During the summer of 1998, Thomas was working an entry level position in the IT department of a large London investment bank, his days filled with data entry and the occasional light secretarial work. It wasn’t a terrible job, but it wasn’t great either. “I was constantly unhappy,” Thomas recalls, looking back at this period.
The most recent crop of lifestyle advice literature offers a clear directive to 1998 Thomas: Follow your passion to something better!
“It’s worse to tolerate your job than to hate it because, if the pain is painful enough, you’ll make a change,” Tim Ferriss explained in a recent interview with 37 Signals. “But if it’s tolerable mediocrity, and you’re like, ‘Well, you know it could be worse. At least I’m getting paid.’ Then you wind up in a job that is slowly killing your soul.”
According to this philosophy, Thomas needs to escape the tolerable mediocrity of his banker job before it becomes too late. But here’s the thing, Thomas had already tried that — quite a few times actually — and it hadn’t seemed to solve his problems.
Years earlier, right after college, a young Thomas, who was terrified of becoming a Dockers-clad cubicle jockey, followed a “passion” for cycling and quickly moved up the sport’s ranks to join a professional team. He had a tendency to overtrain, however, and admidst the physical grind of professional-level athletics, his mind turned toward greener pastures.
Quitting cycling, he entered academia, earning two graduate degrees, before discovering that his research was too mainstream to be interesting.
Wanting to try something more reflective and less demanding, he tried traveling to Korea to teach English. But even the lush exoticism of East Asia couldn’t dampen his sense that he was destined for something better.
“Every job I did paled in comparison to some magical future passion-fulfilling occupation,” he recalls.
Needing to pay his bills, he moved back to London, took the entry level Banker position, and remained unhappy.
If stopped here, Thomas’ story would be a cautionary tale of the soul-sapping repressiveness of the working world. But it didn’t stop here. Nine months into his job at the bank, Thomas did something completely unexpected; something that would change his life, but not at all in the way he assumed:
He dropped everything and moved to a Zen monastery, tucked into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where he would spend the next two years…
The Zen Mountain Monastery sits in the shadow of Tremper Mountain, in the bowl formed by the juncture of the Beverkill and Espous rivers. This is primarily forested land, home to white oaks and hickory, though the rivers support a swath of marshes and meadows that pass through the Monastery’s grounds.
The main building of the Zen Mountain Monastery was built by a Catholic priest back in the 1930s, decades before the Buddhists arrived. The stone walls are made of the local bluestone, mined from nearby cliffs, and the roof beams were hewed from the local oak. Then, as today, regardless of your religion, if any, it’s hard not to recognize this land as God’s country.
It was early in the winter of 1999, that Thomas arrived in this tranquility, a world apart from London’s Square Mile financial district, to become a lay trainee and live among the monks.
“During my entrance interview, when I was explaining why I wanted to practice Zen, and what issues I had been facing in my life, I broke down and started to cry,” Thomas recalls.
Once inducted, Thomas’ days were filled with Zazen, the traditional seated meditation, interrupted only by chores (“work as sacred labor” being one of the core precepts of the training), and long Dharma discourses on mind-bending koans.
Westerners often misunderstand Zen practice, believing that the goal is to clear your mind and reach a blissful state of tranquility. This is a myth. Awareness, not suppression, is at the core of Zen. A practiced meditator is not unburdened by thoughts, he is, instead, hyper-aware of the thoughts flitting through his mind, observing them with detached interest.
“I just had a day dream about a twitter post, and how people might react to it” a modern mediator might think. “That’s interesting that my mind felt compelled to explore that.”
Put another way, Zazen is a tool of self-inquiry, not escape, and this self-inquiry turned out to be trying for Thomas.
For years, Thomas had imagined living at a monastery to be the “zenith” of his passions — in his fantasies, it held the magical qualities that all his previous jobs lacked. But once he arrived at the Zen Mountain Monastery, he realized that although his surroundings had changed, he was “exactly the same person.” The thought patterns that had caused his previous unhappiness — like and dislikes; anxieties, boredoms and fantasies — had not magically disapeared.
“Hours and hours of sitting on a Zafu [a meditation cushion] with only my thoughts as companions made me super aware of these distractions,” recalls Thomas.
The Enlightened One
At first, Thomas’ realization “that there was nowhere else to run to,” plunged him into despair. The organizing structure of working life, that there was a magical “right” occupation waiting out there to be discovered, had crumbled.
But armed with the tools of self-awareness honed in his Zen practice, he was eventually able to move beyond the despair and toward an important discovery about his relationship to work: “I realized at a very deep level that most of the time it is not the job that is the problem, but me.”
There was nothing intrinsically bad about Thomas’ prior jobs. The problem was his mindset. He was obsessed with the fantasy of a perfect job, and this obsession led him to find fault with the work actually available.
He left the Zen Mountain Monastery with an important understanding: finding the right work pales in importance to learning how to work right.
