You Can’t Cheat Life!

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“I really HATE my job!” This is a phrase I hear almost every day as a career consultant who works with individuals in career transition. For example, when Elizabeth came to see me, she was 52 years old and had been working since her teens, and almost 30 years as a public servant sitting in front of a computer all day as an information analyst.

Her job required her to process about 90 email messages a day, plus 120 pages of info from the Internet, plus another 20 “alert” messages from subscriber-based services. She estimated only 10 of these 200+ messages were truly relevant to her job. She felt “stuck’ in her cubicle reading all day. She wasn’t the only one suffering from information overload. Of the 10 analysts employed in her section, 5 were on long-term stress leave.

Elizabeth herself appeared very fit and healthy. But she felt trapped in her job. She wanted help but felt severely constrained by her life circumstances. When she told me in no uncertain terms: “I hate my job!” I asked her what she did with all that negative energy? Was there an effigy of her boss that she could punch and kick during her lunch hours in order to discharge her frustration? No.

There are only two ways to process that kind of negative energy. One is to explode, such as the worst cases of “going postal” when a worker shoots his co-workers or boss. The other way is more common: we implode and the negative energy manifests in stress and dis-ease.

Although Elizabeth had a strong desire to do something, she felt unable to do anything because (1) she was only 3 years away from taking early retirement, and (2) she had two teenage children who aspired to a university education and needed her financial assistance. She felt compelled to continue down the same path. I have a lot of compassion for individuals who feel trapped in this kind of employment situation: damned if they do leave their job (and risk financial insecurity) and damned if they don’t leave (and risk their health). It is sometimes called the dilemma of ‘golden handcuffs.’

Every 6 or 12 months, I’d contact Elizabeth for an update, asking her how she was coping. After two years, I got an email from her sister saying Elizabeth could not reply because doctors had found a tumor in her brain the size of a lemon. Three months later (and 2 years after we met) I cut her obituary from the newspaper and closed her file. She made it to age 54. Like many people in her situation, she never collected that precious pension.

Her story inspires me to keep doing what I do. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the number one cause of disability in North America. It costs employers more money in lost productivity than any other illness. And the costs to society, in general, are huge. We all know someone who is defeated by their job, perhaps a family member who is crushed by their job; or, a friend who is underemployed and humiliated by the mundane, boring, and repetitive tasks of their work; or, a colleague who has been rendered impotent by the hierarchical structures of the institution he or she works in.

I work with scores of people every year struggling with burnout, depression, confusion, and cynicism. In almost all cases involving lengthy career pain, there is a serious degradation in the energy levels, health condition, peace of mind, self-confidence, courage, self-respect, happiness, freedom, and other aspects of their personal well-being. That negative energy has to go somewhere, and the sad truth is, it often turns against our bodies in the form of serious lifestyle illnesses. I am not suggesting that Elizabeth’s career pain caused her cancer but I know darn well that it contributed! You can’t cheat life!

However, some individuals have heard Elizabeth’s story and told me they would trade places with her in a heartbeat. They would relish the opportunity to sit in front of a computer every day reading emails in order to collect a public service salary and pension. For some reason, they believe they are impervious to the very pressures and stresses that undermined the well-being of Elizabeth and her colleagues.

Common sense defies their assumption. They too would experience stress, possibly burnout. However, the stress of struggling to pay bills, looking for jobs, coping with unemployment also takes a toll on health and well-being. The sad reality is that many individuals are managing career pain of one kind or another. If your work experience is full of pain, why not suffer in a cash-for-life public service job? This reasoning is rooted in a belief that work is suppose to hurt, that’s just the way it is. The temptation to cheat life is strong. Roll the dice, and hope you beat the odds and actually get a chance to collect your pension and enjoy a long, healthy retirement.

There is another way to approach your career. You don’t need to roll the dice and gamble away your life force. We can approach career choice systematically, with deliberate intentions to make the most of our talents and motivations. We can identify and define work settings that will recognize, reward and motivate us for what we do naturally and easily. We can identify specific job titles that best match our unique combination of talents, motivations, acquired skills, experiences, values and priorities. It’s a wonderful day when we can say in all honesty, “I know who I am and I’m glad I am me.” This takes courage in a world that is constantly trying to make us into something else.

Do our brains want to work or win lotteries?

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Do you work hard for your money?  If, yes, then you get more satisfaction from your cash than Paris Hilton!

I know it’s hard to believe but researchers who study the pleasure center of the brain say that lottery winners, trust-fund babies like Paris, and others who get their money without working for it, do not get as much satisfaction from their cash as those who earn it.

Other studies have shown that people who win the lottery are not happier a year after they win the lottery. And the number of winners who keep their jobs is growing (and so is the number of academics studying lottery winners).

Psychological and behavioral scientists have clearly shown that people get a great deal of satisfaction out of the work they do. The brains of those who work for their money are more stimulated.  Ray Crist is living proof!

I’ll never forget the radio story I heard a few years ago about Crist, a chemist who finally stopped working at age 104.  (The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even collect data on workers older than 90!)

Why would you stop doing something you love? For the last two decades of his life, Crist went to work 5 days a week from 8am to 5pm in a research laboratory where he worked on experiments to use plants to remove toxic metals from water, a labor of love that resulted in 20+ published articles.  He didn’t do it for the money (in fact, he donated his salary).

“I’m just a working laboratory person. And I don’t exactly call it work because I’m just living,” said Crist.

His story and the studies both suggest that the brain is wired this way by nature.  Our brains did not evolve in order to sit on the couch and have things fall in our laps.

We are wired for work, that is to expend effort to pursue worthy goals. Crist did not save the world from toxic chemicals; few scientists see the full realization of their goals during their lifetimes.

What keeps them going, what gives them the drive and passion to get up every day and go to the lab is not money but the vision they have in mind.  They can see their destination.  It is a goal worthy of the deepest values and highest aspirations.

It is good to have an end to the journey but, as Crist’s life and work clearly demonstrates, it is the journey that matters most.

While money is necessary for the journey, it is not the purpose of the journey.

Ray Crist retired at age 104.  He died not long after retirement.  He was 105 years, 4 months and 15 days old.