Is Your Work Too Important?

“One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdowns is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.”
– Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

When I worked at my previous job, I always felt like the things I was doing were vitally important to the success of the project. In one way, this was good – it kept me focused on making sure that things wouldn’t fail. Yet it created several additional problems.

For one, I was often really stressed out. I felt hugely responsible for everything that went on, even for things that I couldn’t actually control. Eventually, I became quite proficient at solving the technical crises that others were responsible for, often because they were completely oblivious to the disasters.

At the same time, I became afraid to push myself to try new things. Since I felt so strongly responsible for everything, I became deeply afraid of change. I already felt the stress of managing all of the things that were already in place – the idea of changing things or adding new things stressed me even more. As a result, I would often subtly resist such changes.

On top of that, the birth of my children caused my priorities to change, adding further stress. A big part of my job involved traveling to meetings and conferences and other such things. After my children were born, the travel responsibilities gradually went from an enjoyable part of the job to a burden. Instead of going out on the town with colleagues, I’d spend the evening calling home to see what my kids were up to and would often feel as though I was missing them grow up.

The real message underlining all of this? I was so caught up in how important my job was that it was stressing me out, affecting my personal life, and keeping me from innovating and taking chances at work. That’s a terrible mix for success.

Looking back, a much more appropriate perspective would have been to realize what my role was – to develop data interfaces – and do that to the best of my ability, ignoring the other things that were going on. If the database went down… well, I shouldn’t have seen it as my responsibility. Instead, my responsibility should have been to simply push the envelope and find new and clever ways to get people the data they needed. It wasn’t “important” work – it was creative work, work that should have been purely fun.

What did I learn from this experience? The moment you begin to think of your job as “important,” you become more stressed and less innovative in your career. Your health and energy fail you due to the stress. Your job becomes less enjoyable because you’re focused on maintaining the status quo instead of doing the best job you can. In the end, you simply become less vital than you were before you began to see your job – and yourself – as “important.”

This is an issue I see popping up even now with my writing career. When I begin to view what I do as “important,” I begin to be less effective. I write less interesting pieces that essentially just reiterate core points. It becomes dull – and I can feel that just as much as you, the reader, can.

Instead, I try to remind myself that what I do really isn’t all that important at all. When I feel that way, I tend to write more from the heart, no matter the consequences. I often get attacked when I do things this way because I’ll express things that are different than what’s “expected” of me, but it’s more enjoyable.

Here’s the truth: your job is likely nowhere near as important as you think it is. Sometimes, employers will try to convince you that you’re more important than you actually are because it’ll scare you into being a good worker – but it will, at the same time, prevent you from being a great one. In the end, most managers – who also think of themselves as more important than they actually are – prefer a workplace full of good workers who are afraid to step outside the box than an office full of a mix of great workers and bad ones who are constantly trying to innovate. After all, that same sense of inflated importance guides them, too.

Here are three things I often do to keep my sense of importance at appropriately low levels.

First, I imagine worst case scenarios in terms of the greater world. For me, that would probably be a lack of ability to continue updating The Simple Dollar. What would happen to the greater world? For the most part, very little. The Simple Dollar often adds a little “positive” to people’s lives on a regular basis, but if it went away, their lives would continue. They might find another web site that provides a similar boost – or they might not. Either way, it’s not a major crisis for the world if the worst case scenario happens.

Most jobs, if you peel them back to their true impact on the world, have very little real impact. Yes, there are a few captains of industry and top political leaders who really can affect a lot of lives. Outside of them, though, the worst case scenario of most jobs has little impact.

Second, I imagine the positive impact of just not worrying about it. That type of scenario frees me to try new things. If I realize that the worst case scenario really isn’t that bad, it becomes a lot easier to imagine best case scenarios for taking pretty significant risks. What if I write articles that are seriously outside the box on The Simple Dollar? I might chase away a reader or two, sure. But I also have the potential to grab the imagination and attention of a lot of people by doing that.

Again, the same holds true for most jobs. When you consider the absolute worst case result of a certain choice, then compare that to the potential positive results of making that same choice, you’ll often find you’re better off just letting go of the status quo and trying new things. Completely re-do your filing system. Do a presentation that completely bucks the rules of what typically goes on in your workplace. Write some interesting utility code that helps everyone by making some common tasks faster.

Finally, I try things that are way outside the norm. Sometimes I’ll end up using these things that I create. Other times I won’t. In either case, I usually find something worthwhile.

What really makes this stand out, though, is that it’s fun. Trying something completely new and different adds an element of fun to my work that simply isn’t there if I’m overly careful and just follow the status quo. That sense of fun keeps my work in the area of things in my life that make me happy instead of things in my life that drain me.

In the end, my advice is simple: let go of the sense of importance you have about your work. It’ll be the best career move you’ll ever make.

One final note: if you have your financial ducks in a row, it’s even easier. Paying off your debts helps your career because it reduces the importance of your job. Your need for a salary is much less if you have your ducks in a row, which in turn opens the door to greater success because you’re no longer tied to such a sense of importance.

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