Thomas’ story is extreme, but its basic structure is common. Many young people are in a similar position to pre-monestary Thomas: their ill-defined sense of what work should be leads them to chronic and ambiguous unhappiness with their current opportunity. Instead of seeking out ways to develop their position, they seek out fault, and where obvious fault can’t be found, they generate it.
When I meet a recent college graduate who has reduced a relatively easy but interesting entry-level job into a swamp of misery, reeking of perfectionism and invented anxiety, I can’t help but think of a young Thomas, over-training on his bike, or fidgeting nervously in his Korean classroom, day dreaming about what’s next.
This generates an interesting question: assuming you buy this premise that working right is as important as finding the right work, how does one accomplish this goal?
To find an answer, I turned to an expert. My friend Elizabeth Saunders is a self-styled “time coach,” who helps people who feel guilty, overwhelmed, and unfocused about their work take back control. I asked her to reveal some of the secrets behind her well-regarded Schedule Makeover process.
“I’ve synthesized my methodology into these three concepts: Priorities, Expectations and Routine,” she told me:
- Priorities require that you make re-energizing activities and people a regular part of your life. “You will not feel satisfied if you are not consistently investing in your top priorities,” she explained.
- Expectations require that you make peace with how much time the different components of your work actually require. Once you recognize that a project is going to take 8 hours, and put aside this required time, its ability to cause stress diminishes. This also makes it easier to learn your schedule’s limitations, and turn down extra work with confidence (a nice complement, as Elizabeth pointed out, to my fixed-schedule producitivty concept). “In time coaching, I teach people how to see their time as something to invest and not to create stress by having unrealistic expectations that lead to time debt.”
- Routines require that you have set systems for handling your regular activities in life, including, perhaps most crucially, your daily and weekly planning process. “If you get these planning routines down, you can adapt and adjust to anything that comes your way.”
These ideas aren’t extreme, but their effect can be. Elizabeth has told me many stories of people who, like pre-monastery Thomas, were anxious and miserable with their work, but who then generated lasting happiness through the type of small, daily, practical changes Elizabeth preaches.
One such story was about an executive who had spent 10 years at a large corporation. Though he enjoyed the stability of the income, he also felt “frustated and confined by what seemed like constant unrealistic expectations.” He had begun to resent his job.
This where standard advice says: change your job! But he decided instead to take control of both his mindset and habits.
“The way that he found happiness,” Elizabeth told me, “had a great deal to do with integrating regular planning into his routine.” By regaining control over his schedule, he was able to gain a clear picture of what work quantities made sense. This allowed him to approach his boss from a position of calm confidence and rework his project load.
A year later, Elizabeth reports that the executive no longer feels like a “victim” of his circumstance. He controls his work flow, and accordingly does what he does well, but also “asserts his right to self care by regularly exercising and taking time to spend with his family.”
This is less sexy than advising the executive to quit his job to open a surf shop. But it worked.
The New Employee
Returning to the working world after his stay at the monastery, Thomas, like Elizabeth’s client, found new peace in an old setting. He returned to the bank he had left two years earlier. This time, however, he approached his job with a new awareness. Without escapist thoughts of fantasy jobs dominating his mind, he was able to focus on the tasks he was given, without constantly comparing them to some magical “future” occupation. (Having spent hours scrubbing toilets as part of his Zen training, Thomas had a new appreciation for the value of separating work from judgments of whether it’s good or bad.)
This new focus was appreciated by management. Nine months into his job he was promoted. Then he was promoted again and again. Within two years he moved from data entry to being given charge of a computer system that managed over 6 billion dollars of investment assets. Today the system he overseas manages 5 times that amount.
On paper, this should be a stressful job, but Thomas has found appreciation for its moment to moment requirements.
“I noticed that it does not matter what the task is, if I am focused it is generally pleasant,” he told me.
Finding happiness in your work is a complicated, ambiguous, confusing process — a process that defies simple answers like “follow your passion” or “reject conformity.”
Thomas’ story, however, emphasizes that when battling these complicated issues you can do so from a simple, solid foundation: the recognition that working right must precede worries about finding the right work. There’s no magic formula to working right (I think Elizabeth’s approach provides a good start, but there’s certainly many ways forward). What seems to be important, however, is making sure that you own your work before allowing the allure of hypothetical dream jobs own you.
“No matter what kind of work I do or where I live in the world, I realized that I am the same person with the same set of likes and dislikes,” Thomas told me. No new job can change these realities. That effort is up to you.
This post is the fourth in my series on Rethinking Passion, which tackles questions concerning the reality of building a deeply satisfying work life. Expect a new post in the series roughly once or twice a month. Here are the previous articles:
- The Pre-Med and Ira Glass: Complicated Career Advice from Compelling People
- The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable
- The Danger of the Dream Job Delusion
(Images from Zen Mountain Monastery)