Ken Sato, my new client, [not his real name] sat right across from me, looked me straight in the eye and told me, “work’s got to be better than this.”
Most people would think Ken had it made. He was only 37 and had what most people would call success. We were sitting on $1,000 chairs around a huge mahogany table in the executive board room on the 39th floor of one of Tokyo’s newest skyscrapers. But Ken, the president of a giant insurance company, wasn’t happy. He was serious when he told me he wanted his life at work to be better.
It was late night conference calls, it was investigations by the government regulating agencies, it was conferences with analysts to explain why profitability was up or down, and it was a stream of emails from the regional CEO that were all marked urgent. Some days things slowed down, but on those days he was bored.
He told me he disliked the people he worked with too, even though he had hired most of them. He described them as too conservative or incompetent. In his opinion, his boss was the worst of them all. Ken called him “a control freak”, and even though his boss was in Singapore, he managed to micromanage Ken.
I used to be shocked when I heard what Ken said, but not anymore. I meet people like Ken every day: Bankers, Lawyers, medical doctors, assistant professors, high tech entrepreneurs. They all have what look like very good jobs with good income, but the work is just not working out the way they want. They’re too busy, they’re not busy enough, they’re hassled, they’re not challenged enough, there’s too much pressure, they’re not learning enough. Put simply, work isn’t working and they are not having the kind of life they want at work.
Most are worried about what else they could do or what actions they can take. In some cases, they tell me they “keep busy in order not to think”, “can’t sleep”, can’t escape from worrying”, they “want to do something else” or they “love their job, it’s their boss they hate”. Others tell me it’s “the clients/ the vendors/ the employees who are driving them crazy”.
I don’t tell them to change jobs. That’s a common solution, but it doesn’t alway work. What I see over and over is someone changes jobs and within a year they have the same kinds of problems in the new job that they had with the old one. Unless the underlying problem is fixed, the complaints start all over again.
I don’t tell them to take a vacation either. That’s a very short term solution that never works. You know, after being back just one day after a vacation, it’s like you never left. I have clients who leave Tokyo every weekend for an onsen or an expensive hotel. “Work is hell”, they tell me, “so I need to escape”. As pleasurable as these places are, their trips are not so much for enjoyment as they are for forgetting the week. “Why not develop a more satisfying way of working”, I suggest to them.
I also don’t tell them “the hell with their family” or “their boss is a jerk”. We all need people to support us and we have to learn how to work with many different kinds of people. Part of our job is handling the boss, the clients and the people we work with.
What I do tell them is that work can be a whole lot better and they can have the kind of life they want to work. The first message I delivered to Ken and hundreds of people like him is a very tough message: the underlying problem really lies inside them.
Yes, it starts with you. It’s not an easy notion for many people to accept.
We can easily get locked in to seeing our situation in a fixed way.
It Starts With You
I used to wonder why some people were not having the kind of life they wanted at work. They’re smart. They have a huge set of skills, a good education, money, graduate degrees. In fact, it looks like they have everything. Shouldn’t work be better? Shouldn’t life be better? After all, work is such a big part of life.
But often they have thought of career first and themselves second. They had things backwards. The first step is knowing yourself. That is the foundation on which working the way you want is based.
I always ask new clients “What do you want? What kind of life at work would you like to have? You’d think I was asking them to solve a complex algorithm without a calculator because the most frequent answer I get is, “ I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.”
In some cases, a client will say “I know what I want, but I don’t think I can ever have it. “My wife wouldn’t let me take that job”, or “I’ll become homeless if I take that kind of job.” But now is not the time for thinking about obstacles. It’s the time to think of what you really want.
It’s possible to change your beliefs and widen your perceptions. It requires you to be willing to suspend some of your current beliefs and living more in the moment, being conscious of what is happening now, not yesterday, not next week, but now.
Some have forgotten what they want. Others don’t believe that they can ever obtain what they want, so they keep it hidden. Still others have been so busy focusing on work that they haven’t really thought about what they want. Others fear that if they say what they want, they may be setting themselves up for disappointment if they can not achieve it.
I’m always skeptical when I hear people say, “I don’t know what I want.” It comes out too easily. Often the person really does know what they want. Or at least they know what they once wanted. It’s safe not to acknowledge what they want since with acknowledgement comes the responsibility of taking some action to obtain it. Instead, they keep what they want hidden and say, “I don’t know.”