Why do you work?
My first job was when I was 11. I was a fresh faced kid out with his parents, shopping for a Christmas tree on a cold and starry November evening when a conversation with the owner of the Christmas Tree lot led to a job offer. $5 an hour under the table to sell, cut, and load Christmas trees for the next month. I couldn't have been more proud of my entry into adulthood and sudden bounty of disposable income. My Christmas shopping became much more lavish than anything I'd been used to up to that point. I enjoyed the work too, and was good at it. I liked helping people, they enjoyed having an innocent and enthusiastic child helping them, and the bosses saw my competence and mostly retreated to their heated cars, allowing me run of the lot, which made me glow even more with pleasure at not being seen as a useless child.
I was hooked on working at that point, and I continued to do so from then on. In my teenage years I umpired baseball and softball, learning to argue with adults and those much older than me and hold my ground. I worked in a fast food restaurant at age 15, slinging burgers and shakes, coated in grease and constantly burned. I learned there that I did not want to work in food service any more, and that I needed to get a college degree in something much more civilized, it was a hard job that I wanted no part of. I had a great time working retail with friends, and working as a receptionist in an office for a great boss. Each job taught me important lessons, allowed me to have enough money to get what I needed and wanted, and propelled me more deeply into a capitalist adulthood.
In adulthood I've continued this pattern, even expanding on it. I've taught for 16 years now in classrooms all over the world. Also, I've worked various side hustles, from writing this column, starting a photography business, playing in bands, and tutoring as the opportunities presented themselves. Basically, I'm no stranger to work, in all its forms, and not every job was great. Some have been brutal slogs, some so bad they gave me panic attacks before going into work. This variety of employment has made clear one principle of work, that it is a spectrum, and you want to be on one side much more than the other.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a common psychological principle stating that in order to reach our highest purpose, self-actualization, where we are fulfilled and happy, we have to get through various previous stages. It starts at physical needs, food, shelter, clothing, without which we would die. Then it goes from there, through safety, social, and several other steps until you get to the top.
Work is also like this. Sometimes we work jobs we hate simply because without them, we would not be able to clothe and feed us and our family. We may grind through soul-destroying, toxic work environments that abuse our bodies and minds because we simply have no choice. Many people around the world are trapped in situations like this, and my heart goes out to them. I've been there. Other jobs may help us make friends with great co-workers, and even find love. The highest form of work though, is self-actualizing work. This is work where you know you are doing good in the world, and doing it in a way that is matching what you would consider your purpose in life. For me, that is teaching, and being a positive force for children to help them learn and grow. There is nothing more sacred to me than that, and I take it very seriously, as well as feel gratitude daily that I get to do it. When I'm lucky, I'm at a great school where I'm allowed to do that at my highest level, and am supported by a culture that helps me to grow to be more effective or try new things. But I am very lucky, I found my purpose early, and it was something I could make a living at.
This is where the principle of Ikigai comes into play. This is a popular Japanese idea that says that in order to achieve the best life, you must find a career that helps the world, makes you happy and fulfilled, and is in need to an extent that you will get paid for it. I agree completely with this idea. I've seen it in my life over and over. When I feel most fulfilled all three of these conditions are met. I feel like my life is going in a positive direction, that I have a purpose. It's one of the reasons I started my blog, "The Happiest Teacher" because teaching makes me truly happy (when I'm in a good teaching environment).
In order to find your Ikigai, your self-actualized work, there is only one way I know that works. You have to try new things. If you don't feel fulfilled in your current profession, you need to make enough space in your life to try another career out. You can do this with side hustles, by dipping your toes into new fields in your off hours, so that you can still fall back on your job that keeps you from being homeless until you can confirm you can replace your primary income with your new passion. You can do this by having family support, whether that is parents or a helpful spouse, who will keep you alive while you pursue other ventures. But you also need to be brave. You need to believe in your ability to learn new skills, make new contacts, and create value for the world that they will pay for. If you lack that confidence, therapy can help.
Don't get stuck in jobs on the low end of the spectrum, where you're working simply for survival. Find your self-actualized career, find your Ikigai.
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