When one spends 50 or 60 hours a week immersed in an activity (does anyone reading this still work 40 hours or less?), it is easy to lose one’s perspective on just where that activity should rate in our lives.
For some of us, that very responsibility gives us a sense of importance, belonging and purpose – people depend on us. Our pager or mobile phone proves it by ringing us at all hours and in all places. We take the call because that shows others just how essential we are. It is very like the focus to our lives that having children gives. It may well be the same emotional pathways that are being invoked.
The danger of course is that, given the duration and intensity of the work experience, we can easily lose sight of the rest of our lives. Maybe other aspects of life lack the buzz and the rewards of time at work, but that will never change if we neglect them.
There is a road called the Karakoram Highway, a wild military road punched through an arm of the Himalayas by the Chinese army at the cost of 900 lives to connect to their ally Pakistan. It winds up the beautiful Hunza valley full of warring Islamic tribes before trekking across the plateau wastes of Xinshiang to remote Kashi, populated by the more peaceful but equally hard-bitten Uygur people. It is not a road I expected to share with a portly young earth-mother from Hawaii, robed in velvet kaftan and dripping chunky jewellery, with two little blond pre-school children in tow.
Now at the time my pony tail came halfway down my back and nobody could have guessed my natural skin colour, so I liked to think I was travel-hardened and open-minded, but I struggled with the idea of those two kids staying in the same roadhouses and eating in the same markets and scrambling onto the same local buses as me.
I challenged her on it, and I learned something of great value. She said that it was not a decision she liked to take – bringing them there - but it was the right one because it fit her priorities. So long as you have your priorities clearly sorted, then decisions are easy, even the hard ones. Her number one priority was travel, number two was the children. She went through the angst of making that choice once, then every decision followed naturally. She was going to travel, therefore she made what arrangements she could to ensure the safety and happiness of the kids as they came along. They were as knowledgeable about food-safety, stranger-danger and self-doctoring as I was. They were a tough worldly road-warrior pair. Now you or I may not agree with her choice, but I believe her methodology was sound.
Take the time to decide your priorities, and review them every few years or at any life-changing event. Write them down, ranked from 1 downwards. Give it proper time and effort – do it properly and honestly. No equals. Be realistic, honest and at times brutal. Don’t write what you think they should be, write what they really are. Get at least the top half dozen clear and settled – the rest don’t matter so much, though it is good to be clear on what comes at the bottom too. If you get stuck, try getting a couple of trusted friends together for an evening or a day to help each other develop your priority lists.
For example, mine are:
1. Security and happiness of my nuclear family: my wife, son, mother, and sister.
2. My son’s growth, development and education.
3. Our home.
4. Travel and other novel experiences (see How an IT Guy Found Job Freedom).
5. Self-expression, for example through writing or creative hobbies.
6. Living a long life. The older I get, the more that deferring death creeps up this list. So far it is working.
7. Security and happiness of my extended family.
8. Mental health, especially time out in the wild, back to nature.
10. Preserving heritage, especially my family’s.
32. Earning money, though it gets higher attention where it facilitates higher priorities.
96. Watching TV, movies, DVDs, reading papers and magazines, consuming podcasts blogs and websites, music or any of the other media barrages that try to jelly our brains, except as necessary for something above.
97. Mowing the lawn.
98. Social change. I long since lost my boyish desire to fix the world. I’ve come to terms with it, I’m open about it.
Your job has two aspects that may well appear in different places on the list; what you do because you want to, and what you do because you need the money to pay for what you want. You will note that working appears only briefly as part of number 5 on my top 10 priorities, other than as a means to obtain the money to pay for them. So why did I once allow it to consume more than half my waking hours (even including weekends)?
That noted philosopher, Garfield the cat, said “Work is so bad they have to pay you to do it”. Arrange your life so that work gets the priority it deserves based on your list, and so that it leaves sufficient room and resources for your other priorities to get proper attention.
Once you have those priorities clear, the decision on whether to work the weekend becomes much easier.
Employers think they have the right to make you do anything they want. They don’t. They buy your consent, and you can withdraw your consent any time you want. Once upon a time there was a tacit contract of loyalty between employer and employee: serve the company well and have a job for life, and stand by each other if you or the company falls on hard times. In the last thirty years, companies worldwide have demonstrated clearly just how much loyalty they have to their people: none at all. It is all about shareholder value now, and good loyal people are as expendable as office furniture.
For those in a big corporation: the next time your CEO gets paid their annual salary and bonus, do the maths. I worked for a software company that paid $1.1 billion to the top three execs in a single year in bonuses alone (as an aside, some of that was clawed back by shareholders and one of the three is now in jail). Add in their salaries, stock and other benefits, and we are talking in excess of $2 billion. This was some of the most grotesque pillaging in corporate history, but it is an extreme example of the kind of thing that goes on all the time. Here is the calculation I did at the time: $2B / 15,000 employees = $133,000 for every single employee in the firm. In one year. Next time your CEO goes on about how “you guys are our company’s most valuable asset”, say (again: to yourself or out loud) ”how about just half of that fat cheque for us then?”
If you do the exercise of the list of priorities, but do it for your organization instead of yourself, in 95% of organizations you will see that employees are not the most important asset at all. In that company I worked in, the maintenance stream of the existing customers is the most important asset, followed by the copyright and patents on the software code. Next would come brand then probably facilities.
If employees are expendable, so are employers. The new generation of workers is not afraid to walk: if you are under 30 I’m preaching to the converted here. For the rest of you, get wise. Be prepared to tell them “take this job and shove it”, in the words of the old song. In fact TTJASI has become an acronym in common use, and evolved into a slang word “ttjasi”. Don’t be afraid to do a ttjasi.
Another good line is “work to live, don’t live to work”. Some people do a job they hate, to pay for a life they like. That’s cool, if that supports your priorities. What is uncool is when work prevents you from meeting your higher priorities. That is when you get work out of the way: when work has become more important in your life than it should.