I should be thankful for every job I ever have and treat every job like it’s the last job I’m ever going to have.  He told me even if I am a bus boy in a restaurant or digging sewer holes, I should still treat my job like it’s the only job I’m ever going to have.  He told me I should do this not only because it’s the right thing to do for whomever I’m working, but also because someone offering a better job will eventually notice what I’m doing and want me to work for them instead.  And, that’s the way you build solid rungs on the ladder of professional success.

I’ve learned through the years, way back from when I actually was a bus boy in a restaurant, that every job offers new skills and knowledge which are tools and stepping stones that lead me places I could never anticipate.  Whatever skills and knowledge I acquired along the way were always things I could build upon.  I believe this sense of “gratefulness for the opportunity” and treating every job as THE job is something critical that we must teach our kids.  It’s vitally important because early on it enables them to practice being collected into purposefulness with their work before they’ve found their true mission, or even know what a mission really means.

Whether your work-mission is transmitting compassion to others and money is secondary, or your primary mission is to make money to use for another purpose, it doesn’t really matter.  To achieve happiness at work, you must have a mission.  There are plenty of studies that point to mission as being a more powerful motivator than money.  To be sure, money will always be your mission until you think you have enough money.  But, it has been proven over and over again that when money is your primary motivator it narrows your view and decreases the “noise” of your creativity so you are more effective at a specific task.  That’s why sales commissions motivate people doing the narrowly defined tasks associated with selling cars or houses or insurance.  Whereas, it’s harder to commission art with a deadline and convince the artist that what they’ve produced as a result of that narrowed focus is their best work.

When a boss inspires someone to be on a mission for them, the money they pay for the labor involved often becomes a secondary motivator to the worker on the mission.  That’s why missionaries of various religious faiths are usually driven by objectives other than money.  I believe it’s no different in everyone’s work life.  People are simply happier at work if they feel they are fulfilling a purpose or a mission.  We have to explain how this works to our kids so they understand and develop their mission while they are discovering the world of work.  When they discover work that inspires their sense of mission, they and their work will be unified into one action.  They will be more happy with their work and their boss should be more happy with them.

Young people also need to know that in the course of their professional lives, there will be times when they find themselves compromising their personal moral philosophy, their ethics.  As hard as they try not to, it is inevitable.  I believe the key to successfully navigating these failures is to first reject the notion of failure and replace it with the concept of practice.  They need to realize their “failure” IS their practice.  Just like a basketball player or a doctor, they have to practice building and sustaining their ethical worldview.

I also believe it’s important to teach them how to subordinate the guilt and remorse associated with their compromises to the awareness gained of what exactly was exchanged within the compromise.  If their ethical compromise actually helps others more than it hurts, it might signal a need to reassess their belief system.  If their behavior was unequivocally for personal gain, they should use that event as an opportunity to precisely identify their personal boundaries, as well as a chance to practice the empathy involved in seeking the forgiveness of others.

The reason it’s important to explain these concepts to a young person early in their work life is because without understanding them, they are in danger of reacting to their mistakes in one of two unbalanced ways.  Either they will make mistakes and overcompensate while beating themselves up with soul-sucking guilt and shame which can eventually lead to self-hatred and resentment of others.  Or, they can swing too far to the other side with pathological ignorance of anyone’s interests but their own.  Anyone who’s lived in the work world for any length of time has witnessed both of these forms of behavior.  It’s critical to help young people understand the importance of balancing their reactions to their own mistakes while dealing with others at work.

We want our kids to be happy first and foremost and consider it a bonus if they find meaningful, productive work they enjoy.  But, without helping them understand some of the choices they’ll face when they join the world of work, we’re missing critical opportunities to share the real-world experiences that just might be what puts them on the path to being happy at work.  By explaining how important it is to unify themselves and their work into one action as they search for their true mission, we can give them useful concepts that help guide them on that path.

And, if we look inward and observe our own personal attitudes about work, we will know exactly what we need to tell our kids.  A little contemplation might even remind us of what our own personal mission is.  Lining up our mission with our own work will serve as an outward example for our kids.  And, of course our example is the most powerful teacher of all.

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