Principles To Live By: Do You Need To Quit Your Job?


Truth be told, I don’t read blogs on the Harvard Business Review very often, but such is the magic of Twitter and Facebook that occasionally a link title grabs my attention and off I go. Ten Principles to Live by in Fiercely Complex Times is definitely an engaging title (nicely done, Tony Schwartz) because whatever one thinks of generalizations about the current state of the world, complex seems on target to me.

Schwartz’s blog came to my attention within minutes of reading an interesting and provocative Ottawa Citizen article You should probably quit your job (Scott Gilmore). Here’s a clip:

Sadly, though, we are so focused on the pile of immediate problems that we fail to see what Kai and John saw, which is life is too short to be wasted on meaningless work. We all should be doing something important for ourselves, our community, our children, the environment, poverty, or our nation. Remember how you, too, wanted to be a vet? It’s not too late. You should quit your job. But, sadly, you probably won’t.

Sometimes it may seem as though quitting is the only option…

Some have commented that Gilmore’s perspective smacks of elitism, and I can understand that reaction. People have to consider not only themselves when making career changes. But if you look at Gilmore’s emphasis on meaning in the light of Schwartz’s focus on principles, I think it’s useful to think about how living principles that have meaning to us can make our work (no matter what it may be) and our lives better.

Here’s Tony Schwartz’s list, and my own commentary on each:

1. Always challenge certainty, especially your own. When you think you’re undeniably right, ask yourself “What might I be missing here?” If we could truly figure it all out, what else would there be left to do?

My wife Julie Kingstone and I were 24 and 28 respectively when we committed full-time to starting and leading a non-profit organization. You don’t do that without at least some sense of certainty; anyone who tries anything unconventional is going to come up against many negative forces, and that is hard to withstand without some determination that you are “doing what is right.” But of course there have been many instances of feeling undeniably right about decisions that in retrospect are total headshakers. Those will make for a fun self-deprecating blog in the future.

As for the always challenge certainly principle, I’ve got to credit Julie for delivering on that at a very high level. I remain attracted to stability even as I’ve learned to cope and even welcome change. This is one of the benefits of our co-leadership model: there’s a healthy (albeit at times challenging) push-pull about what we need to change, and how fast we need to change it.

2. Excellence is an unrelenting struggle, but it’s also the surest route to enduring satisfaction. Amy Chua, the over-the-top “Tiger Mother,” was right that there’s no shortcut to excellence. Getting there requires practicing deliberately, delaying gratification, and forever challenging your current comfort zone.

This is closely related to #1. To forever challenge your current comfort zone is easier said than done. It’s tiring! But paradoxically, it’s also energizing. Mediocrity is its own form of exhaustion.

I can remember exploring the teaching profession as a student teacher, sitting in a staff room with two experienced teachers who took up part of their daily lunch break literally counting the days to retirement “781 to go…” How does one get up in the morning? And how does that type of attitude impact on students, clients, customers, colleagues?

3. Emotions are contagious, so it pays to know what you’re feeling. Think of the best boss you ever had. How did he or she make you feel? That’s the way you want to make others feel.

Working in “human services” it’s amazing how often we get consumed with process when the people who are dealing with us (often without a lot of choice in the matter) are confronted with projections of negative emotions that render the process meaningless. On paper this type of interaction likely gets referenced as “client decided not to return” or “client was uncooperative” or some other filing that directs blame away from the system and its agents. How often are human services clients even provided the opportunity to comment on the quality of services they are receiving?

Talking about bosses and work environments, I am shocked by the persistence of hierachical structures across all sectors, but I think it amazes me the most in the non-profit sector. How can we expect to attract quality workers to our sector if we are going to bludgeon them with severe bureaucracy? We aren’t going to win them over with better pay and working conditions, so this is about offering them an environment to exercise their passion for making the world a better place.

And yet time and time again I see agencies complaining about staff retention as though external forces are entirely to blame – maybe your agency is just an awful place to work! Have you conducted exit interviews to obtain honest feedback about why people are leaving? Try it. Maybe you’ll find out that it’s not a simple case of “pursuing other opportunities” even if that’s how it was politely explained to you.

We have a very small staff team without much turnover so I can’t speak to that issue with much authority, but I can tell you that we have over 100 volunteers and I know why some of them have left other agencies to come and volunteer with LiveWorkPlay. It’s because they’ve been subjected to mind-numbing protocols that probably haven’t been evaluated since sometime in the 1970s. Again, if you are losing volunteers, ask them why. If you actually knew why they were leaving, presumably you’d have already made changes to turn things around.

4. When in doubt, ask yourself, “How would I behave here at my best?” We know instinctively what it means to do the right thing, even when we’re inclined to do the opposite. If you find it impossible, in a challenging moment, to envision how you’d behave at your best, try imagining how someone you admire would respond.

A great suggestion, and very helpful. I often use this technique by imagining that I am a different member of our small but mighty staff team. For example, when the person across from me introduces a problem into the discussion, I often want to engage in working on a solution before the person is ready. My colleague Allison would just continue to listen (very few people are too good at listening) and sometimes by the time the person is actually done talking, there is no problem!

5. If you do what you love, the money may or may not follow, but you’ll love what you do. It’s magical thinking to assume you’ll be rewarded with riches for following your heart. What it will give you is a richer life. If material riches don’t follow, and you decide they’re important, there’s always time for Plan B.

