Work is a Fickle Mistress

Borrowing from Robert Heinlein seems ironically appropriate to the subject of work.  He was a true iconoclast in his day and was in many ways antithetical to the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s ideas of corporate work.  Yet at the same time he extolled the virtues of (personal) hard work.  Anyway…

Here are some of my hard-won lessons from work:

1) Work is no substitute for friends or family.

2) Work is an inconstant source of self-esteem and self-worth.

3) Loyalty exists primarily between individuals.

4) Unpredictability, uncertainty, and whim are powerful factors in decisions and change.  Denial of this, however, is relatively constant.

5) When there is a conflict between the two:   Perception trumps reality.

If these words were transported back to my past self who had only been in the professional world I would only have agreed, mostly, with #1.  It took a good five years to wrap my brain around #2, and only partially at first.  #3 was the next to go when I saw layoffs decimate good, solid, talented, and occasionally “indispensable” people around me.  Lessons #4 and #5 came later still.

These are tough, but important lessons.  They do not promote warm fuzzy feelings.  But I do believe they do provide a certain clarity and perspective.  Feel free to disagree with me 🙂  I am unlikely, in such matters, to convince you of anything that do not currently feel or perceive.

As an antidote of sorts to the slightly bitter taste of these ideas, let me offer some counterbalancing thoughts:

a) Friends and family can be absolutely wonderful.  People that care about and support you are truly precious, and are the most important part of life.

b) A meaningful and deep sense of self-worth is not easily attained, but it can be.  Personal integrity and compassion are ultimately more important, lasting, and satisfying than professional accomplishments.

c) While “organizational loyalty” seldom lasts much longer than the next quarterly earnings announcement, person-to-person professional relationships can last for decades.  Positive professional relationships founded on mutual respect transcend business units, companies, and even industries.

d) Alrightly, I admit this one (#4) stumps me a bit.  I have, however, found humor to be somewhat of an positive counterbalance.  My father has some advice on this one too, but I’m only partially there with it…  “It’s all a game. Treat it like a game and win.”   I sense the truth in that, but I am not ready to fully swallow the redpill just yet.  Now, many highly successful people have told me the same thing…

e) One need not sacrifice integrity to put a little polish on one’s achievements and talents.  Marketing oneself is OK and even good.  Greater truth, reality, and beauty are abundant in so many places, but much more so outside of work.  Finding what is beautiful to oneself is a worthwhile part of life.  For myself I find sources of beauty in lawns, gardens, food, working with my hands, math, science, history, conversation, and travel — to name a few.

This was a challenging article to write.   I really struggled to write something heartfelt yet objective; something that I can look back on in 5, 10, 20 years,  and hopefully still find resonance.   Regardless of whether I achieved these goals, I am happy I made the effort.  Work is such a overwhelming part of personal finance that it bears occasional reflection.  I particularly look forward, dear reader, to your comments on this little missive.

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