What can you do?

There are lots of things I’d like to change, ranging from my personal appearance, to my team’s results, to the political situation in pretty much most countries in the Western world. I have views and opinions and desires that in certain circumstances I may express, but on the whole, I know are broadly ineffective  I can’t change my genetics or the abilities of the players in the team, I don’t have a direct line to the Prime Minister or President.

A lot of our working life is like this. In work, as in the rest of our lives, there are things that we might like to change, that we might not be absolutely happy with, our job role, our team, our leadership. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of complaints about working life fall into one of these categories – probably only adding in “the commute” and “the canteen”.

There is one school of thought that simply says, that’s your lot. You are a cog in a machine and you need to accept your place. Keep your head down, go through the motions, do what needs to be done (and no more) and get to the end. That’s a pretty compelling strategy if you believe in an afterlife, for those that don’t it feels…somewhat  pointless.

On the other end of the spectrum you’ll have the tree- hugging, granola eating brigade who will tell you to find purpose in even the most meaningless task, that joy and eternal peace await you if you could only change your way of thinking. My experience is that these people generally work from home in their pyjamas, have jobs that no-one would notice if they didn’t exist and last did a meaningful act when they evacuated their bowels in the morning.

So let me give you another view. I might not be able to change my appearance, but I can do the best I can with it. I can dress well, go to the gym, look after what I eat and take feedback on what looks good and doesn’t. I can’t make my team better,  but I can go along to the match and cheer from the first to the final whistle, doing everything I can to provide another positive voice. I can’t phone the prime minister, but I can get involved, I can vote or join a political party, I can campaign or stand as a representative.

I can’t do the whole, but I can do my part.

Life is about choice, but it is also about the acceptance of those aspects in our world that are uncontrollable. We might not be able to impact a new system being implemented, a new work routine, a change of CEO or a reorganisation. But we can absolutely choose how we interact with them, what we bring to them and how we want to be. If choice is about freedom, then this understanding is about peace. Being at peace with the things that we can and can’t influence and putting our energy where it counts the most.

To choose is to be free

“But I don’t have a choice”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this through my career, I’d be able to buy you all a round of drinks. It is a curious phrase and worth another look,

I don’t have a choice.

As I sit here writing this I”m struggling to think of situations where this is entirely true – hitting the ground when you’ve fallen off a building, growing old, chewing on a fruit pastille. The examples are few and far between.

In most cases people are either saying, “I can’t see the choices that I have” or, “I don’t like the repercussions of the choice that I have”. The implications of either stance is one of impotence. Simply put, when we refuse to see or accept the choices that we have, we deny the very essence of being. And in doing so, we diminish ourselves.

The nub of this human dilemma is often played out in a scenario where a house is on fire and you have the ability to save one of two much loved people. Who would you choose? Who would you save? Of course any choice in these circumstances is unpalatable, but as grotesque as it is, it is undeniably there.

Closer to home we can see it manifest in our organisations, where colleagues, employees and bosses will talk in tricky situations about, “not having a choice”. This is rarely, if ever, true. Or colleagues and friends who become stuck, lost in a self induced mental fug that leaves them static and inert.

In most circumstances where I see people unhappy, demotivated, depressed or disengaged, the root cause is their inability, or unwillingness to engage with the choices in front of them. This is overwhelmingly more common than people who are feeling the same way because of a decision or choice they have made.

As one of my favourite philosophers put it, “freedom is what you do with what’s been done you”. Given it is a Monday morning as we slide towards autumn, I’ll frame it a little more positively; happiness isn’t about the choices that you make in life, but the ability to see those choices exist.

Give yourself a chance

How many times have you heard, “I’m not very good at” or listened to yourself say the same? Our ability to artfully segment activities in to “the things we can do” and “the things we can’t do” is legendary.

But how do we really know?

To give you an example, let’s say that I’m tasked with cooking a meal for a group of friends. I don’t normally cook, but for circumstances beyond my control I”m left to do so. I have the ingredients, I have the recipe, I have the cooker and the utensils. When everyone turns up on the saturday night to a pile of ill-determined, semi-burnt mush, I look at the evidence and declare, “I can’t cook”.

And from there on, I have the belief that this is an activity that I cannot perform.

I use cooking as a simple example, but what about maths, finance, presentations or public speaking? How often do we hear people declare in the workplace that they can’t do these things? And on what basis do they hold that belief?

What if instead we were to hold the belief that we could do anything? Well, anything biologically possible for a start. But rather than being about ability, instead we choose where we want to put our time, energy and effort? What if we were to accept that people had almost unlimited potential, just limited resource?

“I can cook. I just haven’t put the practice in to become good at it.”
“I can do numbers, I just haven’t had the exposure and I don’t really have the inclination.”
“I can speak in public, but I have to get used to handling the fear that comes with standing on stage.”

Ultimately, what we can and can’t do, comes down broadly to the things we want to invest in and the things we don’t. If we find that we also have an aptitude, that investment feels simple. If it is the opposite, sometimes the investment can feel too much.

The simple truth is that we choose the elements where we want competence or even mastery and we eschew those that we feel are a step too far. That choice is important in helping us come to terms with the essence of self determination and in turn how we manage and interact with those around us.

So next time you hear yourself professing that “you can’t”, instead try asking yourself how hard you’ve tried.

The purpose of work

Over the years I’ve read and heard a lot about meaning in work. Finding purpose in what you do and how happiness can be found in almost anything that we want.

I’ve never completely been convinced about these arguments. In the same way employee engagement wants to make me poke out my own eyes with a rusty nail, the whole premise seems contrived. Because not all work can have meaning and not everyone wants to find meaning in their work. What worries me more about these things is that the argument feels patronising and explores work through a middle class, middle-income, professional lens.

If you’re holding down four temporary, part-time jobs, the last thing on your mind is finding meaning in the organisational vision and strategy. You just don’t want to get shafted by your employer, see your hours reduced, get charged for your uniform or have any losses deducted from your wage. You want to have some level of guarantee that you know how much you’re going to be taking home so that you can pay the bills.

But this isn’t just an economic argument. Even in the seemingly more stable office environment, some people want to come in, be treated like an adult, be allowed to do the job that they are paid for and get that pay and go home. In the same way that for many organisations, employees are faceless and interchangeable, for many employees organisations are similarly homogeneous.

This doesn’t mean that the world of work has to be grey and boring and impersonal. Far from it. By recognising that some people don’t give a flying fig about your company purpose or meaning, you’re recognise that they are individuals in their own right. If they want to get pay from work and meaning from their stamp collection, or saving small baby seals from being clubbed to death, that’s their choice. And choice is individual, and recognising individuality is the first step to creating a healthy organisation.

Instead of trying to deploy some sort of weird, HR Jedi mind control tricks, we should focus instead on making sure that there is a fair deal for all employees within our organisations, allowing them to prosper and enjoy life in whatever (legal) ways they chose to do. To use a favourite phrase of mine, we are there to create the theatre that allows our employees to make the performances of their lives. But we need to recognise that for some of them, that performance will be nothing more than a job.

Because our role is not to help people find purpose in work, our job is to make work better. Finding meaning and happiness is personal choice.