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29. Why Do You Work?

I've long been fascinated by the phenomenon of the rush hour, and to me, the most striking illustration of this is to watch people walk over London Bridge. Between eight and nine every weekday morning, thousands upon thousands of people, all dressed in suits, all carrying brief cases and umbrellas, walk northwards over the bridge from the railway station to the City. And between five and six in the evening, they all stream back again. For the most intelligent and self defining of species, it is a very humbling sight. So why do we behave in this predictable fashion? An obvious answer is "money," but wouldn't it be sad if that were the only reason? Slave or free agent? A slave is defined in the Oxford dictionary as "a person who is the legal property of another, servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights," while the word "free" is defined as: "Not in bondage to another; without ties, obligations, or constraints upon one's action." A great deal of positivity in our culture is attached to the word "freedom" and a great deal of negativity to the word "slavery." So much so that you could be forgiven for thinking that everybody's quest in life is to leave anything remotely resembling enslavement as far behind as possible, and to rush towards freedom with the greatest of speed. The interesting thing is, most of us opt for a life that lies somewhere in between. Of all the areas where we voluntarily give up our freedom in return for other benefits, the most obvious must be employment. If earning is a necessity, and work a drudge, then you may well feel like a slave. On the other hand, if work is enjoyable and fulfilling as well as financially rewarding, then the balance starts to move away from slavery and towards freedom. The same applies to other areas of life - marriage, children, having a mortgage. If having a partner, children and a stable place to live is more important to you than freedom, then these are ties you make willingly. Thinking about the ties and obligations you currently have in your life, and of the freedoms you have, ponder for a moment where you feel yourself to be on that spectrum between slavery and freedom. Put your finger on the spot on the line below, or draw it out on a piece of paper and make a cross on it. Slavery__________________________________Total freedom Now consider where you would like to be on that spectrum, and again, mark the spot. Unless you're very unusual, both your crosses will lie somewhere between the two extremes, and the reason is that, although freedom may be attractive, it has some rivals in our hierarchy of needs and desires. The aim of good career development is to find a point on the scale between enslavement and freedom where you feel satisfied and happy, where the obligations and ties in your life are ones you take on willingly because they bring you something of value. Sometimes it's worth checking what those things of value are - even if you feel you only work for the money, work almost certainly provides you with other, perhaps less obvious, benefits. Work tends to provide answers to some very fundamental questions in life: � Money (how will I live?) � Structure and routine (what shall I do now?) � Identity (who am I?) � Self worth and personal fulfilment (am I okay?) � Facilities and benefits (what would make my life better?) � Enjoyment (now I can have fun) Let's take identity as an example. I think it's safe to say that for everybody, work gives us an identity. It provides an answer to the question "Who Am I?" We tend to use the phrases "I'm a doctor, nurse, manager, teacher, builder, solicitor, painter," rather than "I treat patients, I manage, I teach, I build houses, or I advise people on the law." In French, they drop the indefinite article altogether, giving for example "Je suis m�dicin," not "I am a doctor," but "I am doctor," a much more self defining way of expressing it. Some of you will protest at the idea that you define yourself by your jobs, but you don't always realise the importance of something in your life until you no longer have it. Ask anyone who has been made redundant. Even if you don't define yourself by your work, it is difficult to get away from the fact that other people define you that way. Charles Handy, in his book The Hungry Spirit, tells of how he felt momentarily deflated when his son young reported having told his class at school that his father was a painter, having watched him decorating the house at the weekend. At the time he was a professor at a business school. If you're in any doubt about the importance of identity in your work, try out a few different career titles for yourself. What would it be like meeting someone new and when they ask you what you do, you say, "Well, hmm, I'm the prime minister, actually." Or: "I'm an artist. I'm a foreign diplomat. I'm a secretary, a plumber, an astronaut, a house-wife/husband, a neuroscientist. I'm retired, at college, unemployed. I don't have to work, I'm a millionaire." See how you feel as you put on each of these identities, and notice how the other person responds. So what does work bring you? Try this: Imagine you were out of work, what would you miss? If you are out of work, what do you miss? Use the fundamental life questions above to help you. What does this tell you about why you work?