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Work and (not vs.) love
Rather than opposites to be balanced, love and work are reinforcing strengths
A few weeks ago, I was a guest on Love in Action, a top-rated podcast hosted by Marcel Schwantes. We talked about Rising Together, my latest book, and at the end he asked me how it related to his podcast theme.
This set me thinking about the connection between work and love. My mentor Frances Hesselbein had a favorite mantra: Work is Love Made Visible, a quote from the poet Kahlil Gibran. Frances was so fond of it that she wrote a book on the subject, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith and Sarah MacArthur.
Freud famously observed that love and work are the “cornerstones of our humanness,” the foundations of our physical and mental health. This observation has typically resulted in our defining work and love as separate spheres, one relating to what we do in the world– our means of earning a livelihood– and the other rooted in our private, domestic life.
This polarity lies at the root of our often-fruitless quest to achieve work-life balance, an approach that implicitly assumes a divide between these two spheres, as if they are opposites that must be balanced against one another. However, experience suggests that life is most satisfying and happiness best sustained when we find harmony: when love is sustained by work and work is infused by love.
For example, as anyone in a happy marriage or long-term relationship can attest, love that lasts always takes work. Falling in love is easy, as the verb implies. Staying in love requires adjustments, compromises and willingness to learn hard and often painful lessons. Love only flourishes over time if we’re willing to work at it by changing and growing.
Similarly, work can only be satisfying and fulfilling over time if it rests on a foundation of love. Love for the skills we learn and exercise, love for a discipline or a craft we practice, love for the mission we serve, or for the organization we are a part of. And most of all, love for the people we work with.
This last point is important because, in the far-from-ideal real world most of us inhabit, our organization, its purpose, and the daily grind of our job may not necessarily inspire us with love. This is true whether we’re in a leadership position or just starting out. However, if we can find a way to love the people we work with, or who work with us, or the people we are asked to serve, we can infuse our professional lives with love.
As in marriage, this usually requires compromise and adjustments. We have to respect ideas we may disagree with. We have to make accommodations that may strike us as a waste of time. We have to deal with resentments and perceptions of unfairness, and try to understand people who are different from ourselves. We have to be kind when we feel like telling someone off.
How do we manage to do this?
The best way to start is a practice I advocate in Rising Together: giving others the benefit of our good will. Not the benefit of the doubt, which presumes negativity. But the benefit of our good will, which assumes good-natured or friendly intent. Even when we’re not sure the other person has earned it.
There are many advantages to this approach. We avoid a negative or judgmental frame of mind that weighs us down and can make us hyper-critical. We give ourselves the ability to form relationships with people we may perceive as different from ourselves. We expand our base of allies, broaden and enrich our networks, get comfortable with change and become bigger people.
Extending the benefit of our good will requires us first to rewrite the negative the scripts that shape our feelings when we’re confronted with behaviors that make us uncomfortable:
He’s a showboat, always spouting his opinions.
She seems insecure, not the kind of person I want to connect with.
These people went to elite schools so they’re probably snobbish.
He reminds me of my last boss, so he’s probably a jerk.
To challenge these kinds of assumptions, we need to tell ourselves a different story. Again, even if we don’t fully buy it.
He’s so comfortable speaking up, I can benefit by learning from him.
She may be shy because she’s new at the job.
I feel uncomfortable around people I assume have had more advantages than I have, so I need to start by viewing them as individuals.
Some of my colleagues really like my new boss–– I need to find out why.
Giving those we work with the benefit of our good will is a simple practice. But like many simple things, it is hard to do. It requires that we put our go-to responses on hold while we formulate new ones. Doing this allows us to demonstrate love in action, and to make our love visible through our work.
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