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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Although I can’t take any credit for it, one of the smartest career moves I ever made was to lose my job in one of the recent, routine recessions. Timing wasn’t brilliant: I had just separated from my first wife and was sans job, sans income and for a while my world consisted of someone else’s sofa.

But once I’d recovered and pulled myself out of the career hole, I realised what an amazing — if rather scary — opportunity this presented. In my “proper” jobs I had to unquestioningly adhere to the ethos or brand created by my upline and although I enjoyed what I did and was good at it, there were parts of me that couldn’t be addressed or explored, a sizeable chunk of my world-view — and the essential me — kept out of sight during the working day. In some settings I discovered that the underlying ethos was totally at odds with mine. So, essentially, I sometimes had to leave an important part of me, what you might call the emotionally nourishing part, on the coat rack in reception, and adopt a different and in some ways diminished persona.

Now, starting very much from scratch, I could start working on my own terms, allowing my curiosity to follow my nose, giving me the chance to experiment, to try things out without the risk of censure if they didn’t turn out how I expected.

I could screw up! And, really important, I now had the time to learn from my mistakes, an essential element in any career but often abandoned in the name of brand protection and the rush for New.

Partly because I believed them to be important and in sync with my world-view, I was now able to contribute my skills to projects pro bono, and discovered that far from representing a loss of fees or a kind of sacrifice, this enhanced my knowledge and skills and enabled insights that fed my fee-paying work, that added to the richness of what I had to offer and led to new, often paying opportunities. I also gained the enormous satisfaction of engaging with really necessary projects without the complication of money. True, I didn’t have much of that but somehow, there was always just enough, although income tended to be a rather “just-in-time” experience.

Freed from the need to toe anyone else’s line, I was now able to accept commissions and partnerships in which I could release and fully express my authentic self and in the process have what I did — paid and unpaid work — be an expression of the whole me.

As a result I led a rich if occasionally scary life. Work, learning and creation became interwoven in an experience of deep gratitude and greater understanding of why I was here — essentially to be me. And the more “me” I was, the more I was able to express, the more doors this opened and the greater my feeling of fulfilment.

Everything I did contributed to and enriched everything else.

Although this may seem trivial now, some thirty years on, one of the most liberating expressions of myself was abandoning the wearing of a tie, for me a symbol of constricted thinking and restricted action. I do still keep one for royal visits!

I also learned that the “new me” was quite popular, that I never had to advertise or in any way promote what I did. Just being me seemed to be enough. Perhaps it was the absence of neediness or predation in my interactions with people, my focus on what I could contribute rather than what I could get from any relationship, and the resulting combination of serious attention to their needs and helpful, non-obligatory suggestions as to their satisfaction.

In short, for me work became play.

Not in a careless, happy-go-lucky way, but in the profound enjoyment of applying all my skills, experience and perhaps even a little wisdom to a new, exciting and challenging situation.

This “play” takes many forms: mentoring allegedly “difficult” secondary school boys leads to a greater understanding of the pressures on pupils and teachers, which in turn enhances my work with teachers. Working with people with learning disabilities to help them become more self-advocatory, more independent and autonomous, led me to a deeper understanding of the hard realities of the “medical model” of disability and to significant and ongoing work with disability groups and other marginalised sectors of our society. Sticking my neck out in offering workshops based on my own experience of establishing an independent workstyle and the opportunities it presented for expressing my values, led to work with most of the UK’s top creative colleges, helping students establish a practical base for delivering on their passion. Trying out different ideas for a more equitable society, be it housing or commerce, led me to be a project manager and all the challenge, excitement and self-knowledge that goes with that.

Being able to think freely and often differently about some of our hitherto established social conventions — in some cases prejudices — empowered me to try out alternatives, to question why things were done in a certain way, and to suggest more effective and more compassionate alternatives.

Given the uncertainties we all face, there has never been a better time to develop a workstyle that allows us to fully express ourselves, to question, experiment and contribute.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given to express myself through my work, to create and demonstrate meaningful, worthwhile and enjoyable ways of earning a living, based on my own values.

You could say that in growing work, work is growing me.

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Max Comfort

Max Comfort trained at the Architectural Association at the time of Archigram’s plug-in cities, student riots and flower power. | @beta_drops guest writer✒️