“If your number one goal is to make sure that everyone likes and approves of you, then you risk sacrificing your uniqueness, and, therefore, your excellence.” ~Unknown
The year that I graduated from college with my undergraduate degree, I was beyond enthusiastic about being a teacher.
I was absolutely confident that I was a very gifted communicator and that I had a great deal to offer to the field of education. In reality, I had no idea how right I was, yet how different my path would be from what I expected.
For me, work was not just a “J-O-B”; however, my first school job was incredibly disappointing for me. The students were apathetic, my colleagues were unimpressed with me, and at the end of the year I was crushed when I received an average performance review.
When I switched schools, under the impression that a change of scenery would improve my experience, I somehow carried with me in my bag of tricks the same perfectionism and tendency to overwork that had poisoned my first experience.
To my frustrated mind, it was as though my previous school’s faculty had gone backstage, changed costumes, and reappeared in new garb to undermine me.
That year, I was so determined to make a name for myself locally that I worked myself into an almost hysterical state of constant anxiety and busy-ness.
Responding to every emergency, I took on all the weaknesses of the struggling school system in an effort to feel important and indispensable. I thought great teachers could work miracles. Again, I was right—but not in the way that I assumed.
Ironically, the intensity and drive that I brought to my teaching did nothing to increase its impact or my prestige.
My people-pleasing was not only compromising my professional effectiveness, but it was also causing me to continue to look outside of myself, to my principal, my students, and my colleagues, for affirmation—something that I could only give myself.
However, the worst part was that I had begun to resent my students, because they became the symbol of my exhaustion. I turned in my resignation at the end of that school year with a sinking feeling of defeat.
How was I, the star of my college graduating class, rapidly becoming a statistic of teacher attrition?
That summer, I applied for new teaching positions relentlessly as unemployment loomed before me, but I wondered if the problem was the job—or me.
I researched graduate school obsessively, continually looking for the next right thing that would launch me into professional happiness. However, all roads were dead ends.
I didn’t realize it, but the emptiness and anger were having a profound impact on my ego, as I was no longer sure that I had anything special to offer education or culture, let alone a confidence that my ideas were as valuable as anyone else’s contributions to the world.
Most importantly, I was beginning to question the purpose of work and vocation in my life for the first time. I asked myself, “What do I want to do?” instead of, “What should I do?”
I completed an extensive career workbook that allowed me to take an honest look at my spiritual motives for working, and I realized that my relationship to work was based on my desire for recognition—a gift that I could grant myself simply by believing in the unique value that I brought to the educational world.
My addiction to achievement, education, and status had defined me for so long that my newfound non-identity, professionally, was intensely quieting.
While I was in this space of self-exploration and laying the groundwork for a major career change, however, I was unexpectedly offered an interview at a very appealing private school.
Ironically, by that time, I was simply interviewing as a last-ditch effort to use my existing education degree before I became a fitness instructor or got a degree in counseling.
On the interview, I was casually frank and personable—I did not use the PowerPoint presentation that I had brought on my computer to all of my other failed interviews. I simply talked about my passion for my subject with directness, humor, and energy.
Then, of course, I got the job—and, surprisingly, there was a mix of disappointment in my excitement.
I had barely attained serenity without my “teacher” mortarboard, and then the universe returned that role to me. That’s when the two years of experience that I had sown, planted in frustration, and watered with anger and emptiness began to flower.
Because I was less emotionally invested than I ever had been before, I found myself creating ways to rearrange my working time at my new school so that I could do more teaching and exploration of my fascinating subject, and less codependent overworking.
I began to experience more “flow” states, of being totally engaged in my teaching. Also, I had developed numerous hobbies, such as writing, from my period of unemployment, and I continued to enjoy them.
I said “no” more than I ever had at any other job. I was late occasionally, I risked people’s disappointment, and I stood up for myself. In other words, I took my job, and myself, a lot less seriously.
I had finally taken myself off my self-created pedestal and joined my coworkers as a more relatable person, and for the first time ever I felt connected to the people around me, and the relationships allowed my unique and talented voice to be heard in the workplace in the way that I had always wanted.
Best of all, I realized late that first autumn that I truly loved my students and my subject—fortunately, somewhere along my winding path I had left behind that bitter version of myself that resented the young people who depended on me most.
Work, now, isn’t all about what I should do or what I have to do—now in the mix there’s a healthy dose of what I want to do. My passion is a precious gift that I should share with the people around me, not hoard in order to obtain status.
My valuable voice is heard best when I am surrounded by a caring, connected community, and that circle is not available to me when I overwork and isolate myself.
For me, being a human being in the workplace means that I make mistakes, and that those flaws connect me with the people around me.
I’ve learned that we don’t always have to make major career changes to become content with our work. We may only need to appreciate the energy that flows from what we do, and stop looking outside of ourselves for affirmation of our uniqueness and worth.
Photo by camdiluv