To set out boldly at work, to follow that inner call of aliveness means to put our life in danger, our identities at risk. Failure in truly heartfelt work feels worse than an experiment gone wrong, but the prospect of failure in our quintessence. It is no surprise that we are inclined to choose the more mundane, less adventurous road in order to reduce our work to being just a “job”.
However, this can come with a painful realization: that the work we do - the journey that we so zealously started out on one fine day with all the enthusiasm and ambition that felt right at the time – has led us to a place where the function of work is one of mere provision. Provision of income. Provision of status. Provision of being seen.
A welcomed structure that we can cling to and distracts us from the even bigger pain of not knowing the answer to some of the bigger questions - What is it that I am here to create in my life? What is my real commitment?
When the transactional nature of work crowds out our hope to build something meaningful in the present, work easily drains us.
That is because our hungers for rest and inspiration are endless – if the void we are trying to fill is one of money and status. That is when money can’t buy happiness. When we begin to call speed our saviour and let it become the all-consuming motor to prove our legitimacy for getting paid. When performance turns into a saving balm protecting us from real heartfelt participation.
The great tragedy of living in high-performance-mode is that we become blind to anything and anyone not travelling at the same level of speed, income or status.
We become oblivious of colleagues, friends and family moving at a (lower) pace, of micro-moments remembering us of the aliveness we might once have felt. And all our smaller, less accepted, more vulnerable noble, yet unreasonable, and childishly joyful parts stumble behind a self that turns increasingly numb.
As if suffering from a wild form of amnesia, we lose sight of the large, ever unfolding purpose underlying ourselves. We unlearn or forget how it feels to be in touch. In touch with something greater, something bigger, more meaningful and more life-giving than ourselves.
People give well-meaning advice to “take a sabbatical” but deep inside we know that blind speed has never been attributed to good work by those who achieved true mastery in their field and that a break won’t alleviate the underlying struggle of not knowing. That kind of advice is often dispensed by those who themselves don’t know how to escape their own exhaustion. Or – in a malevolent form – by those who would be thrown into spirals of jealousy and envy the moment we are resurrected from the ashes to build something truly great. If work drains us because we sacrifice energy in the pursuit of something that doesn’t fulfil us, outer bliss won’t get us closer to the inner bliss we seek. When in the pursuit of busyness we emptied ourselves.
The notion of work-life balance comes with the subtle suggestion we split our attention in half: half work, half life.
But in the absence of purpose our lives will always feel only half full. Where we provide for a living, but not for a life. Where we are absent though we have shown up physically. And where our life feels like a train passing through someone else’s movie.
Maybe some of us arrive at the realization: It’s us. It’s us, the source of the problem. Not our bosses. Not the job market. Not Covid. But we who created the very pain in the first place by yielding to the fantasy that we have a right to our heightened expectations being fulfilled. That we have no circumstance, no person to blame – that we shot ourselves in the foot by indulging into our own sinful entitlement.
This gut-wrenching moment to fall hard onto reality’s ground is when we truly have moved ourselves towards a cliff edge.
Letting go is sold to us as a glorious experience. But to many of us that promise of glory is wrapped into a daunting event which feels more like giving up. Giving up hope and saying goodbye to a story that we are right, and that the victim is us. An encounter with resignation and quitting rather than the spectacular, if not orgasmic peak of enlightenment. Letting go? A Trojan horse.
And that is precisely where the triumph lies. In that moment to give up resistance, to hit our lowest low is when we open ourselves to the greatest change. When we stand still in the eye of the storm, in a moment of naked decision making. Our aspirations and expectations stripped away from us is when our true self finally dares to show up. No mask, no judgement, just us. Let the simple essence of our being dictate our next step, lean into the nothingness and build the bridge while walking on it. And it is the second we take the first step that we feel free of the shadows of our own fears. Reborn. Alive. And where we get to sense ourselves again.
There it unfolds: The splendor of surrender.
As if the world was holding its breath while we reveal that one special gift that only we have. Shifting up gears and going faster while moving slower - in steps that are larger, more centered yet gracefully light.
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. […]
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
… is how William Earnest Henley puts it in the 1870s after recovering from a series of rough surgeries. It describes the liberation that arises from looking into the abyss and discovering that we are not victims but we ARE the source.
Choosing inner captainship might not be an act of duty, but one of privilege. One that exists independently of the times we live in.
The risks to setting out boldly at work are real. What is at stake is our understandable hope of a blissful and trigger-free life. But the solution to inner emptiness might not always be more time. Instead that emptiness might request us to be more invested, to step in and engage in a more lionhearted discourse with our fears, hopes and aspirations.
Yes, to walk the line at the cliff edge between the abyss and the safer land demands acute awareness and courage from us. But if there was one thing we love about the great captains of our lives, it is that they chose to unapologetically be themselves. That they dared to accept we aren’t here to consume the gifts others hand to us at work or in life, that our purpose is not one of consumption and being our own life’s biggest customer, but rather to figure out what that biggest gift is that WE have to give.
There is no balance between work and life, but a question to show up or to not show up fully to all of them: work, life and purpose.
Are you searching for more purpose, more joy and more aliveness in your work and life? Join our upcoming Purpose Fellowship, a 8 week peer-coaching program that will help you discover what purpose means for you.
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