A Rocky Road to Finding Meaningful Work

We’re born. There’s some shit in between. And we die.

For far too many that in-between bit is filled with corporate humdrum, office politics and drawn out, pointless meetings.

The ‘way things are around here’ can suck the life out of you and spill over into your spare time. There’s no meaning, your relationships suffer and your zest for life is severely depleted. And before you know it you’re a shadow of your former self.

I know as I’ve been there myself.

Rewind to 1997

The Spice Girls were taking over the world and I’d just started my first ‘proper’ job out of University at a pension fund in the City of London. I’d done my year of travelling around the world and made ends meet since with bar and temp jobs.

Now was the time to knuckle down and get on that corporate ladder.

But after a few days in my new role I quickly realised this wasn’t the life for me. The suit didn’t quite fit.

At my new company no-one said hello to each other in the morning. And I mean no-one. Even school was better than this.

I was the newbie and so got little respect, with no more than a huff from my colleagues when given jobs to do. And there were tuts and eye rolls whenever I left the office at 5.30.

This was a place where long hours were rewarded and where the lines between work and play were firmly drawn. I remember when my boss just about came to terms with having to ‘do the mum thing’ (her words) when her child’s birthday came around.

Work was work. Money was the reward. And a big house and car was the ultimate prize. Family came second.

However as those around me climbed the ladder I noticed there was less and less time for them to enjoy the trappings of their wealth.

This was a corporate prison and it was time to escape.

The final nail in the coffin for me was being brought in for a meeting with one of the big bosses where he grilled me on my plan for the next 5 years. I said I didn’t really have one – I was keen to just see how things went.

He asked whether I aspired to have a big country house and stash of sports cars like him. I said that it didn’t really interest me. He looked at me baffled.

At that point I think we both realised I was in the wrong place. I handed in my notice soon after and the feeling of relief was something I’ll never forget. I could feel the life coming back to me.

At 23 I’d learnt the valuable lesson that I’d never make much money working in a job I hated. Without any passion there was no energy.

Looking back

Here’s why I think I hated this job so much:

  • I couldn’t be myself, wholeness at work wasn’t encouraged
  • There were no positive role models that inspired me or I could relate to
  • The culture was poisonous and bred fear and resentment
  • There was no point to the work other than to make people money
  • People were deeply unhappy but they didn’t dare admit it

I lasted 10 months. It felt like 10 years.

Part of me wished I’d left sooner, but it was an experience I look on with gratitude. If it wasn’t so horrendous perhaps I’d still be there today.

It turned out to be the only job I ever had. I’ve worked for myself ever since.

I left without a plan – but knew that anything had to be better than this. My girlfriend (now wife) would tell me how I didn’t seem myself while I was working there. My personality had drained away. I’d lost touch with who I was.

It was time to bridge the gap between who I was and what I did for a living.

Mapping it out

Towards the end of this experience I remember scribbling on the back of a piece of paper what I wanted from work. I drew 4 circles:

  1. What did I need?
    To have the freedom to decide where, when and how I worked.
  2. What was I good at?
    Making things look nice and easy to understand. Although I studied Economics I seemed to have a talent for design and communication. A City career wasn’t for me.
  3. What got me excited?
    Working with nice, creative people, learning and growing, the unknown. Earning money this way would bring me joy.
  4. What would I never do?
    Wear a suit or work with mood hoovers again.

So after this I decided I needed to carve out a role where I had more autonomy, could use more of my talents and do something I love. This would give me energy and I’d be more likely to make money doing it.

I’d learnt more about myself in 10 months of work than I had in 16 years of education.

Luckily for me the internet was barely a screaming toddler and so there was a lot of web roles to fill and not many with the skills to do them. Over the course of 3 months, and with a renewed spring in my step, I taught myself HTML, sharpened up my design chops and blagged my way into a freelance career as a web designer.

My first step on the right ladder.

So what gave me the strength to leave a well-paid job for the uncertainty of a new freelance career without any experience?

Having seen 500+ people come through our Home School program I know this is a challenge for most people. To step out into the unknown, embrace uncertainty and make the tough decisions.

But the truth is, a near-death experience helps…

You see 12 months before I was on the last leg of a round-the-world trip. After travelling through India, South East Asia and Australia I’d made it to New Zealand.

After 2 weeks travelling round the North Island we were on our way to the adventure hub that was Queenstown in the South Island.

But we never quite made it.

The backpacker tour bus we were on lost control in the rain and we went careering into a bridge at high speed. We ground to a halt hanging off the edge, with a 50 metre drop to a raging river below us.

If it wasn’t for that concrete bridge in Greymouth and a large dose of luck I wouldn’t be here today.

When the bus lost control I got thrown into the air, landed on my girlfriend and then came around by the windscreen which was no longer there. We got off the teetering, creaking bus and looked back in amazement. Soon after I realised I was in real trouble.

I’d broken my back in several places and spent more than 2 weeks in hospital. For a few hours I couldn’t feel anything in the lower half of my body.

I thought I’d never walk again.

Thankfully, feeling eventually started coming back to my legs. Shock had set in and given me a scare.

From this day on I was fully in tune with my mind and my body. If something wasn’t right I could feel it. I had a new found bullshit detector. My new secret weapon.

The sad truth is too many of us wait until life slaps us in the face before we truly get it.

Back to today

Over 6 years as a freelancer and then 11 years running an agency I found what I’d been looking for – autonomy, working with people I loved, seeing my kids grow up at close hand and a nice life and business by the sea.

But needs change and you need to keep constantly to check in to assess whether what you’re doing still gets you excited. The truth was client work no longer floated my boat — I’d done it for 17 years. Now all the energy was with The Happy Startup School.

This journey from studio to school was, and still is, a rollercoaster ride but a rewarding one at that. Every day feels exciting, challenging, scary and fun. No two days are the same and we can all see we’re at the start of something quite special. My needs are now different – to build something epic, to make an impact, to inspire others and to have memorable experiences with great people.

So where has this re-discovered lust for work come from?

  • Being surrounded by people that inspire me
  • Doing things I really want to do and not doings things I don’t want to do (sounds easier than it is)
  • Seeing our community realising our dreams together
  • Doing stuff that feels fun

So, over to you..

Why not make the in-between bit fun, memorable and purposeful too? It’s not for an exclusive club.

Don’t feel trapped by the choices you’ve made, it’s never too late to do something different.

If you’re not already, isn’t now the time to get on a ladder worth climbing? To do something that excites you every day. And never get that Sunday night feeling again, but rather a spring in your step on a Monday morning.

Having a nice house or car isn’t worth being miserable for. It’s common for people to delay their happiness until they get that thing they’re chasing.

But just remember:

“Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face” Mike Tyson

So here are 2 questions to get you thinking:

  1. What are you here to do?
    Start with your needs, passions, superpowers and beliefs. How can you use these to eliminate the gap between who you are and what you do?
  2. What are you prepared to give up to make this work?
    How bad do you want this? That nagging feeling is a message to do something. It might mean some short term pain.

If you’re struggling with the answers to these, here are some ideas to help you get there:

  • Get inspired
    By people, stories and experiences
  • Get tooled up
    With the web you’ve now got the world at your fingertips and anyone can be anything. Skill up.
  • Get connected
    Find your tribe of crazies, positive people that want you to succeed
  • Start small, but do start
    If you’re not happy then change something. But you don’t need to make big changes, start by running experiments.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Take the first step on a more meaningful road in 2015 with The Happy Startup Home School — our groundbreaking 4 week program for budding entrepreneurs and changemakers. More info and how to apply at www.thehappystartupschool.com/homeschool