Right Livelihood: When Work is More Than a Paycheck

Being in the work that makes the best use of your strengths and talent depends on how well you know yourself. If you are like most people, it will take several tries before you are in what Buddhists call your right livelihood.

Right livelihood means the work you are doing changes you into the best version of yourself. This activity also benefits the community at large. Since longevity is the key to transformation, the work needs to hold your interest over a long period of time.

The constant perfecting or practice of work that engages your heart, mind and soul gives you a view of the world and your purpose in it, similar to the old man in Hemingway’s story whose life as a fisherman gives him a connection with “a whole world of experience.”

You may change jobs or businesses before you land in the right place. Or you may cut back on what you are doing so that you can focus on what is important at this stage of your life. You may discover you want to do the work with or for different people in a different location. Or you want to create your own way of doing what you did before.

The shifts that make all the difference between contentment and frustration in work are often a change of form not content. In other words, what you do may be called something else, the job title, the service or product, but you are the same person inside a new, larger container.

Right Livelihood Brings Its Own Rewards

Not everyone views work as a vehicle for self-development. For many, work is what you have to do to survive, and that is understandable, given the Great Depression and recurring recessions.

Additionally, the fast pace and long hours in the world of work wear out most people, so that all they can think about is stopping work, as the endlessly enlarging corporate world defines the word.

Burnout and chronic physical illnesses are inevitable outcomes when work is defined by quantity not quality, by breadth, not depth. Measuring yourself by how much you accomplish, how much money you make, how high and far you can go drives the nervous system to the breaking point.

No wonder so many people use addictions and other distractions to numb the pain that comes from trying to keep up with an out of control world. In some cases, their work is the addiction.

Letting go of overdoing it is not easy in a culture that applauds those who work and live large, even when it is beyond their means. Recall the mortgage loan meltdown of 2008 that was driven by extroverted sales leaders for whom more credit was never enough. Had they listened to the quiet, introverted side of their personalities billions could have been saved, home losses minimized, and heartache eased.

By contrast, right livelihood values the slow, steady growth that deepens you as you practice it. As the years go by you notice you are not the person you were before. Each challenge you face and overcome alters you into a wiser, more thoughtful person.

I have noticed a trend toward working independently that is accelerating every year. (This is also true nationwide.) Women especially are starting their own businesses as a way to gain control over their lives and schedules. What they long for is a balance between doing and being, masculine and feminine energies working as a partnership, not as adversaries.

Inner and outer balance is also the goal for men who are tired of the relentless pressure to produce more and more. The burden becomes so heavy their minds and bodies cannot take it anymore. Most trips to doctors’ offices these days are due to prolonged stress masquerading as illness.

Stepping off the treadmill can be terrifying to the ego that is running you into the ground. It is afraid you will fall behind your competitors, become irrelevant, or starve to death. You will probably need professional help to navigate the change to a saner, more rewarding life.

Taking time to reflect will not only restore depleted energy, it will be an inspiration to others. Once you regain your balance you may realize freedom from the control of authority figures (and even some customers) is the path to right livelihood.

Right Livelihood Has to Match Your Values

In his book, The Entrepreneur’s Manual, the late Richard White said an owner’s values must be in harmony with any venture or it is doomed to failure, no matter how good the product or service.

White said it takes, on average, three attempts before you achieve full satisfaction. This does not mean you have to start three different businesses. Often it is streamlining the same endeavor that alters your view of yourself and the world. The point is you care enough about what you are doing to let go of what is not working. Remember what I said about longevity and Hemingway’s fisherman?

In another example, let’s say you want to be the owner of a fine art gallery. If you value aesthetics you are likely to make the gallery a success. If you go into the business for money or prestige, the outcome is bleak. Unconsciously, you will sabotage it so that you can get out of it.

Success is also more likely if you work in an established gallery–or in any business that interests you–for several years before starting your own enterprise. It is easier to learn when stakes are not so high.

Wherever you are in your career, dissatisfaction is rarely about what is going on in the outside world. It is an inner drive for what no organization can provide.

As White once said to me, “Profit maximization is great for stockholders but it can be restrictive for the creative, do-it-yourself-a-different-way types, they get restless, start thinking about change, and usually quit or get fired with fireworks.”

Rather than set it up so you get fired, or you quit in anger, White said to think it through before you take the leap. Do your homework. Seek advice from those who are succeeding at what you want to do. Then exit gracefully.

“You learn patience working in an organization,” White said. “Business is a game, and a good one compared to some others. Your decisions and plans may take months, even years. When you get enough confidence in your own decision-making ability, you’ll venture out into no man’s land, “

White was instrumental in my own career development. I went to him many years ago for help when the counseling business I was in with a partner was failing. My role at the time was to support him.

After 30 minutes White looked at me and said, “You are not a lieutenant, you are a general. I want to know why you are not running things.”  Then he looked at the partner and said, “This is not the business for you. Go walk on the beach and figure out what you really want to do.”

White’s directness was a jolt that woke me up from my self-imposed slumber. Once I was on my own I experimented with new ways of helping clients find their way. The process worked so well they urged me to write a book about it. And so I did.

Right Livelihood Questions

For both women and men, starting a business or individual practice in today’s world is easier than it used to be. Cultural values have changed, and opportunities abound, especially in niche businesses and services. The more you can personalize what you do the less competition there will be, since no one else is you.

The following questions will help you decide if being on your own will work for you. You do not need to say yes to all the questions to qualify as an entrepreneur. In fact, independence will develop these abilities.

  • Are you intellectually honest? Do you have the ability to see things as they are, not as you want them to be?
  • Are you organized and efficient?
  • Do you trust your intuition?
  • Do you make molehills out of molehills, rather than mountains?
  • When it comes to money do you handle it well?
  • Are you wary of fast growth?
  • Do you prefer to make your own decisions?
  • Are you aware that people will pay you for what you do naturally and well?
  • Are your values in harmony with what you want to do?
  • Does the work match your temperament, introvert or extrovert?
  • Do prospective clients or customers have the same values?
  • Is enjoyment of the process more important than the end result?
  • Can you do this work for a long time?
  • Are you comfortable saying no? Do you have good boundaries?
  • Are you open to correction? Are you self-correcting?
  • Do you have a sense of humor? Can you laugh at yourself?
  • Are your expectations realistic?

Your answers to the above questions will tell you why your current work is not giving you what you need. The answers will also tell you if your masculine and feminine energies are working together, or if they are at odds. You may learn that you are in (or close to being in) your right livelihood; the work that gives your soul the room it needs to spread its wings.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Nancy’s website is workwithpassion.com.

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