Work Is Visceral

I said, do the work.

I did not–necessarily–say, love the work.

You might love the work. Or you might mostly love the work. You might tolerate the work. I hope you don’t often detest the work. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that there will be days when you will. Days that you will rant. That you will despair. That you will ask yourself exactly what you did to deserve the situation you find yourself in.

And that’s alright. At least, it’s more alright than most people might think most of the time.

That’s not a common message. It’s not even a popular one. In fact, I rather suspect it’s a message that many will find extremely uncomfortable. Or perhaps they just find it disappointing or discouraging. And while I don’t intend this article to be discouraging, I do intend it to, at the very least, be honest.

When we think about our work, though, we assume that it is something that we’re supposed to love. Tens of thousands of self help books exist promising us exactly that. If we can simply find the right coloured parachute, we’ll descend into the robust, fulfilling and technicolor glory of a life well lived.

One of the more intriguing recent perspectives around this that has hit my radar screen is the concept of “ikigai.” The term translates as “that which makes life worth living.” And really, what’s not to like about a Venn diagram that intersects not two, not three, but four tightly woven circles into a recipe for finding our bliss? It’s delightfully clever, and deceptively appealing. And yet I fear that it’s at worst wrong, and at the very best, moderately misleading.

Bottom line, there is a reason that we occasionally need reminding to do the work. And that is that, to put not too fine a point on it, we don’t want to do the work. It is too hard. Too challenging. Possibly too boring. Perhaps even too routine. All of which creates an overwhelmingly large psychological barrier to moving forward. “Do the work” is an exhortation to get over ourselves, and get on with it anyway.

This fundamentally highlights the challenge that most of us see and few of us really acknowledge. There are days (and sometimes even weeks or months) when we don’t actually like our work. When we find ourselves in a meeting, or on an airplane, or waking up in the morning, or going to bed at night, or at numerous intervals in between, asking ourselves exactly what we thought we were doing choosing this particular path for our career.

And I’m not talking about jobs as baristas, waiters or–ahem–sanitation engineers. And even if I were, I personally know people for whom coffee is their passion, and being a barista is their joy, for whom a perfectly foamed latte is a thing of existential beauty. I know waiters who delight and amaze at recommending awesome meals and offering just the right wine pairing. The guy that picks up my garbage is an utter joy, and I’ve had some great conversations with him when my procrastination in putting out the trash intersected precisely with him appearing at the bottom of my driveway. And even so, they all have bad days at work, too.

But more particularly, I’m talking about when we have theoretically found our ideal job. When we find ourselves–after years of anticipating and aspiring and effort and education–finally landing the position of our dreams. When we are in the right box in the right org chart of the right firm in the right industry at exactly the right moment in economic time. And when we wonder where we went wrong.

Because it’s hard. And complex. And painful. And the politics are hell. And the work is overwhelming. And the problems we were excited by at the beginning turn out to be more intractable than we thought. And all our best efforts seem to result in far too little progress for far too great an amount of physical, emotional and psychological toil.

If this sounds a lot like your situation, then let me offer you a little bit of insight: This is normal. It’s to be expected. And while it might briefly recede or decline in intensity, it’s not going to go away. Part of doing the work is dealing with the fact that doing the work is, at times, hard. And that is why there are moments–sometimes long, drawn out, extended moments–where we question why we are doing this work in the first place.

In particular, doing the work is hard when the stakes are high, the outcomes are uncertain, the circumstances are complex, the means of moving forward are fluid and our role isn’t precisely defined. Speaking personally, there are days when that statement fills me with anticipation and excitement. And there are days when that statement fills me with existential dread. In either instance, the work is unfailingly going to be hard. The only question to be answered–and mostly by me–is whether I’m up for the challenge.

Because there, I said it: work is hard. That thing we were born to do? Cosmically difficult. The fact that we were born to do it gives us an infinitesimally greater advantage that we might actually be successful (although we will still also rely on an inordinate amount of luck as much as we will skill and talent). But it isn’t easy.

Let’s take an example. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And guess what? I am one. I just don’t get paid for it; or, at least, I am not exclusively nor am I overtly paid to write, although writing is an essential and somewhat prolific by-product of what I actually do for a living. But writing is hard. Being a writer is hard. And it’s not me that is saying that, it’s the writers.

To take you on a tour of some of the most brilliant and talented writers I know of… One is Victoria Schwab (she goes by V.E., and she writes terrifying and difficult and challenging books). She also has one of the biggest cases of imposter syndrome that I know of, and she’s not afraid to talk about it.

