My career started with a bang – a big degree, a big job, and a whole lot of ambition. By the time I was twenty-eight, when my sister Catherine died of a heart attack in London, all of it was ashes in my mouth. Here are five things I learned on the long road back to caring about work.
- Be guided by what matters to you. The best thing about the early years of adulthood are endless possibility. And that endless possibility is the worst thing, too: all that pressure to succeed, and grow a Big Life, and to deserve all the opportunity you’ve worked for and been handed. It’s hard to know who you are really in the middle of all that clamour to be Big, Important, Better. In your life, you will succeed sometimes, and you will fail sometimes. You will be happy sometimes, and the memory of that happiness will sustain you through the thick and thin of occasional, or sustained catastrophe. In short, the only thing that is predictable about the life you are starting is the fact that it’s unpredictable. You will fully earn or fully deserve neither your success nor your failure. In the face of all that? Cultivate character. Work out what you value and then live as if your life depended on it. More than you can now know, it does.
- You will become your peers. The best guardians of your life and character are your friends. Choose them for their kindness, their capacity for joy, and their concern to reign you in when you stray. How to know if a friend, or lover, or spouse, is worth keeping? First test: do you want to be more like them? And here’s a second – the shame test. Do they respond to your human failure (“I just yelled at my boss in a meeting”) with “I’d never do that” – a move designed to make a person feel clever at your expense? Or do they come back at you with a quiet “Oh, honey, I know”, which is the response of the gracious, the empathic, the kind? Whatever are the habits of your peers, they’re infectious: so be discerning about who you let into your inner circle. Later, in the afternoon of your life, you may order your happiness and your success differently – but there’s no doubt that both depend on the company you keep.
- Don’t demean your work. There will be times in your life when the job you have, or the company you run, is powered exactly by your sense of what you came here to do – when you work sixteen hour days on a native title claim, or when you find yourself rehearsing for months an opera in which you’ve been cast at last as the villain (“I was born to play Medea!”), or when you win a vast contract to reforest the mountain whose shadow your grandmother was born in. When you have this kind of job, a job that gaily shouts “Purpose!” popular culture will congratulate you, and you may feel for a time as if you have stepped into the sun and joined the ranks of the Deserving. So cool. Employment of this kind does not make you better than the man or woman who cleans your house; nor does the memory of it demean you when you are cleaning houses for others while you get your start-up off the ground, because that’s the only job you can manage around little kids, or because that’s all that’s left of the life you had. Work is a prayer offered daily by most of us on the planet to sustain their family lives. It is an end in itself, and a great purpose. As Jennifer Garvey Berger has noted, work also a kind of permanent college for adults: a place where the learning is never done and where you will be challenged over and over to grow up.
- Pay attention. Focus is a key predictor of whether you will achieve your goals. It’s implicated in good things like problem solving, creativity and short term memory. Daniel Goleman, who is famous for introducing “emotional intelligence” into the lexicon of most of us, has recently noted however that technology is disrupting our capacity to pay attention. The good news is that this “impoverishment” in our ability to focus can be fixed. How? By, well, focusing. Crochet, believe it or not, is a great start – repetitive, soothing, uninterrupted focus. There are a hundred other ways to learn how to better manage your attention. Some of them are secular, some of them are spiritual. These days one of the secular branches is known as corporate mindfulness. At Google, or Pfizer, or Citi, you might now spend an afternoon with a trainer, learning how to sustain your attention on your breath. There’s no doubt it works to heal your lost focus, to increase your efficiency, to decrease your stress, and to improve your capacity to think outside the box – especially if you add mindfulness to your daily routine. Once you link a mindfulness practice to larger questions like, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “How am I connected to all this?” it starts, however, to move into spiritual territory: in which case it’s better called meditation. Charismatic charlatans abound in spiritual (and corporate!) circles – look for someone with decades of spiritual training who’s working under the supervision of an acknowledged Master. Advantages of a spiritual practice? None: except maybe a sense of being closer to the heart of your life, and a greater capacity to stay still the middle of all that weather.
- Routine is a superpower. It ain’t for nothing that Aristotle wrote “We are what we habitually do.” All the changes that add up to a life you can value depend on your routine: 5 minutes here, an hour there, an afternoon once a week or even a day a year that you devote to a precious thing that’s growing in you. And all the things you’re avoiding lurk in your routine like little piranhas, eating the marrow of your potential: the hour you spend browsing the internet after dinner because you’d rather not handle the mess in your life or your spare bedroom; the hours you spend in your office on Saturdays because you don’t know what else to do with your loneliness. Husband your time – you have less of it than you think – by ordering it with a clear head and an honest heart. Want to write a book? Start with twenty minutes a day until you figure out what to do next with all that creative longing. Want to be a better friend? Create a ritual – for instance, unleash generous declarations of love on the birthdays of people you care about. I have my women friends over for birthday high tea served in tiny little china cups that don’t match and make all of us coo like doves. Whatever you want, take a step toward it, over and over until the fear of it has been broken by habit. Design a routine (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly) that will create the life you want, and tend that routine as you would a baby or a garden.