Modern times tell us that loving the work we do is the future of contributing to society. There are strong arguments to this. If you do your own thing instead of working for someone else, you’re creating something that is yours. Something true to your vision or expectation of what great work should be. If you pursue a creative job instead of a menial one, you’re more likely to get a strong emotional compensation. Even if it doesn’t pay as well as, say, hedge fund management or becoming a lawyer.
People tell us to fall in love with our work, time and time again. As the saying goes, love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s in the books we buy in the self-help or ‘smart reading’ sections. It’s in the memes we see on Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s in conversations when catching up with friends or colleagues. How are you? “Busy but you know, it’s very exciting times!”
All this falling in love means that we’re also more anxious about work than ever. Through this logic, times can only be exciting if we’re feeling busy. Our lack of work/life balance becomes a rational argument for overdoing it because we love it. Which opens up the precedent to believing that it’s ok to work 16 hours a day. To answer emails on the evening instead of spending time with your partner. To get work done on weekends too. It’s all for love.
It’s well documented we live in anxious times, and this love affair with work might have something to do with it. I’d like to propose that the way we deal with work anxiety is precisely by falling out of love with our work.
Picture this: you’re doing a project at work, you dedicate a whole lot of time and knowledge to it. It’s coming out great. It’s going to impress everyone in the office and make a difference for someone else outside of it. Then you show it, your brainchild, the product of your love, to the world. And people have critiques to it. Change this. Not sure about that. You can make it simpler. It’s like if someone looked at your newborn baby and say, “it’s a bit too bloody for my taste”. But it’s a product of love and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me, how dare you!
Now imagine that you do contribute the same level of hard work and knowledge to your project. But you don’t fall in love with it. In fact, you act on a sense of ‘productive pessimism’ while doing it. You become your own worst critic but only to push yourself to keep going. Even when you’ve reached a stage that you think is acceptable, you expect more critiques from others. And when they do critique it, you join them as if you’re critiquing someone on an act of tough love. Difficult to embrace, but coming from a good place.
It turns out that critiques then become easier to endure and far more productive. Because people are critiquing the work. It doesn’t mean they’re critiquing your personal work, nor you. You embrace the fact that work is this third thing between you and the other person, and you’re both critiquing it!
When I say fall out of love, I don’t mean hate your work. But rather, train yourself to create a sense of indifference without becoming sloppy. This is what the Stoics pursued 2,000 years ago. It’s why Stoicism is making a comeback through Daily Stoic or books like Ryan Holiday’s Ego Is The Enemy. It’s related to our anxiety towards the things we take far too personally. And work has become too personal for a lot of us, so we need to step back.
By working hard but being indifferent to critique, you’re not removing ownership. You’re not letting go of hard standards. You are letting go of emotional attachments that turn change into anxiety. If there’s no personal attachment, there’s fewer defensive responses. And you might be among the first ones to understand why something needs to change and then go do it. It’s not about accepting every change. It’s about removing emotional barriers that might bias your own opinion. It’s amazing how often we insist on not changing something because we’ve worked so hard on it. Not because it’s the right thing to do. It’s personal attachment speaking. And it usually sounds pretty desperate.
When you fall out of love with your work, other interesting things can happen. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of people do love what they do. I’ve worked in advertising for almost 8 years now, between two countries, and it’s a job that is very fulfilling for me. In these years, I’ve known people who do love advertising. They love the craft of ads. They love the effect it has on businesses and people. They love building brands.
I do enjoy those things too. But by learning to fall out of love with my work I realised my driver to do it was different. I do like a good ad, but like most people I don’t love ads. If do like working on brand building projects, but I recognise that love has nothing to do with it. On my deathbed, those brands and the people who created those ads will most likely not be there. The friends and family I spend my time with will; that’s love.
My driver is not that I love advertising. It’s that I like figuring out complex problems and combining different disciplines. I like to understand different things about the world. It happens that those things fulfil a goal of changing the path of a certain brand. It happens that they might lead to good advertising. I am fascinated by what advertising offers me, but I am not in love with it. I try to be indifferent to it. I step outside of myself to look at it critically. So the next time I think I’ve created the next great advertising idea, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Because things change and first drafts are always shitty.
If you fall in love with every single thing you create along that path, you’re setting yourself up for panic. If there’s so much in you that thought it was right with all those versions, you will feel challenged time and again. When in fact people aren’t challenging you. They are challenging the thing that is in front of them. It just happens that you were the one to do it. When it comes to doing creative work (and feeling good doing it), our ego indeed is our worst enemy. Falling out of love with your work might change your relationship to what you do. It might turn those interesting problems into a far more interesting process. And one that will leave you happier in the end too.