Work Is Not Your Life

Very few things in our lives are absolute. Everything is measured by degree, from our attention to our patience to the range and intensity of our emotions.

At the same time, some things are absolute: You can’t be all things to all people and, throughout your life, you’ve got to make hard choices, sacrifices, and compromises, and then you’ve got to live with them through thick and thin for a very long time.

What we become isn’t a necessary result of fate or destiny, says inc. It’s certainly not foretold or pre-ordained. Throughout our lives we remain a work in progress. Iteration isn’t just a business process; it’s also a strategy for a life well-lived. We can bend and shape outcomes to match our desires if we consciously, actively, and continually apply ourselves. But the good things we all hope for don’t happen by themselves; you’ve got to pay attention and make them happen.

Purpose, Perspective, Proportion

One of the most critical choices you’ll need to make when you start out in your career is exactly what kind of person you want to be. Almost everyone today wants to be an entrepreneur, build a business, and be a big honking overnight success. But that’s only part of the story. Ultimately it’s not about making money, it’s about making a difference. It’s also about more than making a living: It’s about making a life. And the “you” that you become is a big part of the life you build outside the office, as well as within your business.

In the frenzy of the work and the world it’s really important that you don’t lose your sense of purpose, perspective, and proportion–and risk losing yourself in the process. Your business and your work will always be what you do. These things are not who you are. And it’s critical right from the start that you not confuse or conflate the two.

This isn’t as easy to manage as you may think. Today too many of us worship our work, work at our play (fitness uber alles), and play at what little worship we make a part of our lives. Where are the soul and the value in that? And (assuming that we want to) how exactly do we get ourselves back on top of things before they veer entirely out of control?

To handle the constant barrage of useful information, occasional insights, and useless chatter that increasingly assaults our senses and impedes our ability to get successfully through the day we need a new plan. You can drown in many ways today – in data, in documents, in deliberations, and in endless discussions. We all need to develop new skills for managing both the data and the people in our lives. It’s similar to the radical and rapid choices that drive the triage process in an emergency room. But there are many different kinds of choices in the mix.

At work, we tend automatically to focus on the fiercest fires and the highest flames. We let our attention be directed toward the newest crisis rather than remaining in some kind of control and attending to the critical things that really matter. Attention is as slippery as mercury, and as easily redirected. If no one is paying attention to the things that count, people just stop caring. Once you stop paying attention to the people in your business who are important, and they stop caring about you and your business, they’ll go someplace else, to someone who does pay attention and who does care. It’s just a matter of time.

But that’s on the business side of the equation. As the number of physical, mental, and emotional inputs we absorb each day continues to increase it becomes all too easy to apply the same systems, formulae, and checklists we use at work to our friends and families. This is where things can go very wrong very quickly.

That’s because some of the people decisions we confront every day aren’t mathematical or subject to standard rules and procedures–they’re choices about other people, about feelings, and about our relationships. These concerns are fundamentally different, non-mechanical, and far more complex. People aren’t products, positions, or policies–they’re our co-workers, friends, and family. There’s no fixed formula for getting these things right.

So it’s equally incumbent upon us to decide what’s truly important in these interpersonal situations, both in the moment and in the long run, and to devote to them the same passion and energy we apply to our business problems and concerns. It’s a given that there’s never enough time in the day (and that’s never going to change); there’s never enough of any one of us to go around (cloning may help, someday); and it’s way too easy to find an excuse rather than finding the time to deal with these issues.

But here’s the bottom line: Your family (when you have one) will be a much more important extension of yourself than any work you do. There’s always more work, but you only have one family. And, believe me, good friends are also few and far between. Friends are the family that you get to choose–they’re hard to find, even harder to leave, and impossible to forget. So, as you make ’em, make a plan to hang on to them. They’re as important an investment over time as anything else.

Take a little time now to decide how you’d like things to turn out when you look back in 50 years at your accomplishments, your family, and what you’ve built. It’s all right there before you. Everything is possible; ultimately, it’s all about what you make of it.