There’s an article circulating this week called Why Relationships Should Be ‘HELL Yeah or No.’ It’s targeted at millennials, and about love relationships, but the headline drew us in and got some of my Gen X friends and I talking about work projects and work relationships. To the point I was told to blog about it. So here goes: ideas about finding abundant life between HELL Yeah (I love this work!) and No (I don’t want do this anymore.) at work.
1. Trust HELL Yeahs and Nos about the work itself
Here at mid-life, I’ve noticed that I use a Hell Yeah and No approach for taking on new work projects and for sticking with work projects. Not out of any particular personal wisdom (which I’m hoping comes later in life): simply because when I don’t trust my own HELL Yeahs and Nos — and the HELL Yeahs and Nos of those I’m working with — we end up having way too many Oh HELL NO! moments. On work projects now, I’m all in, I take breaks when I’m not feeling all in, and then I return when I’m all in again. I allow others to do the same. Together we work on encouraging and allowing ourselves to do this and learning not to take it personally when others need to walk away. Helps us stay happy and interested and engaged and productive. Helps us know when it’s time to take a break, time to let go of responsibilities and take on new ones, bring others in to help or take over, and move on completely from work, too. The extreme ends of the spectrum can be helpful for making day-to-day choices about the work itself. This works especially well when everyone feels they have the ability to work while energized and to slow down or stop or leave or move on when they’re not.
2. The ends of the spectrum aren’t enough for long-term friendships and work relationships
Thankfully, humans are too beautifully complex and interesting to settle for just two choices. There is so much more to learn…
a. Ask “Where am I on the spectrum between Hell Yeah and No right now?” and be willing to move away from a new-to-you No
For me, work projects eventually end, while friendships and working relationships may last a lifetime. Long-term human relationships require an understanding of where I myself am on the spectrum between the HELL Yeah and No at any given time and a courageous willingness to shift, move, and let go. For example, there are many Hell Yeah-at-our-core people in my life who I have walked away from for a year, or a decade, during years that we, or our work, became Nos for each other. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of my life forever. When we listen to new Nos and let go of each other “for now” (well before feelings get hurt beyond repair and definitely before contempt settles in), then often the parting really is “just for now.” Many friends and work colleagues return, eventually. At least here in my indie, work-for-yourself corner of the work world. For those who don’t return, I still get to love the memory of them and pop online to see what they’re up to now and then, share a recipe, or share news about work they might be interested in.
b. Notice if your No is an intuition-screaming-loudly No or a self-doubt No and be willing to move toward the occasional self-doubt No
When it comes to new people, many Nos from the beginning tend to stay Nos, simply because they aren’t given the chance to come farther into my life. That’s ok. Sometimes our No instincts are screaming loudly, and when they’re that loud, they’re spot on. Trust yourself. I’ve left jobs, social groups, and spaces when a screaming loudly Oh HELL NO-for-me showed up. I’ve never regretted those choices.
Sometimes our Nos aren’t about the other person at all: they’re about us, being stretched, and our own fears about our ability to handle something. For example, I eventually became friends with a guy at work who was a No-for-me as a work partner the first time we met. I read his fast decision making and organizational political savvy as “slick and untrustworthy.” Yet we had compatible goals, complementary skill sets, and we decided to stick together. We eventually ended up loving working together because we had opposite strengths that we could suddenly both draw on. We ended up wildly successful as a result. He eventually became an Oh Hell Yeah! friend for life. I carry him in my heart now no matter where we go or what we do: the same is true for the other three friends in that self-organizing work group. For me, reimagining the No is about reimagining ourselves together. This tends to require trust and respect that starts with trust in and respect for yourself. Can I trust and respect this someone who is remarkably different from me? And can I still trust and respect myself in their presence? If so, and if they can say the same about you, then together we can reimagine ourselves, changing our initial Nos into a mutual Oh Hell Yes! I learned a valuable lesson from this friend about work partnerships and about myself. Sometimes we need a No to grow. To round out an amazing small work group. To collectively pull ourselves from good to great. To get to another level of Oh HELL YES! for all of us.
3. Watch for the hidden gifts within Oh HELL No! at work
Everyone I know has had many Oh HELL No! work experiences early in life. Many of them are about us: part of growing up and learning to play/work well with others. Many of them aren’t actually about us as individuals and are instead the natural outcomes of the antiquated work systems and cultural norms we inherited from those who came before us and the beliefs and ideas we unconsciously hold as a result. Our Oh HELL No! work experiences point directly at the real, often hidden, work that we are actually doing: improving our cultures and work systems for ourselves and those who come next. Many people make entire careers out of their Oh HELL No! experiences: tapping the energy within THIS WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR THOSE WHO COME NEXT! to pull forth massive social, professional, and personal change.
