Treat your career as a temple: 7 principles for more flow and less struggle [Wise Wednesdays]
Well, it’s a long one. Wise Wednesdays is back with a vengeance after a break! First of a new season written with some heaviness of heart at the situation in Afghanistan. Hopefully, this Wise Wednesdays offers you some reflective and useful reading wherever you are in this moment.
When I’ve travelled, I’ve always enjoyed visiting places of worship regardless of religion. The cool, calm shelter of a cathedral in southern Spain can be the epitome of soothing.
But not travelling this year inspired me to create a silent retreat at home. It felt like it was time to reflect a bit more deeply after 5 years in the same ‘job’. Not just for a break but a deep dive.
Meditation has been an important part of my life and was a critical practice in regulating my fears during the career leap I took in 2016.
Spending 10-14 hours a day meditating might not be the typical idea of a summer break. But I felt I needed it, even if it was scary to commit to in the first place. It was an adventurous visit of the temple of the mind and heart…
Sometimes, it was like being on a safari with high resolution binoculars or a visit to the Zoo, gawping, wide-eyed at the weird and wonderful beasts in the deep recesses of the mind.
However, I had to pull back at around 2 weeks. After 5 days of sleeping only 4 hours, I was feeling the strain. It was a challenge given to me by the Buddhist monk who was guiding me through daily calls - to ‘intensify the practice’, he explained. Perhaps I was enjoying myself too much.
I was curious and tempted to take on the next level of the monk’s challenge. I’d gained so much insight and answers to questions I had on my mind from his guidance, it was hard to acknowledge that I may need to slow down.
But my intuition was clear that the recovering overachiever in me needed to let go just a little bit more of the desire to get somewhere. It was time to give way to wisdom and compassion and look after my basic needs.
It was an important moment of insight and recommitment to a more balanced approach. Perhaps that was the monk’s intention all along.
After all, powerful transformational processes just mirror back all the ways you get in your own way on increasingly subtle levels, so you can release them and flow with life more easily.
While life has its challenges, it cannot be a constant challenge.
However, the wider work culture doesn’t make it easy to live with compassion and in flow.
A career can feel like a battlefield sometimes.
You may be immersed in an environment that goads you into a constant struggle, demanding proof of your worth by continuous results rather than supporting you to trust the natural, seasonal flow of a productive life.
You may want to take a step back in your career to reflect but feel under pressure to reach one milestone after another or stay in survival mode.
Weeks, months and years can go by in this dilemma with your organisation patting you on the back because you ‘deliver’.
So, what can you do?...
[Read on or watch the video]
START WHERE YOU ARE
The good news is that to be happy and fulfilled in your career you don’t have to change what you’re doing or even what you’re thinking – not immediately anyway.
Transformation starts with changing how you’re thinking about (i.e., relating to) what you’re doing – with more compassion, for example.
You’re exactly where you need to be right now.
You certainly don’t have to get your career to fit a particular image or model.
So, what if instead of a battlefield, your career felt like a temple instead?
Rather than something to conquer or fix, what if your career was something you visited daily through your work to remember what’s important to you and receive clues as to your next step?
Treating your career as a temple could mean seeing your career as an ongoing process to which you bring your good will and courage to face the unknown, rather than tackling it as a set of goals and being hard on yourself if they don’t happen.
It would mean trusting your intuition (not just rational thinking) to navigate complexity and taking inspired action (not just logical action) to move through uncertainty. Both ancient wisdom and the growing body of neuropsychological evidence agree on this.
(See psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist’s extensive review of the neuroscience on giving precedence to the intuitive right brain hemisphere over the rational left brain hemisphere in his book The Master and His Emissary).
Until the culture catches up with the science and ancient wisdom, here are a few ideas to play with if you’re uplevelling your (relationship to) your career to struggle less and flow more:
1) DISTINGUISH JOB VS CAREER VS CALLING
At any one time in your life, your work may take one the form of a job, career or calling.
Jobs serve an organisation, Careers serve an industry or profession, Callings serve your vision (something bigger that isn’t always clear).
Things you can do to turn a job or career into a calling include:
- Meaningfulness (aligning more projects with your values)
- Sense of purpose (clarifying and acting on your vision or mission)
- Service (contributing to something beyond personal needs)
Finding a calling isn’t necessarily the goal. You can weave in and out of these forms (job/career/calling) trusting that you’re being guided as to which one is the best for you, right now. Sometimes you’ve just gotta pay the bills!
2) DESIGN RITUALS NOT HABITS
Tony Robbins uses this interesting distinction. Whereas habit is generic and often serves your personal needs, ritual taps into that sacred something that’s bigger than yourself and inspires you.
You can transform a habit into ritual simply by remembering your intention for doing it in the first place – your ‘why’ - and imbuing the action with great care and mindfulness e.g. when you start your work or go to a meeting (ever notice how the quality of a meeting changes when you take a mindful pause at the beginning?)