Is it not weird that this came out on the same day as Gilmore’s article? Again, it’s easier said than done. As one who came through the school system having had teachers say things like “You’ll never amount to much” my own career expectations weren’t set on lawyer or doctor. But I’ll never forget the look on my mother-in-law’s face when my wife announced “I’m quitting my job at the hospital to go and start a charity with Keenan.” (To her credit, mom rose to the challenge and came back with a supportive statement).

For some people following your heart into a career you love takes guts. For people like me, it’s a necessity. Obviously when you need income you do what you have to do, and I’ve been there and done those jobs. But in terms of doing quality work, I’ve found it pretty much impossible to succeed if I can’t come to terms with the associated values of the workplace.

This has been costly at times, both financially and socially. But I don’t think it would be personal progress to learn how to more effectively compromise my values. If there’s been any improvement, it’s been understanding that there are only so many battles that can be fought at once, and picking and choosing is OK.

6. You need less than you think you do. All your life, you’ve been led to believe that more is better, and that whatever you have isn’t enough. It’s a prescription for disappointment. Instead ask yourself this: How much of what you already have truly adds value in your life? What could you do without?

I bought my first new car at age 42. It’s a Mazda 2. I love it. But I’ve had some odd reactions. “Oh, I guess working in non-profit you have to make those kinds of choices.” Huh? It’s a beautiful car. I have always owned small cars. As long as I fit into them, I don’t want or need anything bigger.

That people are pitying of frugality (I don’t see my Mazda 2 as frugal, to me buying any new car is extravagant!) is an unhealthy sign of North American times (small cars including almost the exact version of the one I am driving have been hugely popular in Europe among various income categories for many years).

7. Accept yourself exactly as you are but never stop trying to learn and grow. One without the other just doesn’t cut it. The first, by itself, leads to complacency, the second to self-flagellation. The paradoxical trick is to embrace these opposites, using self-acceptance as an antidote to fear and as a cushion in the face of setbacks.

This one is difficult. A common defense against growth are those people (I am sure you know at least one) who respond to criticism with “Well, that’s just the way I am!” The other side of that coin are people who respond with “Yes, I know, I’m a failure!”

Neither position leads to growth. Both are anti-growth mechanisms. Change is hard work, and it also requires the humility of acknowledging weaknesses. But I know that anything is possible: I was recently moved close to tears when I was complimented on my patience. Patience?!? Wow. I never thought I’d see the day. I still don’t always feel like a patient person (and certainly don’t always act like one) but getting to know and respect so many people with intellectual disabilities who typically need the person across from them to slow down just a little bit, I know I’ve grown. Now if only I could learn to be a little more patient with myself…working on it!

8. Meaning isn’t something you discover, it’s something you create, one step at a time. Meaning is derived from finding a way to express your unique skills and passion in the service of something larger than yourself. Figuring out how best to contribute is a lifelong challenge, reborn every day.

This is a message that I think went missing from Gilmore’s article. I don’t think everyone needs to “quit their job and try to become a vet.” Maybe there are ways of looking at one’s existing career and pushing the boundaries to make a more meaningful contribution. No matter where you work, I can’t believe there aren’t degrees of progress that are available. It probably starts with coffee with the boss and “I’m thinking there’s a lot more I could contribute.”

9. You can’t change what you don’t notice and not noticing won’t make it go away. Each of us has an infinite capacity for self-deception. To avoid pain, we rationalize, minimize, deny, and go numb. The antidote is the willingness to look at yourself with unsparing honesty, and to hold yourself accountable to the person you want to be.

Oh sure Tony, another easy one! External validation is what it’s all about these days. What do you expect in a society where infants compete in beauty pageants?

But truth be told, it just doesn’t fill the gaps. If you are happy with yourself and other people want to share in that, great. But if you are not happy with yourself, there’s no Oscar, Order of Canada, or interview with George Stroumboulopoulos that will fix that.

(George, call me.)

10. When in doubt, take responsibility. It’s called being a true adult.

We could fuel the earth forever if we could just capture the daily energy spent on ass-covering.
People who are unhappy with the state of politics need to take a look in the mirror. Is it not true that voters reward deception as a form of leadership, and punish honesty as a form of weakness? Think about it. We’ve gone beyond truthiness and we’re headling towards truthlessness.

Satire or the new political reality?

Too gloomy? OK, let’s end on a positive note!

I think Schwartz’s list of principles resonated really strongly with me because I’ve recently been surprisingly energized by helping the LiveWorkPlay board of directors with a vision-mission-values-principles task. It’s essentially about tying the work of our organization to leading-edge social policy and best practices to support a better Ottawa community and a better world for people with intellectual disabilities.

But maybe it’s really about holding our organization accountable by having clear principles to live by. A lot of vision and mission statements out there read about the same. But if we have clear principles out there for all to see, we open ourselves to constant internal and external evaluation and challenge. I say bring it on!

If you are interested in that sort of thing, you can read a copy of this work in development. If you have any comments, I will pass them on to our board and they’ll be very pleased to hear from you!

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About Keenan Wellar

I'm a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of local social change charitable organization LiveWorkPlay.ca which supports a good life for people with intellectual disabilities. I'm a very active user of social media. Find me on Facebook http://fb.me/kwellar on Twitter @SocialKeenan on LinkedIn http://tiny.cc/keenanw. I also manage organizational accounts http://fb.me/liveworkplayfans and @LiveWorkPlay. I make a lot of connections locally and worldwide with people who share my belief in inclusive communities, but I also talk sports, food, and travel, and there are few topics that offend me, so please don't be shy.
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One Response to Principles To Live By: Do You Need To Quit Your Job?

  1. Azura Musa says:

    I never saw that Prime Minister show, great use of those videos!

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