Two psychoanalysts were walking down a narrow road. A colleague came up to them for a stop-and-chat and asked:
“How are you today?”
Both analysts looked at each other and wondered:
What would he mean by that?
When I first came to America some 15 years ago, I noticed something strange. Whenever I asked someone: “How are you?” people would usually respond by telling me about their work, as if I had asked them: “What do you do?”
TO DO OR NOT TO DO
This begs the question: is our work so important that this is how we ultimately define ourselves? Isn’t there’s a big difference between ‘being’ and ‘doing’? Isn’t what we do only a part of who we really are?
Now, I completely understand that for some people, a profession is an expression of their identity, especially for those working in a creative field. But if we confine our definition of ourselves to the job we do, are we giving ourselves enough credit?
On one level, it is a privilege to be able to turn a passion into a profession and make it the center of our universe. Beethoven did it. Picasso too, perhaps. It can also be dangerous. How dangerous? Let me tell you about John*.
John was a colleague of mine at the station I used to work for. Radio was his life. It was his ‘magnificent obsession.’ In fact, that’s all he ever talked about. He was a walking encyclopedia of all things wireless.
John was one of those gentle men you would easily overlook at a party. He seemed socially shy and out of place. But put him in front of a microphone, and you almost wouldn’t recognize him: he was engaging, energetic, funny and full of… life! The two sides of this golden coin couldn’t have been more different.
One day, serious looking men in charcoal gray suits walked into our station. They had one mission: to make us do more with less. Cutbacks were unavoidable. Layoffs were a certainty. It was only a matter of time.
Rumors were spreading fast. Would they get rid of those who had joined the station last, or would they turn to the veterans who, because of their seniority, were making a very decent salary, thereby draining the budget?
A LOST MAN
Two weeks later, I got my answer. John and I shared an office, and I saw him putting some old tapes and CD’s into a cardboard box. “Getting ready for the show, tomorrow?” I asked. Then I took a good look at him. His face had lost all color as if he had donated too much blood. “John, are you alright?” I said. “Do you need some help?” He never said a word to me, and continued packing, as if in a trance.
The next morning, the sound engineer knocked on my door. “This is John’s desk, right?” he wanted to know. “You’re looking at it,” I said. “It’s never been cleaner.”
“Do you happen to know where he is?” asked the engineer. “We’re supposed to tape his show in a few minutes. Usually he sets things up way ahead of time and I can’t find him anywhere.”
“To be honest with you, I haven’t seen him all morning,” I replied. “That’s not like him at all.”
Of course we called John’s home and he didn’t appear to be there either. Where could he be? All of us knew that he lived for his radio show and that he hadn’t missed a taping in thirty years. We were getting worried.
THE FINAL ANSWER
Two hours later, the management said they had an announcement to make. Two kids playing together had spotted John… hanging from a bridge.
One of John’s long-time colleagues and closest friends exploded when he heard the news. He stormed off saying: “Those bastards. They killed him. They should burn in hell!”
“What was that about?” I asked the sound engineer.
“I just heard,” he said.
“Heard what?” I asked.
“John had a meeting with the management, yesterday.”
“And?” I wanted to know.
“They fired him. Just like that.”
A LIFE’S WORK
The example of John is extreme. But I’m sure you know people for whom their work is their life. We praise them for their dedication. We admire them for what they accomplish. And when the reason for their existence is suddenly taken away from them, they are left with a void.
So, let me ask you: How are you?
Who are you?
How much of you is shaped by the work you do? Are you still chasing your dreams of a life filled with fame and fortune? Do you feel that you’ve achieved success?
Writer, endocrinologist and one of the principal proponents of mind-body medicine, Deepak Chopra, came from India to study in the United States. He authored more than 50 books, including “Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul.”
His writings, CD’s, seminars and appearances have made him a wealthy man. But does he consider himself to be successful? Well, it depends on the definition.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him once, and Chopra defined success as follows:
- The progressive realization of worthy goals;
- The ability to love and have compassion;
- To be in touch with the creative source inside you;
- To ultimately move from success to significance
ALWAYS ON THE GO
So, measured by those standards, how are you really doing? And how are we doing as a society? Sometimes it’s best to have others hold up a mirror.
Many years ago, a visitor from a distant land came to the New World. He had never seen any skyscrapers, department stores or the subway during the Monday morning rush hour. He was obviously overwhelmed and couldn’t wait to get back to his country, to report to his tribe what he had seen.
“What are the people like?” was what they wanted to know.
“The people?” he said? “I’ll tell you!”
“All they do is hurry-worry, hurry-worry. Day in day out.”
“What are you wearing on your wrist?” asked one of the elders, pointing at a watch that was given to him as a present.
“This is a device that tells you what hour of the day it is. It’s called a watch,” the man said.
“And you know what?” he continued,
“In this New World I visited, everybody wears a watch.
But nobody has time.”
“Nice story”, said the psychoanalyst to the narrator. “Thank you for that.”
Then he turned to me. “I believe we have to welcome a new member to our group today. Tell us who you are.”
I took a deep breath and said:
“Hello. My name is Paul, and I’m a workaholic.”
“Hi Paul” answered the group in unison.
“Great,” said the therapist.
“Now we all know who we are, let’s get to work!”
PS What’s the one word that saved my freelance career? Find out in my next article.
*John’s not his real name. I have changed it to protect the identity of those involved.