The Problem with Work

"The greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown." C.G. Jung

I spoke with someone recently who I deeply respect. We talked about family, work, and regret. Now that he’s 70, he's being very honest about his life and the choices that he has made -- both the ones he's proud of and the ones he'd change if he could.

Chief on his list of regrets -- that he worked too hard and spent too much time away from his family. This reminded me of Bronnie Ware's "Top 5 Regrets of the Dying" and not surprising, this regret ranks high -- #2 on the list. (#1 is "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me," in case you were wondering.)

While this man is not dying, he is aging. Aging affords the luxury of patience and perspective that most of us don't have when we're younger -- it also breaks through defenses with its many reality checks. Bronnie Ware writes,

#2. I wish I didn't work so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

Most working parents can relate. We feel the same tension -- the same guilty sting every time we leave our families to go to the office. But protracted over years and decades, the stings add up to a feeling of deep regret.

But why does it take us 40 to 50 years to find the courage to be honest about this? Why does it take that long to have perspective that we could've used at 30 -- or at least 40?

Author and teacher Richard Rohr has a pretty good explanation. He describes the first half of life as one inclined to drivenness, ambition, and achievement. In the first half of our lives, we are driven much more by what the ego wants for us.

The ego spends much of our early years taking cues from others, norming our behaviors to their expectations, and making sure the identity we've constructed is protected and reinforced.

The ascension of the ego is the critical task during this time, but it is both our ego -- and in fact our 'calling', too -- that push us to give more and more in the first half of life. Achievement doesn't discriminate. It can be driven by a deep need for purposeful work or for simple ego-driven gratification.

The first half of life is all about creating a sense of self ("I'm this, not that") and distinguishing ourselves from others. Our work then becomes a reflection of that self to the world. ("I'm a doctor." "I'm a writer.")

The second half of life is when we finally get around to asking the questions, "What's it all for? What's the purpose of this identity I've built for myself? What do I now do with it?"

The problem is that so many of us are intoxicated by the power and illusion of control we think we have in the first half of our lives that we deny the "further journey" of the second half of life. We never get off the treadmill of work in order to enjoy the life we've created... with the people we've created it for.

But at some point, this all has to fall apart. We can only practice 'impression management' for so long before cracks begin to form, hopefully letting something a little more authentic through.

These losses, if you're open to them, refine you. Steve Jobs compares the friction of a passionate and driven team to the polishing process that creates beautiful smooth rocks. I think the same thing is true for the Self. It's through conflict and tension that we are forced to either cling on to parts of our identities that reify our authentic selves, or discard the parts that no longer serve us.

Sometimes, though, for us to grow and expand beyond our comfort zones, something has to force us to reexamine. As poet Mark Nepo says, "we are either broken open or we willfully shed." For many of us -- most of us in fact -- it takes something as acute and inevitable as our own mortality to wake us up. And that doesn't come until most of life has already been lived.

And this is why we can't have the perspective at 30 that we finally earn at 70. That's part of the process of learning, and unlearning.

But I do believe there's a way to maneuver the worlds between work and family -- to make choices every day that honor both. There are things you can say and do now -- in the first half of life -- to give you second half of life perspective.

Savoring: Be fully absorbed in special moments, like holding your daughters hand, or holding your mothers hand. Make fierce memories of life's transience and beauty.

Listening: Whether it's a coworker or a spouse, the greatest gift you can give someone is to listen to them. I mean deep listening -- with your whole heart and attention span. Ask questions without making statements. This is gold with children, too.

Gratitude: Mistakes and regret have a way of reshaping us. You can always be grateful for this life and what it's leading you to without understanding why it's happening.

Boundaries: Healthy boundaries are quite possibly the best remedies to first half of life ego-driven living. Tethering your boundaries to you core values won't always be easy, but it will always be satisfying.

Constant micro-negotiations: Rather than see life as big buckets of time -- four years to get a degree; raise children for 18; work for 40; then retire -- try to see your life as ongoing micro-negotiations between thousands of tiny moments. Being present to the activity that currently has your attention will bring much more contentment. When you’re with your children, be with your children. When you’re writing a proposal, be there writing the proposal. When you’re coaching soccer or volunteering, be there at that moment. Be present, then move on to the next priority. 

The happiest people I know relentlessly bring their full self to many activities. Although sometimes manic and stressful, they are really good at maneuvering between different circumstances with enthusiasm. They don't begrudge some activities for getting in the way of others.

I'm not sure there is a panacea for regret. I'm afraid it's part of the deal we sign up for upon entering the human race.

But if we can see all this necessary tension as a container for our personal growth, maybe we can look back on a life with fewer regrets.

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