Life’s Work

“Most of us think too much about what we should do and not enough about what we should be.”

When I was a young child I spent several years living with my extended family in the Philippines, where I learned to speak Tagalog. The language contains a beautiful expression for work — hanap buhay. When literally translated this term for work means “the search for life.” I have always liked this way of thinking about work — that it is an inward journey towards discovery where the things that make you feel most alive become your life’s work.

During childhood there is often a certain moment when a well-meaning adult asks you the big question, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” What I like about this question is that it embraces the idea that work is an expression of who you are as well as who you want to be. Yet that familiar question takes an odd turn when you actually become an adult. “What do you do for a living?” becomes the question we typically ask each other. Gone is the inquiry about what you aspire to “be.” This shift in emphasis from “being” to “doing” focuses you solely on the external activities and behaviors that you perform for your work, rather than on your intrinsic values, strengths and motivations.

“Most of us think too much about what we should do and not enough about what we should be,” said the fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart. “If we would pay more attention to what we should be, our work would shine forth brightly.” How true. What if instead of simply creating “To Do” lists for ourselves, we also create “To Be” lists of what we aspire to be in our working lives and beyond? I invite you to experiment with a To Be list. Here are some prompts to get you started:

  • How would I like each day to unfold?
  • What would I like to be focusing my energy and attention on, if I had any choice available to me?
  • What makes me experience joy?
  • What energizes me?
  • What makes me feel balance? Integration?
  • What state of mind would I like to be in while I work?
  • What other aspects of my life do I wish to be paying more attention to?
  • By the end of my life, what kind of person do I wish to be?

The answers that emerge from questions like these can influence and direct your work, ultimately allowing you to thrive in that work because you are following your own life’s energy, instead of opposing it, fighting it or suppressing it. By placing attention on what it means to be fully aligned, fully yourself, and fully present in your work, you are able to give your best to your work, to yourself, and to the world.

Being as fully as I can in my work has been an important realization in my own life. Being has guided me to make decisions that are not motivated by a desire for achievement, but by a desire to do work I find truly meaningful, work that makes me feel alive. I have had wonderful experiences working in clinics, hospitals and institutions of higher education as well as in amazing organizations such as eBay and Google. Always, the decision to move into an area of endeavour was made by following what most alive and inspiring for me, even as that changed over the years.

Certainly, being inspired and thriving in work isn’t always easy and working itself means different things to each of us. No matter what meaning you ascribe to your work–whether it is a job (a means to an end), a career (a purposeful drive towards attainment in a certain discipline) or a calling (a sense of fulfilling a life’s purpose) — by focusing on being fully present you can better connect to your own alive presence and vitality within the experience. All work, even very difficult work, contains within it some element of vitality simply because you are capable of doing it and sustaining yourself with it.

The good news is that focusing more on being in your work does not require any extraordinary effort. You do not need to pursue your life’s work because it is already reflected in you, as you. You need simply to be present and allow yourself to experience what is most alive in your work and in your life, how you are disposed to it, what decisions you make relative to it and how you take action. Working in this sense is truly a search for life and the answers, as well as ultimate success and fulfillment, come from within you.

Rich Fernandez PhD is the co-founder of Wisdom Labs and former director of executive education at Google.