Life’s work

At the core of the evolution of my ideals is a drive to do meaningful work that helps people and communities. I believe most people want their work to be of some value to the world in a way that has meaning to them.

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What is your ideal life? If it’s not the life you’re living now, what do you need to change to reach your goals? How much of that work is underway or planned?

You’re not the same person throughout your life. Your dreams may remain largely fixed or, if you’re like me in this respect, they may change as your experiences in the world help you form new ideas.

When I was five years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. At fifteen, I wanted to be an author or editor. At twenty-five, I wanted to write software. At thirty-five, I wanted to use my technical skills to improve the lives of both my fellow technologists and the people whose lives our work affected. At forty-five, I wanted to use my developing leadership skills to help both the people who work in tech and the utility of their work improve.

Today, with plenty of room between me and fifty-five, I’ve realized that I don’t have to work directly with technology and technologists. All else being equal, I’d prefer to use my tech chops. I’m also open to possibilities that are somewhat removed from computers, networks, and software development. Earning an MBA, being on the board of a non-profit co-op, and several types of community involvement and activism have helped me develop and uncover a wealth of skills and aptitudes.

At the core of the evolution of my ideals is a drive to do meaningful work that helps people and communities. I believe most people want their work to be of some value to the world in a way that has meaning to them. I’ve had conversations about work and its place in identity with people in jobs from food services and mail delivery to leadership in large organizations and entrepreneurs. People look forward to doing their job (paid or otherwise) because they feel that what they do matters. The people who don’t feel enthusiasm for their work (there are many in this category) are usually hungry for a change in their situation.

When I was a young adult, I was happy to have work of any kind, including a series of temporary jobs for which I had high skills and no formal training: secretarial, human resources, executive assistant, artist’s model. My identity had little to do with what brought the money in. I can see myself going back to an eclectic series of jobs at some point in the future, for enrichment and enjoyment more than keeping the wolf from the door. At that point, I may identify more closely with my work than I did in my youth.

I have bent my paid work towards my ideal work since I was in my late twenties and have faith that I will continue to do so for another decade or two. The main problem I face at this point in my career is that my ideal work done well is relatively uncommon. There are plenty of CIOs, CTOs, IT Directors, Operations Managers, and the like. Many of them are strong technically, lead people well, build strategic plans that work, interact with stakeholders effectively, or are good at two (maybe three) of those four major roles. I’m not a superstar in all those areas, but I can do them all competently.

I’m currently unemployed by choice. It’s not what I’d hoped for when I started planning a major life change including a move to Toronto, a city that feels like home to me. I did plan for this possibility. I’m working both within my plan and through learning and improvisation on continuing my life’s work here. It’s a small blessing that the board I’m on is in the middle of a major shift where my skills are valuable: I can do this work well even from a distance. To many people, work is a huge part of their life.

I decided to leave my job when I determined my health (consequently my performance) was starting to decline to levels I was not willing to accept indefinitely. My resignation came as a surprise to most of my peers, my direct reports, and clients. Over the last few months I was setting the table for my successor and went into a more productive than usual period as I documented, coached, and planned. Since I left my former employer, my health has improved immensely. The stresses I’m dealing with are ones I’ve chosen and am willing to use to continue to learn and improve.

There are times when I feel used up. The length and intensity of exposure to toxic people and structures at my previous employer and city drained me to the point I wondered whether I should cede the field to a handful of people whose self interest is about as far as one can get from kind, much less enlightened. There are times, from an hour to a day or more, when all seems hopeless. I’m hard on myself, especially when I know I’m in a period of fatigue and lack of concentration. As long as I focus my stoicism into building and maintaining a discipline of working toward my goals, I do well.

I’m working on connecting with local communities, both in my preferred field and in more general ways. I recently participated in an event during which I gave a trained graphic designer leads specific to her field that she had no idea existed. I shared my non-profit experience with a fellow chorister who pointed me at a useful resource. I believe people are kind and helpful by nature. When we find ourselves in situations where we have opportunities to interact with each other meaningfully, we tend to do so.

I work to push myself into situations where people, even if they’re strangers, interact with each other in positive ways. I’m joining Toastmasters, in a group where I’ve already had some great, mutually supportive conversations during social loafing time. Having gained so much from my previous choral experiences, I’ve joined a community choir.  From job fairs to culture days, I’m putting myself into the world in a participatory role.

My ideal life? I now have a map of the territory and am working to get there. I have a good idea what it looks like: meaningful work, community involvement, finding ways to improve and acting on them. The journey of a thousand miles is underway.

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