How We Think About Work: Beliefs That Hold Us Back

Margherita Sgorbissa tells how our origins influence our perception of work and what questions we should ask ourselves.

by Margherita Sgorbissa, May 6, 2020
Working together

This article was originally published on Margherita's website FairForce and you can find it here.

Ever since I started asking myself questions about my professional identity, I’ve tried to go deeper and explore how this identity was formed. What has contributed to creating my disparate ideas about work over time? 

I have realized that my family experience, my education, my family’s level of wealth, the country where I was born, and the cultural narratives and progress of technology are only a few factors that have contributed to form certain ideas of mine about work. I remember my parents being quite negative about work and complaining about it almost all the time. It seemed to me they considered their jobs only as sources of income, not at all as something from which they could gain fulfillment or happiness. This made work feel like something heavy, annoying almost like a conviction. 

Work was never associated with joy or passion; it never seemed like something that could be strategically integrated into personal growth, but instead was something totally separate, obligatory and done only in order to survive and pay the bills. I need to add another detail.

The level of wealth in my family has always been fluctuating and precarious. I always had the feeling that there was only a limited amount of wealth available and that, despite the hard work, the expenses would exceed the income to a disproportionate and distressing extent. This is why, when I first started to think about work, my main intention was to make my own money. 

It’s curious to look back at it now and think about the 16-year old me trying to find a way to monetize my very limited skills. I started tutoring other students, working in a bar, and delivering food for pizzerias and bistros in my area as soon as  I got my driving license. 

Looking back at it now, I realize that I never thought about myself in terms of having any “professional skills”, but only as having “things I can do to get money”. I did not have any “professional education”, nor did I think of myself as containing a set of potential skills for the job market. 

I only knew that work = cash, liquidity, independence. 

Growing up in a working class family in a small provincial Italian town made it hard to be exposed to and know more about a world of work that went beyond that limited series of professions I could see in my surrounding area. No one really talked about work in the way I know it today. Back then and until my move to Berlin (at age 22) I thought about work merely as a way to get money, and gain agency. 

School and university did not help either

Acquiring knowledge, studying what I have studied (mostly literature, language, classic studies, philosophy and similar) and the way I got to study it never really offered any relation to the professional sphere. 

I am not here to speculate about how much schools and universities (don’t) prepare students for work, because the truth is that no schools and no universities can really prepare us for the real world of work. 

What I want to talk about, in retrospect,  is how much work and everything related to the creation of my professional identity was completely absent from my formative years, including in my formal education.

If I think about the presence of “work” in my younger years, I can see that there really wasn’t any. 

I never heard any of my professors talking about how they went from school to work. I never heard any of my older friends talking about how they created their own careers. I never had any conversations--until I was in Berlin--about how people applied for jobs, went through the interview process, or even thought about their professional roles, perhaps decided to do one instead of another. 

Work was always there, like a given “life thing”, but never really like a real “topic”. And if it was, well… It appeared to be a difficult, hierarchical and unfair world, with little room to be happy and very little chance to develop what today I would call a sense of agency. I cannot talk about the development of my thinking on  work without considering the very specific historical period in which it was formed .

I became a “young adult” in the times of 2008’s economic recession. 

I saw my dad's business collapse under the dramatic effects of an unprecedented economic crisis. I have experienced the loss, the uncertainty and the powerlessness of not knowing what the future would look like in the few months ahead. 

Italy fell into a severe unemployment crisis. Work felt like a privilege, and a very precarious thing. Only a few categories of workers (and I couldn’t even name any, to be honest) still had the privilege to choose their profession and develop a career out of their wishes and skills and not out of mere need to make money. 

This is the context in which I came into my understanding about work. 

This is how I came to think about work as something difficult, as something that and came from “outside,” bearing little relation to one’s personality and personal vision. It was also something I was supposed to think about later, after my education, after my graduation. Something accessed based on qualifications, after achieving a specific set of steps. 

Work was a strict, inflexible world, where I would only have to adapt, follow the rules, learn the job, get the money and hope for the best circumstances. The goal was a safe salary, a long term employment agreement and the ability to make it last as long as my bills were covered and my basic needs secured. 

When I graduated and moved to Berlin in 2015, I found a job with a long-term contract in only three months. I was 22. 

