I was in high school during the last years of the Vietnam War, and I was struggling with my conscience as my 18th birthday approached and I became eligible for the draft. Luckily, history spared me this choice and the war ground to an end before I had to face the possibility of fighting in a conflict I deeply opposed.
My most powerful memory of that time came from a discussion I had with my English Teacher, Mr. Orr. He was our resident “hippy” teacher and was as happy as any kid in the school when the dress code was modified to allow boys to grow long hair – after which he grew his long as well. Mr. Orr was a teacher I could confide in about my misgivings about the War. I knew he would be sympathetic to my concerns. I told him I was researching conscientious objector status and even considering leaving the country.
Mr. Orr, in the most unexpected way, challenged my thinking. He said, “Jim, if you don’t like war, join the army.” This advice was stunning to me, and I found it perplexing and disappointing. More than anything I wanted Mr. Orr’s blessing and support to evade the war. But in the years since I’ve returned to this conversation with Mr. Orr many times to tease out the meaning of what he said.
When we are unhappy with the direction of an organization, our first impulse may be to flee. But organizations need people who stay and fight too. Maybe by joining the Army I could have saved lives by being in a position of influence to tamp down some of the needless violence of the War. Maybe if I had joined the Army I could have asked “what are we doing here?” “Is this helping anyone?” “Is lobbing that next grenade going to make us safer?” Maybe by getting inside the Army I could do more good than by walking up and down Main Street with a protest sign.
And, maybe joining the Army would have been a terrible idea. Maybe I would have been utterly powerless and frustrated, maybe I would have challenged authority one too many times, and maybe I would have gotten swept up in the madness and killed. I’ll never know.
Most of us will be faced with this “to be or not to be” question in our career. If I don’t like what’s going on where I am – my culture, my job, my family – should I stay and fight “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or should I head to greener pastures and find a more comfortable place, more in line with my values?
If everyone chooses the latter, we end up with bland organizations that don’t change, and which reinforce their cultures and behaviors through groupthink. Maybe you should stay in that bad situation and try to make it better.
Or, maybe you should get out before the bombs start exploding around you, to find a safer and happier place.
What matters is that you ask yourself the question – and answer it from the highest possible motivation.
During our Path Forward Leadership Workshops, and on our radio show/podcast The Boss Show, we often discuss the idea of bringing your whole self to work, of being authentic, and not having to wear a mask in your work life that results in you being a different person there than you are at home.
So of course I read with interest the recent survey that indicated 47% of Americans don’t have even $400 cash in hand to cover an emergency expense such as a car repair. If almost half of all Americans are walking on a financial tightrope, I’d say it’s fair to assume this is stressful for them and their families.
And of course a person in this situation has to bring this financial stress to the workplace to some degree. Seeing your job as either the only potential way out of your financial duress, or as the limitation that keeps you from enjoying financial success has the potential to change your relationship with your job. Instead of seeing your job as purposeful and engaging and pleasurable, financial stress might cause you to think of it as the only thing that stands between you and ruin. That’s not a very inspiring way to look at one’s career.
And by inference, it has to change your relationship with the people you work with, and most notably the bosses who decide how much money you make and whether or not you get the promotion that would help you pay off your credit card debt. If you’re experiencing financial stress, you may end up feeling frustrated, distracted, and defeated at work. And you may end up feeling that work – and life – are unfair, and that if they would just pay you what you were worth you’d be OK. Financial stress causes your relationship with your employer to feel dependent rather than interdependent. You need them more than they need you. Without them, you’re in deep trouble.
I don’t want to blame the victims here, so if someone makes $10 an hour it may be simply impossible to save any money. But for many or most of these 47% of Americans, saving money is possible. And if you’re not saving money, and you have no financial security, you may find that it damages your work-life in significant ways. Put some money aside, and maybe your relationship with your job will lighten, will seem more doable, more of a choice you made rather than a circumstance in which you’re trapped. Maybe you’ll stop cussing out the boss. Maybe you’ll even experience the freedom to leave a bad situation.
When we lose any sense of financial independence, we potentially suffer a loss of partnership and self-worth at work. Maybe the best thing you can do to make your job more enjoyable is to set yourself up so you don’t need it so desperately.
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