Most of us who view ourselves as successful draw on an inner source of either adrenaline or endorphins that accompany the excitement of new life directions. They move us to action that effects change. People who claim to inhabit the higher planes of professional existence seek out, or at least are able to recognize, the force the moves them to these levels of energy. We have phrases like “things are just clicking” or “flow” or (how 1960s) “in the groove” at work. Like a runner, we’re on runners’ high, fueled by that adrenaline and those endorphins.
However, this rush can sometimes be an unhealthy placebo or diversion that we use just to distract ourselves from our deeper fears. The philosopher Pascal in fact admonished us that our careers and hobbies are just a way to keep us from facing the true plight of humanity, lost in a universe incomprehensible at human scale. In your career sprint are you running toward the goal? toward anything? Or are you running from something? It’s easy to fool ourselves, and some people can’t easily tell the difference — when things are bad enough, anything looks good.
Sometimes, there’s something I need to do — like, for example, to write one of these columns to meet a deadline. But I feel uninspired and one of the many other things that are usually on my plate look more appealing. I put it off. We have a word for that in Danish: overspringshandling. It’s actually an animal behavior that transcends our higher existence as humans, so it would be silly to deny that it’s part of us.
There can be a more sinister side to those who are driven. Preoccupation with work can be a substitute for an uncomfortable family life. It’s easy to stay late at work and to let the spouse deal with daily drudgeries of home life. Some people are trying to outrun the ghosts of childhoods lived in poverty and seek the gold ring as a token of security — an overspringshandling that creates workaholics. They are running from their former selves. And some aspire to a promotion, raise, or appointment that validates their own worth to themselves. These may be running from their true selves — or, at least, from their perception of their deepest self.
In knowing what motivates you, it’s sometimes interesting to ask what constitutes Done. How will you know when you are finished? When you cross the finish line in a race, the race is Done for you. Some people think of careers in terms of finish lines, and that qualifies a 10K race as a finite game that comes to an end and qualifies winners and losers (see Do the Right Thing). Others view a race as part of training regimen that is a stepping stone to running a marathon — still a finite game. But it’s not just about the goal. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow, 1974), tells us, “To strive only for some future goal is shallow. ... [I]t is on the sides of the mountain where things grow. ... The top defines the sides.” Maybe you run to stay healthy so you can better enjoy life with family and friends.
A good career reflects a balance of focus and drive, with a perspective to not take work too seriously. There is more to career than work, and there is more to life than career. Enjoy the run, enjoy passing the mileposts along the way — but most of all, savour the experience, and stop to smell the roses.