You may think this is where everything began. And on one hand, it’s true. But on the other hand, it’s also where everything ended and was newly (or differently) reborn . 

It was a decent job, my first job in Berlin, but it was also a job that gave me very little sense of purpose. It was a safe job, but it made me feel little and useless. 

I remember finding myself thinking “I have achieved everything I was supposed to achieve: I work a job in line with my studies, I own a long-term contract and am decently paid. Yet, I am not happy. This is not what I want”. 

My first job experience, in a new country, in a completely different cultural and economic environment showed me that there were other ways to think about work and that I could shape my own idea of work in my own way. 

I started to see other options, to hear about other people and career opportunities. I got to know a different economic system, and things that schools, universities and my family never even mentioned. I also realized that there could be more agency in how I thoughtand indeed I should think--about work. This agency would allow me to go beyond what I’d been taught and what I had previously  believed about work. 

Throughout this process, I have started to question the nature of my professional identity and my professional vision and in doing so, I have learned to think about work in new ways. 

By working in different countries, at different ages, in different financial situations, I've come to think about work differently.  In fact, extrapolating from my experience with work to work in general, I can say that perhaps how we think about work may not be how we really think about work at all. 

It may be more about how we were raised and taught to think about our professional identity. In fact,how we think about work is likely the product of different beliefs and ideas inherited from school, family, society. It might very much depend on the models we had, the examples and conversations we were exposed to. 

How we think about work might be a mirror and the result of so many intersectional aspects and have to do with other identity marks: our gender, our origin, our ethnicity, our culture, our religion, our country of origin, our system of beliefs, our class, our socio-economic status. 

The set of elements and factors that make up our way of thinking about work can be what makes us unique and successful in our professional sphere. But, at the same time, it can also be something that blocks us from unlocking our potential and our ability to build a happier work idea in line with our values. 

Everything that has contributed to building our idea of work could somehow simply be a reflection of what we have been told and taught. 

So, it could be a series of assumptions and beliefs that takes us off-road when it comes to building a fulfilling career. The same success in the world of work may depend on the way we have been led to think about work itself. That is why it is important to try to reflect on our ways of thinking about work and always challenge ourselves and rebuild our ideas about work on the basis of our values and vision before we start building a career and a professional life. 

How can we shape our internal narratives around work and think about the professional sphere in a way that leads to happiness? 

First of all, it’s important to consider this shift in terms of a holistic process. The most important requirement when it comes to this kind of transformation is to think about it as an ongoing process and to be willing to enjoy the journey and its roller coaster nature. 

Secondly, it is crucial to begin with an unlearning process. 

When it comes to exploring our mindset and beliefs, it is equally necessary to be open to questioning our main assumptions, re-evaluating our systems of forming concepts and staying curious about new realizations that come along the way. 

Most importantly, asking questions about our professional identities does not mean completely destroying all the beliefs and models we have been previously exposed to. Nor does it mean imposing a unique "doctrine" of narratives that are trendy or strategic for the world of work as we know it today. 

Rather, it means finding and refinding a synthesis comprising who we are, who we were and who we hope to become. It means exploring how much there is about us and our values and vision in the way we think about work and how much they matter in our professional vision.

It also means understanding whether we need to widen our thinking about work and our ideas of work and how we can integrate different influences and beliefs into a vision that is balanced and more aligned with our authentic personality.

The ultimate goal is to strengthen our sense of agency and create a new space for our own vision to be more relevant in the way we live within the professional sphere. This helps us become more intentional in how we design our career, how we look for jobs and also in how we create the tools to be more confident in how we want to be seen as professionals. 

I understand that this might feel an overwhelming process, so I wanted to offer you some initial prompts to begin with.

If you have some time, why don’t you start reflecting on the following questions:

What does work mean for me? 

How do I feel when I think about work? 

How did my parents / family talk about work? 

What have I been taught in school / my education about work? 

What was my first job? How did I feel? What did I look for?

What makes me happy and fulfilled at work? 

What makes me feel insecure or unhappy when it comes to work and the professional sphere?

How could work be a better, healthier thing in my life?

If you wish to explore your beliefs around work and create a healthier, more authentic relationship with your professional vision, feel free to schedule a free consultation with Margherita  here