The close of one academic year leads to thoughts of the summer ahead and the arrival of another academic year in the autumn: one cycle ends, another begins. And whilst there is always a need to start preparations for the new year before the summer ‘recess’, I am keeping in mind how easy it is to flow from one cycle to the next without proper time for withdrawal and renewal - making space for what Fritz Perls would call the ‘fertile void’. Maybe because I have just shepherded my first cohort through the two year MSc programme this particular year end has had me reflect on the nature of my work. I re-trained as a therapist, in part, to make my leave from academia; and yet I find myself ‘back in’. As much as I love the interaction with trainees and engaging in the scholarship and mastery of my new profession that University life offers, I still find myself recoiling somewhat from academic processes (and admin!).
I’m a realist though, and I appreciate that all work comes with the polarities of enjoyment and obligation. How we carry our work depends a lot on our attitude, how we view what we do and how it contributes to our life situation; how it helps us meet our passions, our purposes; and how it helps us grow as individuals, in relationship; and how it provides meaning - a reason to perhaps get up in the morning. How do you view your work? I thought I would share a few ideas I have in the post this week.
During the past week, I have been mulling over words like “job”, “career”, and “vocation. What do they mean to me? Which one of these most fits the nature of my work? Given I live a ‘multi-compartmental’ working life (as therapist, supervisor, mentor, educator, and leader) does one word encapsulate my attitude to all those roles, or can each mean a different thing to me? It can often be helpful to start with a few definitions:
Job: a paid position of regular employment; a piece of work or specific task done as part of the routine of one’s occupation (for an agreed price)
Career: an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress
Vocation: a person's employment or main occupation, often a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career, and especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication.
My pondering on work inter-mix with that sense of being mid-life: no doubt my views on my work have shifted in the past 5 to 10 years. When I gained my PhD some 20 years ago, I knew the path I wanted to tread - to build a career in research as an exercise physiologist. At that time, I would have regular planning sessions, setting goals and aiming in set directions with my work: considering themes, setting research questions, designing laboratory experiments, data collection, results and analysis, and disseminating the findings through paper writing and conference presentations. I was on a roll and published at a good rate in my field. I knew where I was going, and how I was going to get there. This was the epitome of a career, planned progress. We can understand this attitude when we look at the root of the word ‘career’ - the running of a ‘course’, from the Latin cararia and still seen in the French carriere. The French verb is ‘to carry’, we carry a purpose in our work, and we carry it somewhere.
Something shifted when I decided to reduce my career progress and commit to my athletic career as a cyclist. My research post became a ‘job’ that allowed me to pursue an athletic ‘career’: it was the latter that now got me up each morning, that had me planning and goal setting. I still worked hard in my job, but my passion has changed object. And, when I write this about having a 'job', by no means does that imply jobs can't be enjoyed and indeed loved. For me, I had reached a plateau in my research career and I needed a new stretch. I was fortunate that the two still carried a link - my research ideas helped me understand sports performance, and those ideas could find an outlet in my athletic pursuits. I think there was a subtle shift again when I slowed down my own sporting life and moved toward helping others. My motivation in setting up a sport science and coaching business outside of the University was twofold: to make my escape from academia and become financially independent. Looking back, I realise there was also the wish to help others - a seed was planted.
And that seed germinated to a vocation - the wish to help others. Over time, sporting performance of my athletes became background and their satisfaction and happiness became more figural. I became driven to understand more about human nature and how I could help. I didn’t do my life coaching training in order to become a life coach, I did so to become a better coach to my athletes: the business motto was “be the best YOU can be”, and that applied to me “Coach Carter” as much as it did to my athletes. I set out to master the art and science of coaching: again I was driven, I had passion - but it was less about goals, it didn’t feel like a career yet it was more than a job. In fact, I didn’t really earn any money being a coach, not given the long hours I put in. But that didn’t matter.