Bonus: You’ll be surprised at how many things you stop doing as a result of this level of intentionality and clarity in your habits, which will free up your time and energy.
3) KNOW YOUR SWEET SPOT WITHIN THE BIGGER PICTURE
Even if you think it’s impossible to turn your vision into a reality right now, do yourself a favour and give yourself some space to connect with it regularly.
Acknowledge what it is that you really want or don’t want and how that fits in to a bigger picture.
Ikigai is a great tool for this which you can find easily online.
4) EMBRACE THE “DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL” EPISODES
The dark night of the soul describes times of painful breakdown and confusion where old demons surface – fear of failure, anxiety, disappointment. They come when you least want them to. They’re implicit in expressions like: “change cycle”.
This is where mentoring and coaching can become a mental health support and help prevent prolonged misery and suffering.
These dark night episodes are a normal part of an authentic journey for most people. As they say: your breakdowns are your breakthroughs.
They give you a chance to let go of deeper limiting beliefs and internalised models of career and life that no longer serve you, so you can create something new and better!
Just make sure you get guidance and support and be mindful of the instinct to isolate, tough it out or DIY. I speak from experience...
5) LET GO INTO THE MYSTERY
The ‘How do I do X..?’ question is a common one for high performance and often the start of a coaching conversation. But treating your career as a temple requires that you sometimes take steps without knowing the outcome or how you’re going to get there immediately.
I like to ask my clients: ‘If you trusted your intuition 100% what would you do?’
Rather than looking for definitive, quick answers, trust your intuitive knowing and give it time to come up e.g. while on a walk or in the shower!
See your decisions as experiments to learn from: you don’t know how they will turn out but you have a hunch, you will learn something and it will be another step in the right direction for you.
6) CARVE OUT QUIET TIME AND CREATIVE SPACE REGULARLY
You might feel that it’s becoming impossible to have a moment of true quiet. Technology is slowly saturating human attention – always some bit of information or entertainment to consume.
Yet, your most brilliant ideas emerge from silence – these are the truly creative and innovative ideas that can change your world.
They need space to be incubated, articulated developed and prioritised. If you have a coach, they should be helping you do this more than planning action.
IBM’s global leadership survey in 2011 named creative ideation as the number one skill for the future. Alas, workplaces are still overwhelming for most.
I once coached a brilliant academic who felt she was spinning her wheels consulting for large organisations. We sent her inner-critic on holiday and she finally gave herself permission to take 3 weeks off and fly to Thailand for a break including a yoga retreat which she’d wanted to do for a long time. She came back refreshed and clear. She promptly resigned from her contract, expanded her options and got headhunted for a dream leadership role in a university combining her diverse skills and interests. Luckily, she trusted her intuition enough to put aside her imposter to go for the interview and take the job. Her work is doing much good in the world.
This is why quiet time – with minimal information and distractions – will be increasingly important.
It shouldn’t be the preserve of elites, or just writers, artists and monastics, but a right for anyone who contributes to society with their ideas and energy in a busy marketplace.
7) BE GLORIOUSLY HUMAN
Treating your career as a temple, means that the human in you is honoured – perfection is not a requirement for happiness and fulfilment. The interface between your perfectly imperfect humanity and the bigger mystery is where your intuition and creativity speak.
Since machines will likely continue to replace much of the work we humans do (including in the law, medicine and finance, as forecast by McKinsey and others), we have no choice but to redefine where the human edge is – what makes us unique, gloriously imperfect as it is. Hint: see creativity, above.
"Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion." - Anatoli Boukreev
If you’ve read this far, you can probably stop reading Wise Wednesdays forever now!
To paraphrase Bourkeev: Your career doesn’t have to be a battlefield of relentless ambition but a temple where you practise your deepest values.
You’ll spend an estimated 80,000 hours or 70% of your waking hours in work. These hours don’t have to be used solely to satisfy your basic needs (for food and shelter) or even your psychological ones (for respect, belonging and achievement, etc).
Whether you realise it or not, your work is part of a bigger whole in a complex, interdependent global economy.
If you treat your career as a temple, using some of the principles above and any others that inspire you, you’ll start to see where your energies are truly needed and how to get there. You’ll start to feel less struggle and more episodes of flow.
It becomes a co-creative process that draws out your gifts and self-leadership and has repercussions far beyond your career.
If I chose one recommendation for a fulfilling career in a complex 21st century environment, it would be to include a ritual of quiet time – or Executive Time - including a regular re-evaluation of how you’re relating to your work e.g. is there enough compassion? This is increasingly important in a world where we’re in touch with more of the suffering happening across the globe.
To help you on your path, spend time with kindred spirits and call on help when you need it.
And don’t worry about not having enough time.
"Our life is but a flash of lightening, yet there is enough time." - Kazantzakis.
Have a good week,
p.s. Join the next Leaders Circle (workshop) on Sept 15th. If you want to explore deeper approaches to ‘managing up’, ‘getting buy in from your team’ or ‘stakeholder engagement’, this special 2-hour event may be for you. More info here.