Sizzler Steak House used to offer All You Can Eat Shrimp dinners. I am pretty sure they lost money on this item, at least they did when me and my high school buddies descended like locusts shoving fried shrimp down our gullets faster than the waitress could bring more out to us. I empathized with her. She had a tough enough job, but now had to deal with a bunch of punks drinking water, tipping 4%, and demanding a steady, unreasonable for any one person, supply of fried shrimp.

hard work Photo by: Sean Lannin

We threw our shrimp tails onto a plate in the center of the table, or at each other. She would try and take the plate away but we refused to let her, wanting to see how high we could make it. We thought it was funny, but after a couple of weeks of this she grew weary of our antics. They began seating us in the back of the restaurant, out of the way. The waitress would sit two pitchers of water on the table, and enough glasses for all of us, a little while later she would return with a stack of plates and large plate of fried shrimp. We would only see her again when the water pitchers or shrimp platter emptied, except when she was talking with the Manager and pointing in our direction.

My experience eating at Sizzler was so great that I thought working there would be great also. It wasn’t. I was hired as a busboy making $2.90 an hour. I was treated badly by the managers, the waitresses weren’t very friendly, and I hated picking up shrimp tails – I lasted less than a month. I hated the job.

Work is a source of pain for many of us. Not the good kind of pain, where it pushes and stretches us to achieve more than we thought possible, but the chronic illness type that makes us miserable, and stressed, and leads to excess drinking to find solace. I’ve been blessed with the best and the worst of job experiences. I know what it is like to have a job that tears you apart, that causes so much pain that it eventually becomes unbearable, and I know what it is to be inspired by work.

The older I get (I admit I am getting older – just ask my kids) the less willing I am to accept work that does not make me feel good. A simple criteria – I want my work to bring me happiness. And the less I am willing to work with mean, hateful, nasty people. Life is too short, take your drama and your negativity and don’t let the door hit you in the butt!

If there are times when I love work and times that that I don’t, what distinguishes these experiences? What are the elements of work that I like, and what parts do I struggle with? I thought that if I could find the answers to these questions and others, It would help me create more opportunities that resonated with me reach my goal of never working full-time for any one organization ever again.

What makes work worthwhile is different for each situation and each person. There isn’t some magic formula, or ancient secret, or pill we can take to suddenly fall in love with our jobs, instead it is a process of understanding what make work satisfying for ourselves, and then setting out to align our reality to these ideals.

I had other crappy jobs when I was a teenager that I liked much better than my Sizzler experience. I broke concrete with a sledgehammer, breaking sidewalks into small pieces and carting them away in a wheel barrow. It was hard, sweaty work, that made my muscles sore and my hands bleed, but I could get a tan while working with my shirt off in the hot California sun, and it paid $5.00 an hour.

I spent the summer of  1981 ripping carpet out of the UCLA dorms. Now that was hot, sweaty, and dirty work! Cheap indoor/outdoor type carpet glued to concrete was ripped up in strips, piled in the hallway, and carried down a flight of stairs for disposal. Old carpet can weigh 8 times more than new, I know this from experience.

Why did I like these jobs better than being a busboy? Picking up shrimp tails was physically much easier than breaking concrete, but neither of these were something I want to do at age 50. What I found for myself were three main elements that needed to be present for there to be any chance of me enjoying my work. When I reflected on what I liked and didn’t like, these were the basis for the satisfaction that I felt about work since I was a teenager and through middle age, as well as for jobs working for other people or business that I owned.

  • Control of our environment. This is a broad statement, and will definitely mean different things to different people, but we want to feel that we can positively affect our work environment. Maybe something as simple as having input of our work schedule, or perhaps choosing the projects we work on. When we lose this sense we often feel trapped, or isolated, and the stress and anxiety we feel about our work increases. 
  • Passion for our work. In many ways the word passion has lost its significance these days, now a trite pop-psychology word. But our work needs to light a spark inside of us for it to carry any importance in our lives. 
  • Organizational values align with our own. What a company stands for is important, whether we realize it or not. The actions of the owners and managers must match their words, and the message needs to align with our values. Which requires that we have done the work to understand what is important to us. 

With this new information, I made a goal to never work full-time for any one organization ever again. My wife and I made a pact between us that from now on we were only going to work on fun projects with people that we enjoyed being with.

We were living in Ecuador at the time. We spent many evenings talking about all sorts of things; work, family, purpose, meaning, love, new ideas, and future plans. And on this particular evening we were visiting with a new friend talking about what made us happy, what caused us pain, and how to invite more of what was important into our lives and keep out the latter.

