“Doing the work” is a phrase that I only heard for the first time a couple of years ago on (American) self development podcasts, like The 4 Hour Work Week.
Initially, I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. Was this some New Age, hippy bullshit?
There was something curious about this phrase, at least to my (British, male) ears. Because it was clear from the context that the people using the phrase did not mean traditional “work” as we might understand it. They were not talking about coal mining, sweeping chimneys or constructing a spinning jenny…or other forms of labour that British people typically think of as real work.
No, they were referring to emotional work.
Yes, that’s an actual thing! It’s the process of understanding yourself and what shaped you. The process of understanding our flaws and how emotions often cloud our ability to think and act rationally. The process of introspection, self awareness and changing for the better.
The recent Olympics showed that we Brits are pretty good at doing the work when it comes to sports training. Not just the physical training but also the mindset needed to win. Why can we Brits do this successfully in the context of sports…yet struggle to apply the same principles in other areas of life?
In a sporting context, I think we all get the idea that before we can win, we need to get better. We know that great success probably won’t be easy, we’ll make mistakes, luck will play a part and that sacrifices may be required.
But for some reason, we Brits rarely talk about applying this admirable mindset to personal finance or other aspects of personal growth. This is a shame because the exact same traits that work for sporting success work for financial success. I’ve never seen an Olympic gold medallist that was a complainypants.
As well as mastering their Outer Game, athletes must master their Inner Game. Without strong inner Game, the fittest and most skilled sportsman can be reduced to jelly. If you’ve ever seen a golfer get the yips or a footballer fluff a penalty, you’ll know what I mean.
So sports stars have to do the emotional work to get comfortable with giving their all…without a guarantee of success…being watched and judged by other people. They have to be able to accept reality. Sometimes their game will be rubbish. Sometimes they will feel like giving up and blubbing like a toddler. But they actively seek out discomfort, then push through this to get better.
When I joined a running club a couple of years ago, I knew that if I did the training work, my physical performance would improve. That’s Outer Game. More interesting was my Inner Game. When I first joined, silly thoughts popped into my head like: what if I’m not good enough? or what if no one talked to me?, a bit like the new kid at school. Learning to acknowledge those thoughts and then let them go is pure Inner Game.
On the path to financial independence, it takes some work to improve your Inner Game…to retrain your mind away from consumerism and from the idea that having more shit is always better. To do this, we have to accept that we are not our material possessions.
Buying more stuff is a poor substitute for actually getting better ourselves. It helps to stop worrying about what “everyone” else thinks about you (hint: they are usually too busy worrying about what other people think about them).
The conclusion that we might draw from all this is that the average British person finds it easier to see themselves working down a coalmine for their entire life or winning a gold medal at the Olympics than doing some emotional work on themselves.
Which is a shame because “doing the work” is way easier than coalmining or winning an Olympic gold medal. Sure, acknowledging and addressing our human flaws and weaknesses is tougher than blaming our partners / bosses / politicians. But once you are on The Path it gets easier and easier as time goes on.
This got me thinking: why not get someone that has actually done much of the work to explain it? Perhaps someone that is not quite as British or as male as The Escape Artist?
So I invited Helene, my Canadian friend and fellow blogger from Free to Pursue, to give me her take on what it means to “do the work”. Enjoy!
It’s 4:45am and I’m sitting in the same coffee shop where I started writing three years ago. It’s also about the same time of the day when I used to come here (thank heaven for 24hr shops) because I couldn’t sleep. What got me up then is the same thing that got me up this morning: a drive, an itch, a deep desire to explore and share ideas with others that might cause us all to wake up to the reality that the way the majority of us currently live is not the way it has to be, should be.
The idea? The itch? Here’s the thesis: In most areas of life, we don’t do the work anymore.
- Invest serious time in relationships—no, social media posts don’t count nor do other shallow exchanges.
- Take the time to dig deep into an issue, preferring instead to consume the sound bites and clips offered by daily news shows or what’s trending on YouTube.
- Take the time to learn about ourselves, what makes us tick, what we want, what we can do that can make a meaningful difference in our lives and in the lives of others.
- Carefully consider what we do for a living—now and in the future, including what we choose to study in school, or whether higher education is even the right path for us.
- Think about what is it that we should stop doing because it’s nothing more than a distraction.
- Consider the obligations we accept to take on that take us away from what we should be doing.
- Invest the time and energy in pursuing a massive project that scares us—unless there’s some sort of external reward, and even then it’s a stretch.
We’re so busy being “busy” that we don’t stop and think about what we really want—what we really need—to live a fulfilling and purposeful life. We’re no longer the curators of our hopes and dreams, of what we can really do.
“We get so busy getting things done that we don’t stop very often to consider what it is we really want or where to invest our time and energy to achieve…goals [that align with what we value most].” — Tony Schwartz, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (2010)
We seem to have given up that role to others, starting all the way back in grade school, if not sooner. We’ve successfully outsourced our right to think and our right to feel the amazing feeling that comes with diligently working toward something that really matters, to us.
I got caught up in this lie myself, but I was a late bloomer…it happened while I was working on my MBA. The long hours the program required made my mind malleable to the key messages the program presented: status over substance in life, always. I learned the importance of money, power and influence. I learned that it was more important to do important things that made money than to be civil; that it was more important to be respected than to be pleasant; that social engagements were a waste of time if they were not work related; and that empathy was a sign of weakness, as was the idea of work/life balance.
I put these learnings into practice for at least a decade after leaving the program, until I realized that I didn’t like myself anymore and that others didn’t care for me either, and for good reason.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Despite a much higher than average salary that was supposed to make me “happy”:
- My marriage suffered nearly-irreparable damage, as I took my spouse for granted and treated him more as an employee than as a partner.