…until I burnt out! 14 hour working days, attending races at weekend, driving with the mobile lab to meet athletes and put them through their paces in fitness tests…I emptied myself out. I became stressed, anxious and eventually depressed. I found meditation, and that practice gave me enough clarity to see I had to get out. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. I felt I had failed, yet for perhaps the first time in my life I listened to my gut rather than the critical voice in my head. I needed long term change, and with my own meeting of mental health issues, I found a way out through a new passion - counselling and psychotherapy. Re-training was motivated by the same purpose: to help others; and yet it also offered a way I could be financially independent yet without the same scale of responsibility. It offered a way I could meet people weekly and provide a service in a more contained way. My coaching work had been too unboundaried, I bleed myself dry. Counselling offered something more structured. Not quite “just a job”, but certainly work with less overflow in to my life…ha, how naive was I!!
My counselling training took me apart, it deconstructed everything I thought I knew about me - but I needed to unravel: my encounter with anxiety and depression told me that. By engaging with my own struggle, I was able to meet others in theirs - “helping others” deepened to “helping others with their suffering’. THIS is what continues to drive me today - in my private practice psychotherapy work, and in my teaching of new trainees at the University. People often ask me how it feels to have both of those ‘jobs’. And this is the pinnacle of my current contemplation around how I earn a living. In some ways, I feel they are two facets of the same vocation: the same but different. I took on the role at the University with the attitude “I am a psychotherapist who happens to also teach”. If asked, I would probably say I don't consider myself having a career as a therapist: yes to increasing mastery, but no to striving and planning to get somewhere other than I am.
Yet sometimes what feels a simple distinction can get muddied. The University role calls for staff to be engaged in research, with admin. Most of us teaching on the counselling and psychotherapy courses are part-time, so it makes invites to supervise fascinating PhD projects harder to entertain. These are facets of having an ‘academic career’ that can be tempting; yet they take energy, and it can be hard to discern if that takes me away from or towards my true vocation of helping others. For example, I am very aware that my intention is to write a book someday; and I am equally aware that there is passion AND inertia for this project. How do I use my time most effectively? Can I write a book and still give as much as I do in my therapy work and in my teaching position? What are my priorities? How can I do all of this and still live a life?
No simple answers. As a therapist, and as a Buddhist, I also attend to what is driving me perhaps out of my awareness. In the first half of my life undoubtedly there was a degree of fuel for my career that was ego-ic: achievement was a mis-guided attempt at feeling better about myself. I am not saying everyone has this energy in the pursuit of a career, I can only speak for my own journey as I climbed the mountain up to my mid-life. Often I was driven by a need to feel okay; to prove I was okay. I look back on that climb with mixed feelings - the drive helped me achieve many things I am proud of, yet that drive also cost me. I now believe that we can strive for more not from a place of ‘lack’ but from a place of stretching and growth. I do wish I had discovered that earlier, but it is what brought me to this very path - the ‘wounded healer’.
I was listening to a podcast recently from the late Michael Stone, a teacher I very much admired. In this teaching he urges a trust “to know you are already a Buddha, so you can live your life as a Bodhisattva”. For me, that speaks directly to the ego-ic striving. To know we are perfectly okay as we are, no need to push or prove; and rather we can relax and strive instead to help others. As the Bodhisattva vow states:
The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.
Dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it fully.
As a “baby” or aspiring Bodhisattva, I come back to how can I help people the most? Do I focus on devoting my time to 1-2-1 work - less people but it goes deeper. Or do I look at ways to contact and impact more people: write a book that many people can make use of or devote myself to training new therapists that magnify my efforts, and reach more people who suffer? Just this morning I taught one of my clients meditation for the first time. Immediately I re-remembered the power of this ancient and simple methodology…and I vowed to get back to my teaching with groups.
I think the only solution is to instate another day in our week! Or, maybe I can hang out in the fertile void over the summer and reflect on how I can best help. In the space, a calling is best heard.