I was only a few months removed from leaving a job that had become toxic, so the thoughts and feelings about this experience were still fresh in my mind and body. It was several years since Gina’s last corporate gig, for the past few years she worked as a stay-at-home mom, but remembering those experiences for her was like riding a bike.

I had plenty of career success during the past decade, but the past three years had degraded into a job that was no longer tolerable. The money was great, but everything else about it wasn’t.

Gina’s last position had also ended in a pool of muck. After 15 years in corporate sales, the work was no longer enjoyable and the atmosphere and expectations became unbearable – inhuman.

So it was with these experiences that we sat in a small village in the heart of the Andes talking about our futures, and made a decision to only work on projects that lifted and inspired us, and only work with people that fed our spirits.

Since making the pact in Ecuador, I have not worked full-time for any one organization again. But that doesn’t mean that every job or work experience is always what I had hoped. I bought a business and sold it only a few months later because I found I didn’t have the passion for it I thought I would, and I hated our customers. I took a consulting job that I thought would be rewarding, and that I could make an impact, but it didn’t live up to my expectations.

There were lessons in these experiences that confirmed for me the thoughts and feelings about work, and life, that my wife and I had during the late night discussion in Ecuador. Maybe it is the wisdom of middle age, or the resources from a lifetime of experiences that afford us the opportunities to be selective, regardless, I know that my work must contain the three pillars in order for me to be happy. And I want to be happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Letting Go

by Sean

The reason more people don’t live in the Pacific Northwest is that the weather is usually crappy. I define crappy weather as a combination of rain and gray skies more than 8 months of the year – Portland and Seattle have 9 months.

letting go and finding happiness

Today is not one of those days. Today is beautiful. It is the type of day that we North westerners use to justify living here during all of the crappy days.

“It is days like today that make living in Portland worth it!” we exclaim.

The cloudless blue sky and crisp fall morning are enough to put a smile on your face; it’s a day to make atheists believe in God.

Gina and I are heading North on I-5 towards Portland, I forget why, the radio is on, playing lightly in the background and we have the window cracked to let in some of that delicious fall air. We are talking about something, I don’t remember what, probably the weather, when a car swerves in front of me and cuts us off.

“You fucking idiot!” I scream, and I honk the car horn with enough force that a split second thought comes to me – you don’t have to press the horn so hard to make it work.

“What the fuck is he doing?” I ask, not really expecting an answer from anyone in particular.

“Relax” are the words of wisdom from my wife.

I’ve gotten better at letting go.

There was a time when I would have followed this guy (he was a guy and I wouldn’t do this to a women – what kind of person do you think I am?) off the freeway and tailed him to a parking lot, or his house. When he pulled over and stopped, I would have gotten out of my car and gone up to his window so that I could ask him a few questions. Like:

“What the fuck are you doing?”

And

“Do you know that you cut me off?”

And

“Do you know you are a fucking idiot?”

Okay, the last one isn’t really a question – I admit it.

This scenario played out more than once when I was in my 20’s, someone would do me a wrong on the road and I’d follow them until they pulled over, and then confront them. Only once did it escalate into anything more than a verbal exchange, but getting in a fight on the side of the road after I was cut off and then following them is really a story for another day. Not a story I’m particularly proud to tell.

Where was I? Oh yea, letting go.

I’ve noticed over the past few years that I don’t hang on to things as tightly as I once did. I’ve learned to let go of the rage of my youth certainly, but I am also willing to let smaller things pass by as well.

Relationships, ideas, roles, negative energy (my own and others), and expectations (my own and others) are easier to give up than they once were. I know what works and what doesn’t for me; I know what I want more of in my life, and more importantly, what I want less of. I think I’ve always been willing, but as I approach this period we label as mid-life I am now able to side with those things that make me happy and bring joy into my life, and to side-step what doesn’t.

It takes lots of energy to hold on to things, to try and control situations, events, or relationships, and quite frankly my energy is a precious commodity these days. But while aging may reduce the amount of energy we have to give, the experience we gain from our years give us wisdom to understand how unimportant our attachment really is.

I broke up with my High School girlfriend on Christmas day. Literally!

Not on the 24th, not on the 26th, smack dab in the middle – December 25th 1981. Another story I am not particularly proud to tell.

I was in love dammit! And I wanted her to know! What better way to prove my point than sacrificing our love on the holiest of days (or is that Easter?)? It was an on again, off again relationship through the following summer.

On the kitchen wall of a friend’s house hung a sign that read:

 “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” —Unknown

I stared at these words, lost in their meaning. This is why I broke up with her, I thought to myself. All seemed right in the world.

