Work Different: 7 Mantras to Elevate Your Career With Purpose

James McCrae’s debut book, Sh#t Your Ego Says, is available now. You can also follow him on Instagram.

I can thank my first job for introducing me to Erin, my first girlfriend. I was 14 years old, she was 13. We worked in a cornfield. Along with 30 or so other kids, our job was to walk up and down cornrows and pull tassels from stalks, a form of pollination control and common job for kids in the rural midwest.

Erin and I were assigned to the same crew, and we spent long hours walking together. Our connection was instant. We talked nonstop. We walked slowly.

I was excited to earn my own money. My mind raced thinking about the things I could buy – a CD player, basketball cards, a skateboard. I worked hard, but my focus was usually on the other kids, especially Erin, rather than the cornstalks. We laughed, told stories, pranked each other, made friends and enemies, and fell in love. Together, the crew was a micro-society of children (like Lord of the Flies, with less murder).

My first kiss happened here. At the end of a long day, in the middle of the field, I broke the dual barrier of the cornstalks and my youth by reaching into Erin’s row and sealing my feelings with an awkward peck on the lips. It was the first of many kisses between us, and they became increasingly less awkward.

The mood of these halcyon mornings, however, were different whenever our crew leaders were nearby. They didn’t want us to talk. They wanted us to move faster. When they accused Erin and me of moving too slowly, we were separated. They assigned Erin to a crew on the other side of the cornfield, causing me to resent the crew leaders and resent my job. I quit soon after.

This same drama has unfolded in some form or another at every job I’ve had since. Whatever my role in the years to come – store clerk, caretaker, assembly line worker, radio DJ, burger flipper, roller coaster operator, pool hall manager, telemarketer, graphic designer, strategist, account executive – I have felt pushed and pulled in unnatural directions. Most people I know have felt the same way. We have been separated, it feels, from something important to us.

Does it have to be this way?

Between the ages of 18 and 65, the average American spends over 100,000 hours at work. This is more than any other activity, including sleeping. Whether we love our job (the lucky ones) or merely tolerate it (most of us), the mandatory devotion to upholding an economic system without much ownership goes unquestioned. We are lucky to have our jobs, we are told. We are lucky to serve.

And it’s true. A productive life is a life well lived. Work is an opportunity for collaboration, growth, and education. We are healthier and happier when working toward a shared cause. Yet it’s worth asking whether contemporary capitalism is a cause worth rallying behind. It could be argued that the economic system of the past 75 years has been a ruthless force against humanity. In a world where profit margins are king, no stone has been left unturned in sucking up the world’s wealth and resources by the economic elite. The planet’s environment has been abused in the name of industry and the buying power of the working class has been significantly reduced in order to feed the all consuming appetite of the 1%. This is the system that most of our jobs serve to support.

It’s time for a change. I am not asking for a social revolution. My belief is that when we focus on changing external circumstances, we meet resistance. But when enough people focus on transforming their inner state of awareness, the world will transform as a result. What I’m asking for is a consciousness revolution.

My many jobs have taught me an important lesson. While work can be the cause of anxiety, it can also be a springboard for self-actualization. Those 100,000 hours are too valuable to be spent sedated or miserable. I understand that many jobs feel lacking in purpose. It’s all too easy to clock in and check out. But this approach forgets a fundamental aspect of human psychology – happiness and purpose do not result from external circumstances. Happiness and purpose are created within. Our jobs carry the meaning we assign to them – no more, no less.

Make work matter.

The world is speeding up. Artificial intelligence is emerging. As far as paradigm shifts go, we are on the verge of a big one. People are looking for something stable to hold onto as they wake up and realize that the old ways of working are no longer, well, working.

In the age of the advanced machine, man has no role living as a cog (doing monotonous assembly and computing) because computers can simply do it better. Our linear workflow is also breaking apart. The hierarchy of authority is becoming increasingly flat. In this day and age, it is wise to no longer look for leaders to guide us. Everyone is their own boss now.

