Socrates on the Job

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When Socrates declared: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he wasn’t hanging out at the gymnasium, gazing at his navel! He was in a desperate situation: on trial for heresy after encouraging his students to think for themselves and challenge the status quo.

2,500 years later, many of us are finding that the status quo at work is change, uncertainty, and stress. With unemployment and underemployment at discouraging highs, and anxiety on the rise for many who are still employed, people are beginning to challenge old assumptions about themselves and their work. They are examining their lives and looking at how their career paths either contribute to or detract from their overall quality of life.

For some, the economic slowdown offers a golden opportunity to commit to educational or training goals that were put off in busier times. They know that further education can help them secure a better position in their current field or help them transition to something entirely different. Others are getting creative in the face of adversity – breaking out of the box and pursuing long-held dreams or inventing completely new professional identities. The mortgage broker who always loved to paint now has the push she needs to show and sell her art. The laid-off teacher with the entrepreneurial spirit takes a chance on starting a small business. The former executive decides to trade in a hefty paycheck for work that feeds his soul more than his bank account.

As a therapist, I often work with people who find themselves in transition. Some choose change and others have it thrust upon them. Either way, the best outcomes are attained by those who are able to develop a sense of meaning and agency in the midst of uncertainty.

Meaning provides a framework for understanding what’s happening as it relates to your beliefs about yourself and the world. When we create meaning around an event, we are integrating experience in a way that makes sense and allows us to feel more empowered and at ease. If you’ve been forced out of a “great” job, do you see yourself as a failure for accepting a less prestigious job at lower pay, or do you see yourself as a hero for providing for your family the best you can? Similarly, a belief in personal agency reflects the knowledge that we are capable of acting in ways that will have a positive impact on the course of events or our experience of them. It’s the belief that we can promote our interests in great or small ways. Do you spend your time whispering with other scared employees about what might happen next, or do you use it to explore creative options and lay the groundwork for future possibilities?

Research shows that, when faced with a catastrophic event, those who feel that they are acting to change the situation are far less likely to have lasting mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, than those who felt helpless. Rather than seeing themselves as passive victims, they view themselves as active change-agents, even within very limited parameters. I find this extremely relevant to the world of work. There is so much that we can’t control about the economy, our corporate cultures, our supervisors and our clients. The key, to paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, is to let go of what you can’t change, know which things you can change, and work proactively in the present moment. Examine the old assumptions and create new meanings and actions that will serve you better both now and in the future.

Article by Claire Mauer

Originally published in the Kendall & Kendall newsletter, 2009