For those of us who love to work, and imagine ourselves working across our entire lives, I suspect there is never a complete escape from Oh HELL No! work experiences. There’s just too much work left to do to create work systems, cultures, and selves that more fluidly work well together and more fairly and justly work period. If we’re lucky, we can imagine the world of work into a playground: remaking many of our own No and Oh HELL No! experiences into sparks for innovation and change together. I believe that those of us who can imagine this have a responsibility to do so: not only for ourselves and those who come next but also for all of those today who are crushed, beaten down, or killed by old ideas and outdated systems and patterns of thought. This is my belief. For me. Part of my own Oh HELL YES! I’ve yet to live in a way that allows me to get entirely past Oh HELL No! at work now and then. Maybe next month. Speaking of that…
4. Watch extra close for the gifts within Oh FUCK NO! work experiences
I can say from recent personal experience that as you age — learning more skills, better understanding yourself and peers and environments, gaining more credibility and respect, and having more work colleagues willing to connect you to perfect-for-you others — that it is possible to delude yourself into thinking that you’ve moved past Oh HELL No! work experiences. And I can also say that it’s at this self-satisfied moment that you are perfectly primed and ready to land hard, on your ass, within an Oh FUCK NO! work experience.
This fall, Daniel unexpectedly lost his day job. Just like that, 85% of our income vanished. At the same time, we were also helping my parents (mom with Alzheimer’s disease and dad a tired primary caregiver of 10+ years) pack and move across the country. At the same time we were preparing our Seattle home for sale and awash in a sea of floor repair, countertop replacement, and cleaning/beautifying projects. And I was also trying to get not one, but two, books published. We were stressed, tired, and too busy. And I lost my way again. I took on several new work projects/clients in a hurry: rushing and making decisions out of fear and while exhausted. One of those clients had work processes and systems and cultural norms and expectations that were wildly outside my own comfort zone, and I had no interest in changing myself, or connecting with them, to make things better. But I stayed anyway. Out of fear. And just six days in I totally lost it. Frustrated. Angry. Trapped. After ending my work days sobbing, for three days in a row, Daniel had to tell me to quit. I couldn’t even see it for myself. I ended up hurting myself and Daniel, and to a lesser extent an old friend who offered me the work, and an employment agency, in the process.
My own Oh FUCK NO! work experience was not primarily the result of broken old systems and antiquated cultural norms and expectations. This one was the direct result of me over-booking myself, not standing in/working from my own power, and making decisions out of fear. I know the difference now between a primarily-a-Lori-problem and a primarily-a-system-problem and this one was on Lori. Yes, their system had problems. Massive problems. As do most of our large work systems today. But I showed up to work with zero interest in connecting and becoming part of any small group that could make them better. This was work I should not have been doing. I suspected it ahead of time. I became more certain the moment I started it. I knew it more deeply every day that followed. But I ignored my loudly screaming intuition. And, surprise, surprise, I landed in an Oh FUCK NO! work experience.
Fortunately, I have a wide support system, a great partner, and generous, forgiving work colleagues. I was given the chance to say “I’m sorry. I messed up. I shouldn’t be here. I need to go. Right now.” And I was graciously forgiven my mistakes. By everyone. The employment agency even let me keep a bonus I’d been given for bringing the client to them and for connecting them with others in my field. Nothing pulls forth gratitude — and drives home noticing the deep privileges in your life — like being graciously forgiven for making big, ugly-crying, pain-inducing mistakes….
5. Be open to receiving the you-specific gift/lesson/insight
I have no idea what you took from this essay for yourself. Unless you choose to share, that’s not even my business. For me, this didn’t begin as an essay about the deep privileges of my work life or my skin color. But for me, now, how can it not be? When I get to count on gracious forgiveness, the-benefit-of-the-doubt, and getting to be fully human in my work life — even when it was definitely me who screwed up — while countless others can’t? When I get to quit a job — even when I need the money — because I so clearly should not be doing it? While countless others can’t? That’s total bullshit. We can do better. We must do better.
These are the rights I will fight for, and speak up for, for myself and others: the right to be fully human at work, the right to make mistakes, the right to be graciously forgiven for mistakes and to receive the benefit-of-the-doubt, and finally, the right to give up work and move on to something else when your intuition is screaming at the top of its lungs that you moving elsewhere will be better for everybody. This is a much needed comfort, insight, and reminder here in a month when I’m feeling down about book sales numbers and wondering where my next editing gig will be coming from.
Today, if we’re lucky, even our Oh FUCK NO! work experiences can become gifts that point us toward who we’re becoming and where we’re going next. I’m ready to help move these rights from for-a-lucky-few to by intention for everybody who wants them in their work lives. I don’t have to wonder anymore if I’m ready to go there now. I’m already here. This is already part of my own Oh HELL YES! and I have my own Oh FUCK NO! experience to thank for it.