For the longest time, like up until two or three years ago, I believed these words to be true. I knew there was a chance that I was reading too much into the meaning, that maybe it was just a quaint thought designed to make you feel good but without any real meaning. Like the sign hanging next to it that read “I work until beer o’clock” or the one by the door leading out to the pool that said “We don’t swim in your toilet, please don’t pee in our pool!” Okay, well maybe that one had meaning.

It is ironic if you think about it. I am at a point in my life that I can let go much easier than at any other time in my life, but I no longer believe the idea of setting something free is valid. The reason is that this infers that we have some control over whatever it is we hold in chains, but do we?

Our control extends to what we think, what we say, and what we do – that’s it.

I woke up one day and no longer wanted to be defined by my career, or to work with people I didn’t like, or to do work that wasn’t meaningful or satisfying. What was once important to me was no longer.

Critics, cynics, and experts describe this period as a midlife crisis, but my experience doesn’t include red sports cars, trauma, or depression, in fact, I choose to re-define this period as rich with midlife opportunities – a phrase I stole from my friend Doug.

It is perfectly normal to begin asking ourselves larger questions as we enter midlife. Who am I? What is important? What do I really want for my life?

To begin asking these questions we must be willing to step outside our comfort zone, and surrender to the idea that our answers will require us to let go of old thoughts, ideas, and habits. Let go of much of what previously defined us. This is not easy, it is difficult work.

Martha Beck wrote “

Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking but a full-on metamorphosis.

William Bridges writes in Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes that

“one of the most important differences between a change and a transition is that changes are driven to reach a goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in.”

Change is an external event, while transition in our internal response.

So perhaps all of this letting go stuff is just because I am getting older. It is a natural response to my current life stage – that’s ok.

I left the big job and big salary to make a change, but I found myself in a much bigger struggle. And with big struggles come big gains.

I’ve learned to let go – and learned that I:

  • Don’t want stress in my life
  • Don’t want people that I don’t like in my life
  • Don’t want to hide my real self
  • Don’t want to manage employees any longer
  • Don’t want negativity in my life

And that I do:

  • Want to work on my own terms
  • Want a flexible schedule
  • Want to become more healthy
  • Want more creativity
  • Want more beauty
  • Want to travel
  • Want space to understand myself
  • Want to understand what is truly important to me
  • Want to align my values with my actions
  • Want to create a life filled with adventure and experiences

I prefer simple solutions. The more complexity the more difficulty I have maintaining the results. So, if I want more happiness, meaning, and fulfillment in my life (and I do) – my solution is to simply remove everything that doesn’t lead me in this direction, and let everything else go.

And to the asshole I flipped off this morning while taking my daughter to school, consider yourself lucky I’ve learned to let go!

 

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When Can I Retire?

I began thinking about this question even before I started working. One summer, when I was twelve, I spent two months living with my grandparents. Besides getting away from my parents and sisters for a couple of months, what I liked best was spending the day at the golf course, hitting balls on the range […]

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How to Determine a Direction for Your LIfe

I arrived at work on Monday, unlocked my door, and flipped on the light. We had locks on our doors now. Now that we were purchased by a huge multi-national. Now that we had important secrets to protect. Now that we were professional. Before we had locks on our doors we could play pranks on […]

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Why I Write

I am not sure I know the exact answer to this question. I think most of the reasons why I write are inside of me, or somehow a part of me. I didn’t always write. I wrote when I was young, and now write when I am old – there were decades in between. I […]

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Do You Know What Is Important?

My life was out of balance. When I took a step back and looked at what constituted my life I found it filled with work that was uninspiring, with people that were less than inspiring, and with stuff that I didn’t need. But the craziest part was that I was so busy filling my life […]

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Quirky Is Cool

Every day bright, talented, bored people are leaving their jobs behind and setting out on their own.  More and more of them can no longer take the dysfunctional environments of organizations that do not allow employees to express themselves creatively or offer meaningful work, and where success is dependent on taking orders and falling in […]

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Which Idea Will Grow?

My daughter and I planted a vegetable garden last year.  It was her first garden and she was eager to learn the process, and like most kids, just couldn’t wait until she could start picking the summer vegetables.  Planting a garden can teach us lots of lessons, there is plenty to learn for both parent […]

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Get On Track With Authentic Business

Do you and your business need to be authentic in order to make money? Most of our lives are spent in the gray, not black not white, but somewhere in the middle.  It is difficult to find examples of times when we are confronted with actual black and white situations, even when we take the […]

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This Can’t Continue

I am shaking as I make the commute home, the 25 minute drive from the office to the house which I usually relish for the chance to unwind from the long day of work feels 2500 miles long…and there isn’t any “unwinding” goin’ on. I am late for my daughters school activity, again, and I […]

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