The time is ripe for professionals to reclaim our imagination. We must offer what machines cannot: our vision.

Working different requires us to think different. We often draw separations between our work and our fulfillment, but in order to be happy during those 100,000 hours, it is essential to unify our jobs with a sense of purpose and mindful awareness. 

The first step to meaningful change is a shift in perception. The following insights offer advice on turning stress into zen and finding inspiration on the clock.

Society is good at giving labels and putting people, in boxes – black, white, man, woman, straight, gay, weird, normal, intern, manager. But just because we are given a label does not mean we should conform to society’s expectations about how that label should behave. We are limited and empowered by our self-perception. We eventually rise or fall to the level that matches our vision of ourselves.

When I was a professional designer, I thought like a strategist. When I became a strategist, I still worked creatively. What would you do if you could create your own job title? Work that way now.

Interns think different out of necessity. They learn fast because their minds are empty of preconceived ideas about the way things should be. What interns lack in experience they make up for with a more important skill: curiosity. Experience has the unfortunate side effect of causing complacency. The biggest barrier for growth is thinking we know it all.

Curiosity keeps us alive. As Bob Dylan said, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Asking new questions is more important than having the same old answers.

Working in a team environment can resemble post-apocalyptic warfare. On the surface, everybody seems to be working together to achieve the same goal. But each person probably has their own agenda that may conflict with the agenda of others. “Get credit, avoid blame” is the unspoken mantra of most workplace collaboration.

This mentality is poison. In truth, we look better when we make others look good. Give credit away. It fosters good office karma and makes people want to work with you. Getting credit benefits today. Sharing credit benefits forever.

I can’t tell you how many meetings I have attended where everybody in the room, for fear of looking ignorant, will pretend to know things they don’t. People rush to conclusions because admitting uncertainty is, they believe, a sign of weakness. It’s not. Admitting uncertainty shows honesty and confidence.

Surprisingly, the more comfortable I have become saying “I don’t know,” the more my career has advanced. Why? Because good judgement is more valuable than instant, incorrect answers. People sense bullshit, and not giving any is refreshing.

When we give questions space to breathe, we make room for more data to become available and the correct answer to become clear.

The pressure to be busy can feel like a dragon breathing down our necks. “Look busy” might be the most common work advice given. But you would be hard pressed to find any idea, product, or service of lasting value that resulted from aimless busy work.

When work is slow, our time is better invested in reconnecting with our work’s purpose and cultivating our long term vision. Look ahead and plan where you want to be in six months. Plant small seeds to help you get there.

There is a zen saying. “When sitting, sit. When walking, walk. But don’t wobble.” The point is to be fully engaged in the present moment, whatever it brings. When working, work. When planning, plan. When recharging, recharge. When finished, don’t look back.

Your profession does not make a difference – actor, dishwasher, congressman, yoga teacher – if you want to succeed, you have to fail first. The trick is to get your failures out of the way early.

Comedians don’t get laughs until they have become so comfortable bombing that failure no longer frightens them. The secret is understanding that playing it safe is more risky than taking steps outside your comfort zone. When we play it safe, we never fail. We also never learn. We get stuck in patterns that become increasingly hard to break.

It’s easier to take chances before you get too comfortable, so get on stage and start bombing. Enjoy the sound of boos and gradually turn them into cheers.

Technology and business are evolving at a rapid speed; our work must be different to keep pace. Companies want to take advantage and bring innovation to their industries. The question is: how many professionals are doing the inner work to expand their perception and innovate the thoughts and beliefs that subconsciously control their actions?

Innovation is the deconstruction of old ways of thinking that creates space for new ideas to unfold. We work the same way we live. No amount of hard work can innovate when the mind is held down by ego, dogma, and self-limiting beliefs. When we expand our perception and break the outdated rules we live by, innovation and inspiration flow with ease. We can only break the chains of our work once we have broken the chains of our thoughts and beliefs. When consciousness changes, work follows.  

James McCrae’s debut book, Sh#t Your Ego Says, is available now. You can follow him on Instagram.
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