Then there’s Lev Grossman, author of one of the most awesome trilogies I’ve ever read, one in which every book ended with such conculsiveness that the possibility of a sequel was an impossibility–until there was one.

There’s Jean Marie Laskas. Not just a writer, but a professor of writing. Caring, considerate, thoughtful, passionate and willing to spend weeks in an underground coal mine, befriending the hard-boiled and calloused individuals that inhabit that world, because doing so is by far easier than writing about it.

Longform - Jeanne Marie Laskas

(There’s a great explanation of this about 24 minutes in).

And there’s Chuck Wendig. A prolific, creative, thougtful and irascible writer who is as humourous as he is profane. Who not only writes, but also invests–willingly and selflessly–in encouraging, mentoring and coaching beginning writers on what it means to choose this path.

(The whole thread is worth a read).

Of course, you could argue that writers are bad examples. That they are nothing but tortured souls who thrive on ennui and existential despair in order to pursue their craft (and let’s be honest, the world has seen its fair share of those). That they are introverted and introspective and perhaps not a little self-absorbed. To this, I would offer you a contrary take from the opposite end of the spectrum.

There are few as bold, as out-going and as aggressively ambitious as adventurers. They willingly step into the unknown, often without a safety mechanism of any sort, in order to explore what has until now remained hidden. They ski to the south pole, dive to the bottom of the ocean and climb to the top of the world. Doing so is by no means easy. It’s also not necessarily a ton of fun. And yet, there are people whose single, unwavering focus is on nothing more than an unrelenting mission to scale the largest mountain on the planet.

So what possesses a grown, intelligent, mostly sane human being to give up years of their life in training, months of their year for the actual expedition, tens of thousands of dollars and more than a few brain cells, in order to climb a mountain that at the best of times is forbidding, hostile and–if we were to anthropomorphize just a little bit–seemingly wants to see you dead?

The best and most honest answer by far has always been “Because it’s there.” In actual fact, the reward is probably in equal measure the accomplishment of doing something incredibly hard, and the bragging rights of being one of the very few in the world that has actually pulled it off. But the process of getting there, according to those who have done it, sucks immeasurably.

There is very little enjoyment in the kind of exercise regimen that prepares you for climbing Everest. And the climb itself is its own particular misery. And by no means is it a direct one. You actually climb and re-climb most of the mountain a ridiculous number of time, transferring supplies, moving camps and acclimatizing to an environment not specifically designed for the sustainment of human life. Which in no way discourages people from continuing to try.

An extremely odd paradox of human existence is that the greater the challenge that we face, the greater the reward we feel at the end of it all. That doesn’t mean in any that we enjoy all–or even some–of the journey. But we are still motivated to undertake the journey, and failing to do so is its own particular loss.

My doctoral thesis, for example, is one of the hardest things I have ever done. There were several times I very nearly walked away altogether. I struggled. I swore. I yelled (mostly at myself, in the quiet of a hotel room where no one else was around to hear). I struggled at nearly every single stage of the process to conceptualize what needed to come next. And with a deadline looming, eight years after I started, I finally got it done.

There were moments of enjoyment in that process, but they were moments. And those moments were fewer and further between than I would have preferred. Most of the work was a long and arduous slog. Weeks and months were spent working through mountains of material, with the knowledge and awareness that what lay on the other side of the mountain was just another peak that would need to be scaled. Despite this, I persevered. It’s done. I’m Dr. Mark.

Coming out the other side, I appreciate the journey for what it was. That doesn’t make the experience any easier (or one I’d deliberately choose to repeat any time soon). But I recognize what I learned about the subject, what I learned about the process and what I learned about me. In retrospect, the rewards were significant, even if getting there wasn’t half the fun.

Do the work. You might not love the work. In fact, there are times that you will hate the work. None of that makes the work less meaningful, the results of the work less important or the process of doing the work less valuable. The work is–often–not its own reward. You may not even directly benefit from the results of the work that you do. What you will benefit from is the quiet satisfaction of accomplishment, the confidence that you can probably do it again if you needed to, and the learning along the way that uniquely got you to where you are now.

And that, in the end, is as good as it gets.

One Comment to “Work Is Visceral”

  1. Michael Hilbert says:

    Mark, A heartfelt and thought provoking article. My wife always tells me I am too concerned about the destination, not the journey. However the journey is where the hard work (and fund, learning and surprise) are contained. Just need to looked beyond the hard work and find the fun in the journey. Great article! Thank you! Mike

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