Work is expression
My journey to turning my work into an expression of who I am
“You’re not supposed to enjoy your work, it’s just a job.”
“Do you ever feel like you care too much about work?”
“I just work to make enough money to have more free time.”
“Can we stop talking about work?”
“Work has been meh lately.”
These statements and questions have been thrown around by my acquaintances and friends when they’ve talked about work. And each time I heard them, I became more jaded and pessimistic about what work represented for me. I would think to myself, “They clearly haven’t found work meaningful. I don’t want to feel that way about my work. Hell no. Not if I plan on working for a long time. There has to be another way.”
My relationship and journey with work
As I’ve dissected my relationship with work, I’ve battled a mix of external and internal narratives. The external narratives usually revolve around survival and scarcity in the world—narratives like, “I don’t have enough money and resources to work on what I find meaningful.” The internal narratives revolve around the conflict between doing the type of work that my background is most suited to and doing the type of work I find most meaningful, which, ironically, always meant tapping into my inner child.
My relationship with work started very early. Growing up, I saw grit and hard work firsthand as I watched my mother run her restaurant, which she has owned for the better part of thirty years. I remember a moment when, at about the age of six, I snidely asked her, “Why are you always at the restaurant? Don’t you want to be at home with us?”
In case you’re wondering… these questions didn’t turn out well for me. I ended up with a good old-fashioned “Tiger Mother” stare right through my soul and a smack on the side of my head.
But funny enough, I actually started working on Sundays as a busser at her restaurant in seventh grade—and I made enough tip money to buy all the dopest Jordan 11s, so don’t feel too bad about the child labor. My mother was an exemplary model for work, even though she has literally worked seven days a week for as long as I can remember. But it's quite simple: her work as a restaurant owner is the art she creates every day. She expresses herself as a restaurant owner better than any other place in her life. When we do family dinners at any restaurant, she’ll talk about the finest of details at the restaurant as a way to gain inspiration for her restaurant—I’m not joking when I tell you it happens every time. I used to think she hated being at the restaurant so much, but over the years, I’ve realized how much her identity, self-worth, and passion revolve around her work; she simply doesn’t know any alternative to this.
As I got older, I took on jobs without having much clarity into the real reasons I took them on, you know, like any young adult typically does; during this period of time, career reflections weren’t that introspective, yet. I’ve been a bank teller, salesperson, ops manager, account manager, team lead, sales consultant, and drove for DoorDash for a few months. At various points during my time in each of these jobs, I’ve felt like my work was an expression of who I am, but there were far more moments where the work wasn’t. I recall a moment recently when I was listening to a podcast at around 11:30 pm, heard a strong insight, and decided to write nearly a full page of ideas to help with my writing. Recalling moments like these (of which there are plenty in my life) has made me realize how similar my mother and I are in our work needing to be an expression of who we are. Throughout my career, I’ve clawed for clarity into the ways I could turn my work into expression, but the journey hasn’t been easy.
There are no shortcuts
I’ve brought work into most of my conversations with all of the therapists I’ve ever worked with; I’ve done career coaching, read books, watched Youtube videos, listened to many hours of podcasts, and had countless conversations with people on this topic. Finding clarity on what I want to do for work has been an arduous journey full of starts and stops. There have been months where I feel like I’ve finally found clarity on what I want to work on, only to realize there’s still more clarity to be gained. But there’s no cheating the internal work—this work requires us to face ourselves head-on.
I had moments where I would try to take shortcuts from the work, like asking my close friends or colleagues what they thought I should be doing with my career, without diving into myself for those answers. There isn’t anything wrong with asking people (who know you well) these questions, but the problem was that I was outsourcing the work to them, which isn’t theirs to take on.
Lacking clarity has also led to some painful experiences when deciding the type of roles and companies to take on. I’ve had one-week, two-month, and four-month stints at companies because I realized the role and company weren’t a fit for me until it was too late. Sharing this is incredibly scary—they’ve been some of the darkest moments of my career so far but… here we go.
My first couple of days at the company (where I spent a week) felt normal. People were generally welcoming to me. But around the third day, I started to feel like there were some deep political undertones across all of the teams I had exposure to. I asked some questions to certain people about what the culture was really like, and I was met with tiptoeing and roundabouts. I also felt like the company and team culture didn’t encourage people to be authentic or celebrated. The majority of people strikingly kept to themselves, even in an open office floor plan. There wasn’t much energy or camaraderie between teammates. The difference between the company culture I was a part of before and the culture at this company was night and day. The vibe didn’t match what I felt during the interview process with various members of the team, and I simply couldn’t see myself at this company long-term; on day five, I informed my manager I would be resigning. After coming in and turning in my laptop, I felt embarrassed and defeated; like I had failed miserably. The fact that my friend brought me into the company only intensified these feelings. How could I let her down like this? How will she be perceived with this happening? Did I just burn every bridge I had at this company? The SF startup scene is small, I bet this news will get out to so many people I know. There was no doubt that I needed to find clarity on what I wanted.
