Work will not set you free, your attitude might

“It was sad, like those businessmen who came to work in serious clothes but wore colourful ties in a mad, desperate attempt to show there was a free spirit in there somewhere.” ― Terry Pratchett, Making Money

A recent article prompted me to reflect on the way we work today and our attitude to work.

The article talked about one of the leading entrepreneurs today, a chap called Elon Musk. You might not have heard of him, but you might have heard of the Tesla car, which is one of his companies. Anyway, Elon was asked about the ups and downs of his life and Elon Musk was asked about the ups and downs of his life – in particular of setting up and growing an enterprise. He replied “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two,”

Although Elon was talking about setting up and running companies, I think that the phrase also applies to many people in the world of work today.

I completely concur with Musk about the ‘great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress’ as I reflect on the world of work that I have lived through over the past 30 years.

I have experienced fantastic highs. Standing in front of 1,000 plus people sharing my experiences of designing and implementing a global Performance Measurement and Management System that supported 2,000 users and was used across a global business. Oh and then being presented with an award, which came as a complete surprise. By the way, to many people standing in front of that many people presenting would be a nightmare. But I enjoyed it.

I have experienced terrible lows. Having to go through a European wide organisation restructure, which meant that colleagues were let go. Having to design the selection criteria and then choose who was to stay and who was to go. Going through the selection process and then watching people being asked to leave a company they cared about and were doing a meaningful job.  To some, a number exercise, but not to me.

Finally, unrelenting stress. As the result of a major change programme that did not go well; having to work 7 days a week with long hours; with exceptional pressure to keep the “boat afloat” and continue to deliver to the customers. Unrelenting. Unforgiven. Harsh and pressured to turn around a terrible situation. 

Reflecting on all of these experiences, I have come to realise that you have to care – and care deeply – about the work that you do and more importantly, the people you work with. Else, why would you put yourself through the pressure, stress and heartache? When you can walk away.

This then poses the next question; work time. If you consider the amount of time you spend in the world of work, both travelling to and from work, as well as actually working itself, it makes up the majority of your adult life. Almost four million employees are working at least 48 hours a week. The average working week in the UK is now 43.6 hours compared with a European average of 40.3 and limits of just 35 in France. If you add on the average 3-hour commute per day, then you are talking about over 58 hours per week working.

Our adult lives are work focused.

Please feel free to say they are not but the truth is, they are. We will never break away from the work world until we get to the nivara of a non-work society where everyone is free to enjoy what they want to do and “work” is carried out by robots. Till then, we will have to work and be tied into work customs and outcomes.

Back to the question I posed at the start. Work will not set you free. You will set yourself free through your attitude.

Whatever work you do, and I have experienced some of the most “interesting” – suitcase porter; soiled bed linen clearer; snooker attendant; multi-vendor service engineer; technical escalation manager,  and even prisoner mentor (yes inside a category B prison with “lifers”); every role, in the end, is carried out by someone.  You will all come to realise that there are very few if any, opportunities to be content in the world of work. Work will not set you free from the grind and effort of delivering a service/product / solution, or whatever.

What sets you “free”, to use a phrase, is how you approach the “work” you do. Your mind set. How you want to serve the customer or the people in the value chain. Your own passion and ethos on serving people.  Even in the most recent challenges I have had, my approach has always been how to serve. In some cases, ignoring the politics of the organisation and focus on the customer and the people involved.

Am I right? Wrong? Will work set you free? Not sure. How you approach work might.

If you want to read more about the tweet and the dialogue that prompted this article, go to:

I leave you with the following quote.

“God might work in mysterious ways, but hell worked on efficient ones.” Richelle Mead, Succubus Shadows

P.S Do not put into google “work will set you free”, else you will get the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (German). A phrase meaning “work sets you free”. The slogan is known for appearing on the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.

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