In college I was fired from a job. It wasn’t just any job; it was a job that I truly loved. I was dumbfounded. At the time, I gave this job my greatest treasure—a period of youth. I worked long, hard hours for very little money, but I was ambitious to build something. Every week clocking more than 60 hours, I fantasized about moving up in the company and dramatically altering my “life plan.” Then one day I had a closed-door meeting, and those ambitions vanished into the wind.
After that, I vowed to never go all in for another company, and for years I didn’t. After college, however, I again found myself pushing for the pat on the back, and the pattern of working for some external goal and being disappointed continued. I wasn’t fired again, but I just seemed to pour so much of me into something for an “atta boy,” or an award, or a promotion. Like clockwork, I was disappointed over and again, but when I really peeled back the surface, I wasn’t working for someone else. I worked hard to make something that made me proud—I spent too much time looking for validation. Once I changed my perspective, everything changed.
I started to see my work like building sandcastles.
When we are at the beach, I use the kids as an excuse to build a work of art on the beach. It doesn’t always start that way. Sometimes, I’m even reluctantly convinced to leave the comfy seat and the umbrella (drink) to join the kids plea, “Daddy, please help us build a sandcastle.” After a few minutes constructing the fortress, I’m all in. Like a foreman with a list of assignments, I’m barking out commands “you, get a bucket of water…you, get the shovel from the car…you, go take that water bottle from the snot nose kid over there.” I typically spend at least two hours working on this monument. I bring my gifts, my time, and most importantly, my attention to this work that is going to wash away in only a few hours. The tide will come, but the memory will remain. Somehow I’m content to pour all my energy into that moment and build something worthy of pride.
Why should our work be different? Well, here’s some harsh truth:
- Your best hope is that your kids will remember you.
- If you’re really lucky your grandkids may know a little about you.
- And if you’re extraordinarily fortunate, your great grandkids will know trace details about you.
- After that you may be on a family tree somewhere or on memorialized on a headstone.
- Even then, 1,000 years after your death, barring manifestation of the divine, all your work, your great efforts, your long hours, your mishaps, and your greatest achievements will be obliterated by time, like the rising tide that levels the sandcastle.
Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished
and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it,
I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless—
like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.” Eccl. 2:11
All too often, I think we show up to our jobs and ask, “what’s in this for me?” or “I’m not giving this #&% company the best of me.” Heresy alert for owners and CEOs: employees don’t (and shouldn’t) bring their best talents to work for the company alone. Learning new skills, doing amazing work, and crafting amazing “stuff” is about the person becoming amazing, and creating art. As a result the company is the beneficiary. When we make the little mental shift that work is like building sandcastles, it changes everything.
Bottom line, when the tide comes, and it will come, be calm. Whether it is getting fired, a change in the economy, or just being fed up, know that you can build your greatest work again, and again, and again—no matter your age. This may sound “Zen,” but you can fully invest yourself in the moment, and realize that it will all fade away. Whether it is in your employee handbook or not, you have permission to be amazing. And if you’re boss doesn’t appreciate it, find one who will, I’ll take someone passionate about being amazing over anyone with amazing skill that just shows up.
Author’s note: I’m not sure if I’ve ever labored over a blog post as much as I have this one. I started writing this post 3 weeks ago, and I’ve re-written it more than 6 times. At some point you have to ship. I hope I’ve conveyed the art of work well. If not, it’s okay, because this too will fade away. 😉
The image used in this post is kindly made available with slight modifications by Fadzly Mubin through a Creative Commons license. Thanks!