It wasn't the first time I'd left a job shortly after starting. Several years back, a former leader at a previous company reached out to me about a role at his new company that he felt I was a strong fit for. However, I wouldn’t be reporting to him, I would be reporting to someone else. I had my doubts about this but given how much I admire the former leader, I decided to trust the process, and I took the role. My first month at the company generally went well, too; I met some incredible people, who were also very talented. Around the second month, I started to feel some deeper stylistic conflict between my manager and me. There were times when I felt like he wasn’t trying to fully understand me, and I saw this attitude in the way he worked with (and talked about) other people at the company, as well. This became alarming for me because of the importance I place on treating everyone with respect and empathy. The third and fourth months became so strained between us that I dreaded coming into the office every day; I would get anxious leading up to my one-on-ones with him. Alright, so if you’re not going to try to see me, I’m not going to try to see you either. Towards the end of my fourth month, I hit a breaking point and told him I was resigning. I felt many of the same feelings I felt with the company I only stayed at for a week: embarrassment, feeling like I failed, feeling like my model for picking the right company and manager was flawed, and feeling like I let my former leader down. I’m sure I burned more bridges here. What’s wrong with me? What the fuck am I doing with my career? Am I going crazy?
I began asking my friends big questions like, “Do you see me in tech? What do you see my doing in my career? What did you always see me doing?”
A couple of years back, I joined a company where a former colleague was leading a team for several years. He enjoyed his experience there, and there was a role he reached out to me for that he felt fit well. I met the team, enjoyed all of the conversations, and felt like the opportunity would help progress my career. Upon joining, the company did have some strong elements going for it: there was a high concentration of technical and analytical talent at the company. However, there was a lack of training and structure that hindered my experience very early on; when you combine this with direct leaders on my greater team chalking up these challenges as “startup problems” while not taking ownership of the challenges, it ultimately led to a culture I didn’t feel aligned with. My role was new and became shockingly high-volume work with customers. Around the two-month mark, I was so stressed out about work that my gums were painful every morning from clenching my jaw in my sleep—I’d never felt that before. I was clearly burning out way too early. But I can’t let my former colleague down—he vouched to bring me into the company. I can’t leave yet another company this early again. I can’t do it. I have to stay at least a year. But this is physically becoming a problem for me. Can I really last a year? The lack of career clarity was rearing its head again, and this time, I simply had no choice but to face it fully. I could no longer hide from exploring and processing all that needed to be processed when it came to my career. This was the point where I knew I could benefit from career coaching so I enrolled in a twelve-week-long program that helped me begin the process of finding clarity into what I really wanted out of my work.
How do I want my work to feel?
After all of these experiences, what I’ve found to be the most important—and simple—aspect of figuring out what work means to me has been to remember and pay keen attention to what I enjoy day-to-day, and where I enjoy the process more than the results or outcomes.
Finding community building as a role (in early 2022) has been a significant breakthrough for expressing myself. I’m close to a year into this career pivot, and I finally feel able to fully express myself when I’m creating space to connect people, ideas, and opportunities; when I’m able to help people learn and grow; when I can write and tell stories. I want to give people a platform to do everything they’re capable of doing. Every single day, I get to think about how to do everything I mentioned above. I’ve also been able to inject creativity into my work at a level that I didn’t know was possible before.
When it comes to who we work with, this is another important element of my work that I want to be fully expressed. I want to work with people who are open to ideas and possibilities; who help to bring out the gifts that people possess and hype people up to bring as much of their best selves to work as possible; who prioritize people over metrics; and above all else, people who prioritize diversity. The same goes for the types of organizations I’m working with. The people and organizations I work with are an expression of who I am. I’ve found communities that align with my values like Generalist World, Rosieland, and Foster; by being a part of these communities, I’m able to naturally find my own unique ways of contributing and building.
My friend, Jason, created his own research-based design firm, Burntsienna Research Society, where he gets to do work that seems to align perfectly with who he is. He’s a natural teacher, and he gets to write, lead workshops, do in-depth field/academic research, and build curriculums. He also curates his clientele to align with those he knows he serves most. He’s been an inspiration to me in figuring out how to do the same. In my opinion, his work is his art. I also look at someone like Pharrell Williams, who works across many disciplines but is ultimately bringing all of himself to his projects like the music he’s part of creating (with a wide variety of artists and genres), the clothing lines he designs for, and the products he launches. Pharrell is expressed in everything he does, and I’m continually inspired by his work.
I want there to be more examples like Jason and Pharrell. I want to take the model of this my mother showed me but mold it uniquely to my vision. A world where we’re all fully appreciated, seen, and valued for our individual gifts. A world where we can exercise and actualize those gifts. I’ve experienced a world where the opposite is true, and it leaves me drained and empty—I can’t compromise on this anymore. I refuse to trade my purpose, meaning, and values for a job that pays a high enough salary for me to feel like my work doesn’t have meaning. I’ve done this in the past and it has only led to misalignment. It’s a waste of everyone’s energy for me to give you less than who I am; the world deserves more than that from me.
If we’re all able to live in a world where this is true, we can all show up the way we really want to show up in the world, and I’m a firm and idealistic believer in work being an expression of this. Work, family/social life, creativity, hobbies, and leisure should flow in and out of one another gracefully. This is the life I want, and it’s the life I want for all of us. I want our work to be our art.
I now turn the conversation to you:
What is your relationship with work?
How do you want your work to be represented?
How do you want to express yourself through your work?
What do you want to create more of in the world through your work?
How can you turn your work into your art?
Thank you to Pandy, Amber, Sam, Theresa, Daniel, Katerina, Minnow, & Caryn for your feedback and editing on this piece!
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