Redefining What Work Means Framing work as a meaningful contribution vs. a monetary exchange of time for money.

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What does work mean to you? How would you define it? I used to just think of work as a monetary exchange: akin to a punch clock, I put in my time and in return, I receive a pay cheque. Work was something I had to do in order to support my livelihood and afford nice things and experiences. It was a pretty straight forward exchange on the market place. I would give my time and physical presence and in exchange, I’d receive some dolla bills. When I worked at a frozen yogurt shop in University, I also got some free yogurt in addition to my paycheck to really sweetened the deal.

After I graduated university — doing my BBA in Waterloo, Ontario at Wilfrid Laurier University, my next goal was to find a high paying job to pay off my student loans. I moved to Toronto (a far cry from an affordable city) so I sold my soul to a digital publisher — working crazy long hours, for mediocre entry-level pay and hating every second of it. With my financial obligations (rent, student loan payments, and many of the other expenses that accompany adulthood and independance), I felt trapped in a place I despised. I was financially dependent on someone else — my whole livelihood for that matter was in the hands of another person. This whole idea of “work” back then was not something I wanted to do at all or fulfilled me in the slightest degree.

After I left that awful place, I moved on to other jobs that gave me bit more meaning rather than selling ad spots on a crappy website. I worked at a tech company for a few years then a distribution company for a short stint, then to another software company (where I got let go after a month), and finally to a digital marketing agency. While I did discover some more fulfilling contributions I could make, I never truly felt fulfilled in my work. I still looked at it as an imprisonment. Full-time work and being present in an office environment gave me little to no room (energy or time) to explore other goals outside of work.

It wasn’t I took the leap into self-employment in 2016, when I really began my journey in uncovering the new meaning of ‘work’. When I left the digital agency, I launched a company with my business partner in the random world of hockey equipment (base layer apparel, more specifically). At the same time, I took on some freelance clients in digital marketing to help sustain some form of steady income —offsetting the precarious nature of the early stages of launching and running a start-up. The first year was really hard on me as I tried to navigate the world of self-employment. For years, I craved my freedom, but now I had all the freedom in the world. I no longer had someone else to create my schedule and working hours for me. Structuring my days and my time was now on me and me alone.

I wasted a lot of time the first few months. Prior to leaving my job, I envisioned that I’d have this surge of neverending streams of motivation to work hard and live up to the ‘hustle culture’ of the self-employed — working >60 hour workweeks. But instead, I found my flame would burn out quickly — I could do short sprints of work, but then my motivation tapered off and I’d stop working or avoid tasks altogether. I took a big pay cut in the first year or so until I finally managed to pull myself out of the hole and make enough income to sustain me. The financial pressures and too little structure in my day led to multiple panic attacks and a full mental breakdown where I couldn’t work for weeks. I couldn’t cope, became anti-social and sunk deeper into myself. It wasn’t until the very end of 2016 when I leaned heavily on my support system to help extract me out of the proverbial dark hole I had dug for myself. I expected the workload to taper off come the new year — the hockey business is seasonal so when January rolls around, sales begin to taper off. My freelance work was steady, but I didn’t do more than a few hours per day. This left me with an abundance of time which I looked to fill with other activities and hobbies outside of work. In late 2016, I was out for a run, listening to the book The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau — a book that introduced me to the idea of “questing” — embarking on a pursuit or adventure of sorts to bring more fulfillment to our daily lives. After finishing the book, I formulated a mini-quest in the month of January — to run 10 kilometers every day for 31 days while sharing my daily runs on social media and on my blog. It was during this period of time, where I felt energized and excited and in turn, started to redefine what work meant. After the challenge was over, I set a lofty goal to break a world record by running 70 consecutive half marathon distances.

These were life changing experiences for me; experiences I never would have embarked on if working a typical 9–5 job. After I finished the challenge, I devised the #RUN30 Consecutive Running Challenge to help others who wanted to embark on their own running streak or build a running habit. I felt like I was contributing to the world — sharing my experiences and knowledge to help others. However, I wasn’t getting paid for it. So this is the point where the lines of what I previously defined as “work” became blurry. Since I wasn’t getting a pay cheque for this type of work, was it really work? That’s where the guilt set in. The incessant thoughts, “I should really be working on something else”, “I shouldn’t be spending so much time on writing”, etc., etc. I tried supressing those thoughts, but my writing typically took a backseat over ‘paid’ work.

2020 was when I really started to shift my mindset surrounding how I defined work. As I get older and more confident in my abilities, I no longer see work as just a mere exhcange of time for money, but rather, the output and contribution I make to the world as a fellow human being. Sharing my writing, research, and experiences with an audience has been a privilege — this mentality has made me the happiest and most intrinsically motivated I’ve ever been in my life. While I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m struggling to afford basic necessities and living expenses, I don’t need a crazy high income to be happy. To me, freedom to pursue activities and work that I enjoy and more importantly, can make a meaningful contribution in, is more important to me now.

So how do we redefine work? Work doesn’t need to just be looked at as a means to the bills — money has never been a motivating mental framing for me. While doing work for money is of course important, when it comes to creative work, it can be precarious in terms of income generation. It wasn’t until last year that I started to earn income from my writing and creative work. My goal over time is to slowly shift the ratio from freelancing to writing and perhaps down the line, make the full leap into creative work once I find a means to supplement my income entirely — while discovering some stability and predictability. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her bestselling book Big Magic sums this idea up perfectly:

I [promised] that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially, but that I would always take care of it — meaning that I would always support both of us, by any means necessary. I did not just ask for any external rewards for my devotion; I just wanted to spend my life as near to writing as possible — forever close to that source of all my curiosity and contentment — and so I was willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.

Discovering how we can make a consequential contribution to humanity is a gift in and of itself — it’s the most important work we can do. Finding a way to do this paid or unpaid type of work — whatever that means for you — can be one of the most important discoveries of our lives. While my interpretation of what work means is still in flux, I’m finding new ways to contribute more value to the world. Rather than trying to make a quick buck or sell my ‘time’ doing meaningless work to afford even more meaningless possessions, I want to make a real difference in people’s lives.

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