- Our finances were only slightly above average as I thought I needed the fancy car, home, stuff that’s required to show status, all of which lead me to squander needlessly on what didn’t matter.
- My lifestyle was one of long days (and evenings and weekends), leaving my body to slowly disintegrate whilst working for a company that considered me expendable—we are all expendable to an entity that has no soul.
- The default setting for my state of mind was negative, making me judgmental, impatient and short-tempered.
When I realized the the organization had no issue with changing my work situation with no notice, expected me to work tirelessly and was planning to eventually promote me to a 24/7 job, I started planning my exit. From decision to exiting stage left took only four months because I had started getting our financial house in order some five years prior when my husband and I decided to reduce our status-seeking consumption. (Ok, my status-seeking consumption; he was already there…I was the one who needed to catch up).
Three and a half years later, my life is richer and more fulfilling than it ever was during my previous career, despite having initially taken a $100,000 cut in income when I chose to change direction and get back to what matters most. We spend far less than we used to and save at about the same rate, we invest in our own personal development a great deal more than we used to and we are healthier and happier as a result. I wouldn’t go back to what was my status quo for the world, despite receiving multiple offers to do just that.
And still, I’m not done. I still have to remind myself to pause and do the work that propels me forward in the right direction. I need to remind myself of what it’s done for me in the past and that it can help me in setting the course for me for both the short and longer term.
It’s an uphill battle to do the work when most of the people around us don’t do it at all. And that’s a shame, because most of the best ideas, the most creative inventions, the best lives are crafted “just because” the originators felt compelled to produce them. They felt the drive to go after more, whatever that more might be.
No, most of us prefer convenience over purpose. Just as we choose to outsource the production and preparation of our food, entertainment, lodging, clothing, education, health, transportation—and for some, even their love life—we also opt for convenience in our own existence. We’ve effectively outsourced life itself.
“Each of us has an infinite capacity for self-deception. We become skilled at denial because it helps us avoid discomfort.” — Tony Schwartz, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (2010)
After all, it’s a lot easier to take the easy road. There’s no pain in it. As long as we go through the motions and pay our bills, no one will complain that we’re not being a “good citizen”, right? Well, that might work for some of us who don’t mind living a numbing, unfulfilling, neurotic, anxiety-riddled life. Those among us who can walk around as seemingly helpless, empty vessels: the walking dead.
For the rest of us who still have a pulse, it just doesn’t feel right. The day-to-day droning on feels purposeless, empty, repetitive. That’s why we fill that void with distractions to reduce the neuroses that result from not doing the work:
- Addiction to mind-altering substances, food, pornography, games of chance, tumultuous relationships, shopping, collecting sh*t.
- The pursuit of that elusive 15 minutes of fame…and then what?
- Gluttonous consumption of social and other media and entertainment.
- Reading self-help books, knowing we have no intention of following through…but at least we’re doing something.
There’s a much more powerful intoxicator out there but few of us dare take a hit…because it requires a significant up-front investment and it’s not guaranteed to pay off every time. It’s called developing personal drive. A passion for something, anything, as long as it fuels us.
The difference between doers and their audience is exactly that: passion. But how do you develop this elusive thing called passion?
Some of us stumble on it very early in life and just run with it (they’re the ones we mistakenly call “prodigies”). The rest of us need to hunt for it. Yes, it’s an upfront investment, but aren’t we worth it?
Here’s how to achieve it:
- Stop allowing the world in with its constant distractions and demands.
- Stop thinking there will be the perfect time to start; that day will never come.
- Try new things to find out what feels worthwhile investing significant time doing.
- Spend time thinking about what activities make it possible to lose all sense of time and self. What makes time stop?
- [Re]discover sources of internal (intrinsic) motivation. Not money, not status, not power…no carrots and sticks here.
- Consider who to spend time with and what to do during this time; does the current circle of friends & influencers need to change? Are you surrounded by crabs?
- Listen to “gut feelings” and act on them. Intuition is a powerful messaging system that is too-often repressed in favour or “logic”.
- Roll up those sleeves and take real, meaningful, purposeful, targeted, repeated action.
- Stall, rethink, restart on occasion but keep moving forward until that new direction isn’t reasonable anymore and it’s time to pivot again. (There are always fits and starts when we’re in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. The perfect plan is pure fiction.)
- Invest in the “not so fun stuff” in order to get to the fun stuff that feeds this drive and makes it all worth it.
- Fail in this pursuit (sometimes often), get up, dust off and go after it again because the activity/project/endeavour itself is worthwhile.
That’s right. We need to take deliberate, thoughtful, systematic action in order to take ourselves to a higher plane: this elusive thing called self-actualization.
It’s only when we do the above that our truest, best self comes through.
It’s amazing what any one of us has the potential to do with what poet Mary Oliver calls this “one wild and precious life”.
“When we connect with our own energy, we’re more open to the energy of other people. The more alive we feel, the more we can contribute to the lives of others.” – Sir Ken Robinson, The Element (2013)
Taking the time to get to know ourselves—what drives us—and then act on our findings is extremely rewarding. We give ourselves, and the world, the best of ourselves throughout our lives. We feel powerful, fulfilled, purposeful. Free.
We become self-propelled dynamos. We can get through anything. We’re our very own version of what it might feel like to be a superhero.
And we’re happier and more productive to the point where others start to wonder how we can spend so much time and effort on our various pursuits without tiring. They then either become infected by our energy and drive, or remain entrenched life-long member of the “pulseless”; having decided that we’re just one of the lucky ones.
Indeed we are. And they could be too…if they decide to do the work.
Are you doing what you know deep down you could/should be doing? If not, are you ready to do the work? Or are you too busy?
One last thought for your consideration: regret’s a bitch.
For more like this, check out www.freetopursue.com
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