I'm putting the final touches on a talk I'm giving this Friday at the Austin Young Chamber's LEAD Summit. In the midst of preparation I find myself paralyzed every few minutes with a weird, new kind of uncertainty: The idea this process should be harder than it is.
To be honest, planning is going pretty well. I'm thrilled I was invited to deliver this message - but there's a looming feeling this work should be more difficult and it's making me nervous. Like the characters in the scary movie who find themselves in an uncomfortably calm situation who whisper to one another: "It's quiet...too quiet."
Do you ever find yourself there?
Do you ever buy in to the myth that to make your best contribution it's going to push you to your wits' end? Do you ever engage in meaningful work only to find yourself robbed of the meaning in the work because you're too worried about whether or not the work is requiring enough of you? Because when we improve our skills and grow our expertise life is supposed to get more difficult, right? Because generous contributions from the heart are also supposed to bruise us - correct? Because sharing our gifts with the world in a real way should leave us sleep deprived and searching for our asthma inhaler...true? If not, whatever we contributed must not have been that valuable…
What an exhausting trade to make: Our good work and honest intentions for total depletion. As exhausting as it is, we love making that trade - because even though choosing to make things harder for ourselves beats us down, at least when we're sweating bullets and missing out on our lives we know we're doing something meaningful and really making something of ourselves.
We blindly put our faith this tried and true formula: The higher the difficulty and emotional distress in the work we do, the higher its value.
Makes sense, right?
I don't know, friends. I've smoked that stuff for a while and I'm starting to see a different way.
Here's what I had to realize to see things differently: We actually love our problems and we love it when things are hard.
Because our problems give us identity and when things are hard we don't have to be afraid they might be easy. The stories we've told ourselves about how the world is have allowed us to establish a reality, rules, and limits for ourselves - a container for the way the world should be. And we like our containers.
But when we venture out and attempt to grow into someone we've never been before, or make a contribution we've never made, we're outside our container in strange and uncomfortable waters. For a while we're left to define a new internal world for ourselves. What will we believe about our abilities? What will we think about our worthiness? What will we feel about our level of aptitude? We get to redefine who we are when we move through seasons, projects and challenges. And this is incredibly unnerving.
The real work we’re tasked with doesn’t involve what's on your plate or your calendar or list of career goals - it has to do with where your identity is found. The scariest work is never the actual work to be done. No, the real work is confronting how we think about ourselves and accepting the great responsibility bestowed upon us to decide where we find our identity.
Will we find our identity in the belief that we're good enough, that we're doing better than we think we are, that we belong, that the stakes aren't really as high as we imagine, that if all of this work goes away, we're still here and we're still whole?
Or will we believe it's the hollow shell of the work itself that defines us?
Deep down we know our work can't define us, but most of us keep knocking on that door hoping someone will answer and give us the acceptance we continue to withhold from ourselves. This is why we wear the busy badge of courage around our offices. This is why when people ask us how we're doing we say things like, "Busy...per usual. It's a marathon and a sprint bro..." - because when we know a thing like work won't give us what we really want, we do whatever we can to make it seem as important and as hard as possible. So we keep pretending that working harder and doing more will set us free.
Work won't set us free. Work won't determine our value.
The real work is about identity.
When I facilitate this discussion with groups I have them turn to their neighbor five times throughout the session and say this: "I don't care about how hard you're working, I care about how hard you're working on who you are."
The real work is about identity.
Sure - many worthwhile things in life are also difficult. Good stories don't exist without conflict. Growth doesn't happen unless we do the next hardest thing. I'm grateful for challenges and worthy burdens and pushing oneself to the limit in areas of real importance - only after the internal work has been addressed.
We get to make decisions in life, don't forget that. Choose how you're going to see the world. Adopt behaviors and mindsets that will grow you into the person you want to become. Don’t make work harder than it needs to be because you’re searching for something in the work it will never be able to give you.
I'll close with some wisdom from Rob Bell for those of us who find ourselves overwhelmed with how hard we've made our lives:
If it's too heavy, it's because you picked it up.
If this resonates, I'd love to share these ideas as a keynote or workshop to your company, organization, or association. I also have a few spots available for coaching clients if this mindset is something you'd like to explore. Email me here and we can set up a call!