“What you do today is important, because you are exchanging a day of your life for it.” ~Unknown
In my working lifetime, I have been the poster child for seeking work-life balance. I have spent hundreds of hours curled into complex yoga asanas, breathing into the resistance and unexpected openness.
I have meditated sincerely, flowering into a quieter mind. Add to that a happy, growing relationship, stable social connections, and purposefully cultivated hobbies, and you would think that I go humming and beaming to work each morning.
The startling truth is that for every minute that I have spent meditating in my entire life, I have cried in my car coming to or from my job.
When I first started working, it seemed normal—if you have a bad day, I reasoned, you let off a little emotional steam in the car on the way home.
As a teacher, I often experience my most tumultuous classroom situations during the last part of the day, and the result is that as a new teacher, I often climbed into my car shell-shocked and fragile, barraged by a hailstorm of chaotic situations.
My first year, the answer was mindfulness, and therefore I pursued yoga and meditation with the doggedness of a shipwrecked sailor swimming for shore. My mental image of stress reduction was that mindfulness techniques were a counterweight for stressful situations.
In the process, I took responsibility for my tranquility, but not for the situations that were causing me so much angst.
My second year, I switched jobs and kept doing yoga avidly, but I also gravitated towards the philosophy of “no”—that if I could protect my boundaries more skillfully, that I could weaken the thick net of sadness that I tangibly felt tightly wrapped around my job and schedule.
Again, this was a wonderful, positive technique; by reducing my activities, I narrowed and strengthened my channel of energy. However, I continued to perform that defeating ritual of the occasional “afternoon cry,” and was adding morning weep sessions to my repertoire.
No simple solutions, regardless of their wisdom or usefulness, warded off the constant worrying about work situations, and by the end of that year, I was understandably burned out and confused.
Branching out into more hobbies, my final attempt to achieve that elusive “work-life balance,” had only succeeded in diluting my passion instead of re-awakening it, and I came to a skidding stop in the educational field. I quit my job.
Now, I am thankful for this burnout—running out of quick answers and clever solutions dropped me onto the bedrock of humility with a resounding thud.
I finally realized that work-life balance is elusive because it is always a shining horizon—if I see my work as something to “balance,” I run in the opposite direction as soon as I clock out for the day, and my energies are pulled in different directions.
In the end, my many attempts to achieve that golden standard of “balance” resulted in a hollowness—an inability to “go deep” in any direction. As long as I made these techniques the locus of my attention, I was distracted from the core issues that resulted in my desperate frustration.
Although at the time I thought that another career—any other career—was the answer, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t even asking the right questions. I am thankful now that I was serendipitously brought back into alignment with teaching, and that I have had an opportunity to heal my wounds as an educator in a beautiful way.
In the process, these are the four questions that I have developed for use in times of career unhappiness, which provoke honest self-evaluation and authentic action. These questions open the heart of the matter.
1. What are the separate issues?
When I hit my bottom in my vocation of teaching, I forced myself, in an unlooked-for burst of clarity, to create a chart that outlined my distinct issues with my job.
In my current position at the time, the problems ranged widely from my personal safety all the way to poor administration. I could do nothing about many of the issues, I realized, but one of my unmet needs, getting a masters degree, was entirely within my realm of control.
By separating the issues, I was able to define the “deal-breakers” and bring distinctness to what was before an overwhelming amalgam of bad feelings.
2. What can I do differently right now?
Once you have separated the issues, you can then decide which of the problems within your control you can transform immediately.
Some changes must wait—they are within your power, but they are necessarily time-bound. However, there are other issues that can be addressed right away, and change can bring immediate relief even if you plan on eventually leaving your job.
Positive strategies such as asking for help and reaching out for healthy social connections at work can help make you happier right now, regardless of your ultimate employment decision. Sometimes you just need to clear the spiritual fog by mitigating acute stress before you can move in any direction.
3. How can I disconnect my effort from my expectations?
Possibly the most powerful agent of burnout in any profession is the lack of tangible results. For me, my heart was broken every time I couldn’t see a project through to completion, and once I broke that arrow that connected effort to results, my expectations were far more realistic.
I am now able to plunge in—and back out—of projects with more abandon, understanding that sometimes trying is the same as doing. When you truly feel connected to the purpose of your work, the endeavor or effort is an end unto itself, and the results are secondary.
This question makes the important assumption that you strongly believe in what you are doing, even if the outcomes are sometimes disappointing. However, if even the process is draining, you may not be living in alignment with your mission.
4. What is my mission?
Recognizing and celebrating your unique voice, which will never be spoken by any other human being, is an important part of the journey to peace with your work.
Your mission is not intertwined with your job—your mission is completely internal. You are the archetypal hero, accomplishing your life’s work, and the job or the career is simply an outer manifestation of the spiritual odyssey.
Your inner mission may be in alignment with your job, or your career may at least have the potential to exist in service of your calling.
But because your mission is not something that you have to generate, it creates unrest when you ignore it. If you’re feeling stifled and limited by your current job, you need to do the gentle but courageous work of discerning your deepest purpose, and take the necessary actions to follow that expansion.
I still do yoga daily. Setting appropriate boundaries and saying “no” to people is truly a part of my spiritual practice.
The hobbies that I have developed over the years are still integral to my routines and add color and joy to my life. However, until I could ask myself those four questions, I was only re-dressing the surface issues and leaving the core dilemmas unresolved—and I kept crying in the car.
But ultimately, I found myself irresistibly pulled through my discontent to a deeper connection with my great work.
There are no quick fixes. Work-life balance, if it is even possible, is certainly not achievable if you are turning a deaf ear to the call of your most urgent and aligned life’s work.
Clarify those longings and answer them, and then make all the changes that you need to make, no matter how large or small. Go deep in that direction.
When you are firmly grounded in the passion of creatively discovering your vocation one day at a time, you will absorb that energy. Then, instead of creating the storms in your life, you will have the deep, healthy roots to weather the challenges that will inevitably arrive when you are fully engaged with life.