My friend recently shared a question which has helped her think through what is most essential in her life. The question also sparked an inquiry for me that helped me dig deep in terms of what I need to let go of as we head into the winter darkness. The question is, What am I no longer willing to do?
Here was my first gut response:
I’m no longer willing to do work that doesn’t light me up.
This feels aspirational. I need to make a living and pay the bills (did somebody say inflation?), and at the same time I’m no longer willing to be a cog in a capitalistic machine just because (ok simmer down now). I’ve come to believe you can have both, and that it’s a journey for most of us.
I love my job, it’s in a field I’m passionate about and I am always learning. And it’s been a long journey to get there. Still, I just co-facilitated a large retreat for 3 days last week, (I work in healthcare) and at the end of the retreat I felt completely drained and depleted. I realized it was because most of the retreat was conceptual and heady. I need to do work that is more experiential, more grounded and earthy and focused on healing. I need to be doing work that is transformative- for the individuals and the larger systems they’re a part of.
For most of my life I did work that drained me of energy and did not stir my creativity. I went back to school when I was 38 years old, right after I had my son, in a field that lights me up (leadership and organizational development) and uses a lot of my skills and talents from my previous jobs. Still, being in graduate school where you engage with theory and big ideas and research (yay!) is not the same as entering the workforce (pointing out the obvious here).
I’m on my way toward work that lights me up but I’m not there. I need to have financial stability in my life. I’m definitely no longer willing to live paycheck-paycheck and scramble to make ends meet. At the same time, I don’t want to sacrifice my sanity and energy for a career that demands everything of me just so I can make a decent middle-class income. Where’s the balance?
Finding meaningful and rewarding work is one of my greatest callings in life, and I’m still on that journey. One of the most impactful books I’ve ever read is David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. If you haven’t read it and you’re on this journey of finding your life’s work with me, I highly recommend reading this book and checking out his work. In it he states that, “to have a firm persuasion in our work-to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time-is one of the great triumphs of human existence”. I believe that. For some I guess, the way they earn a paycheck is just that. They don’t mind having jobs where they just clock-in and clock-out and get paid. And there’s nothing wrong with that, their work might be something totally different like a craft, writing, or parenting. I don’t think our life’s work needs to be convoluted with a job. It’s a very personal journey.
Part of finding work that lights me up is paying attention to what lights me up now. There is work throughout my day that energizes and excites me. For example, in my job now there are a lot of things I have to do that don’t light me up-like program management. But as long as I’m balancing that with what’s been called the ‘red threads’, the work that really excites me and lights me up such as facilitation, curriculum development, research, and working with others- I am fueling my fire and passion. I need to pay more attention to what lights me up and then slowly and deliberately head in that direction.
Here’s another part of what I’m no longer willing to do that’s connected to finding work that lights me up: I’m no longer willing to be busy just to be busy. I’m no longer willing to be stressed. I’m no longer willing to spin my wheels to look busy to gain approval. My body will no longer tolerate stress and busyness. But when I investigate this one I realize it’s not only about other’s approval, it’s about my own fear of letting things go and facing the emptiness that’s left behind. Staying busy allows me to feel seen and needed. I feel like I’m part of the party when I’m filling space and time with activity. If I were to let things go (like a lot of things), would I still be needed? Will others still see me? Or will I disappear into a silent void of emptiness where there will be nothing to do, no one to see, no one to need me? When I say it out loud it sounds ridiculous, but I’m convinced that these are just the kind of fears that propel our busyness. Fear of empty space. Fear of boredom. Fear of not being part of the group. Because when we let go of things to do, we are essentially saying yes to our aloneness and boredom.
Lately I've been thinking about slow and deliberate actions. Big vision. Tiny actions. In Buddhism there is a saying, ‘keep your mind like the sky and your actions like sesame seeds’. Putting my body first. My body demands to be first (one of the gifts of middle age). Being slow and careful about what my body and mind need in the moment. Lately I’ve been resting. I never rested in my life!! I always had to stay busy with either chores or activities. For me, busyness=validity. When I say ‘NO’ to busyness I’m saying ‘YES’ to empty space, to boredom (very underrated), and to openness. And to slow, gentle, simple actions that feel in alignment with who I am and where I’m going.
So to sum it up, I’m no longer willing to do work that doesn’t light me up, that’s a journey that has already begun (and might not lead to a destination, it’s being on the journey that’s important). Part of the journey is paying attention to what lights me up now, the “red threads”. And doing more of that. Yes, we’ll always need to do things we don’t want to do but this is part of the journey (some roads are rocky). And as part of this journey, I am no longer willing to be busy just for busy’s sake. I am no longer willing to override what my body needs in the moment and to overlook the magic and rest of NOW because I’m frantically heading somewhere trying to please everyone around me. In other words, I am willing to trust the journey of finding meaningful work that lights me up. Enjoying the journey means making plenty of pit stops, rest, reflection and enjoying the view.