The Real Work

There was a time in my life when I believed the most important thing anyone could know about me was that I woke up at 4:00am to begin working. In those days I frequented a 24 hour coffee shop across the street from my house. When I'd arrive it would be full of college students still studying from the night before - bleary eyed and watching YouTube videos in an attempt to hang on. Eventually they'd clear out and folks on their commute to work would trickle in. But I remained.

I felt invincible. It felt like I lived in two centuries at once. It felt like I could fly or breathe under water. More work allowed me to experience more life. More work allowed me to find more importance.

I'd found the secret to my fulfillment: A growing capacity to do more work than anyone else.

This pace went on for some time until a broken leg relegated me to the couch, unable to travel and needing to take a couple weeks off to recover.

I've never been so miserable.

After watching Hitch and The Da Vinci Code about fifteen times each, it was just me on the couch with a fraction of the control I once had over my circumstances - and I fell apart.

You see, the broken leg wasn't responsible for my brokenness. It wasn't an external pain that ailed me. It was my inability to distract myself with work that did me in. It became clear there was internal work I'd been ignoring for a long time. And now I could couldn’t avoid it anymore.

Laying there on the couch I realized if I was going to make any sort of recovery there was work to be done inside before I could return to the work on the outside. The word recovery took on a whole new meaning. It became clear the endless tasks and goals on my plate were never going to help me discover my purpose and find my value. It wasn't out there. I had to recover parts of myself I'd been quieting with work for the past several years. My frenzied pace of work was even worse than a distraction preventing me from dealing with my internal development - work had become my identity. I was the guy who worked really hard all the time.

But when our source of identity is challenged, we lose it. If I couldn't manage a never-ending load of work, what kind of professional was I? What kind of man was I? Where was my value? Where was my worth?

In silence we hear questions we spend most of our lives avoiding. Many of us let years pass without paying attention to work we must do at a deeper level than the work for which we trade our time and talent. This is the work that affects all the rest. Because an internal fear of failure results in an external need for control. An internal distrust in others results in an external tendency to fly solo and miss out on the joys of collaboration. An internal inability to love oneself renders one incapable of loving others and playing a meaningful role in their personal or professional development.

This is no knock on hard work, setting lofty goals and having a healthy ambition. In fact, it's a call to more difficult work. I don't believe those who find identity in their pace or capacity really enjoy the load they bear, they'd just prefer to avoid the challenge of understanding who they really are. They'd prefer to believe they'll eventually discover an external answer to a question they've always known the answer to. For some reason we humans love to believe we must make things harder than they really are for them to matter.

The key to doing extraordinary work has nothing to do with the amount of work one can handle, it's the intention one brings to their work that makes the difference. Whether it happens fast or slow, how we do our work matters more than how much we do. And how we do our work is rooted completely in our ability to know and love who we really are.

I'm writing this blog from the same coffee shop I mentioned earlier. It's a busy day for me today so I arrived shortly after 4:00am to publish this post. But I feel different than the young man who sat in this same chair five years ago addicted to momentum. This morning I feel like today is a gift I'm able to receive, not something I must earn.

The greatest work I'll do today won't occur in a meeting and you can't find the most important task on my to do list. The most meaningful work for us today will happen in the quiet moments between obligations when we remember to smile to ourselves and remember this is all a bonus - because nothing outside gets to define our worth inside. When we can remember this we become fearless and we're able to do far more than accomplish our action items, we're able to make a contribution rooted in peace, not pace.