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If there’s one mistake people consistently make in business and life, it’s thinking that there’s any difference between the two.

It’s a mistake that’s reinforced by concepts like “work/life balance,” “business ethics,” and “networking.” These ideas don’t seem to have a ton in common, other than the fact that they all have to do with “work”. But actually, they are united by a dangerous assumption they all share:

That ‘business’ and ‘life’ are two fundamentally different ‘spaces,’ each having its own purpose and rules.

Why do I say this assumption is dangerous, as opposed to just “wrong”? Nobody ever died from wanting a work/life balance, after all. So where’s the danger?

To answer that question, it helps to look at the 3 concepts I just brought up in more detail. For convenience’s sake I’ll use “The Assumption” to describe the flawed idea they all share in common.

  • Work/life balance. ‘Work/life balance’ implies that work and life are separate. In doing so, it  disparages the idea of work–if “work” is whatever “life” isn’t, then it sounds like you’re not really living when you’re at work. It’s a recipe for viewing your business as an unfortunate chore you need to do to get money for… what, exactly? What do we do when we’re not working, that’s so different from work? There are elements of work in just about everything; house chores, commuting, filing taxes, cooking dinner, and the list goes on. We could probably draw a line in the sand by defining “work” as “anything we do for money.” But that still leaves the problem of how we define “life” beyond just “not work.” It sounds like “work/life balance” was thought up by somebody who really hated their job and harboured fantasies about spending Monday mornings at the Golf Course.
  • Business ethics. You probably had a harder time finding The Assumption lurking in this idea than the previous one. But it’s still there. The term ‘business ethics’ implies that there’s a set of rules for business that are different from the rules you follow elsewhere. There’s something frivolous about it, as though ethics are just different sets of rules in the ‘games’ that make up our lives, with no real grounding in the greater good.
  • Networking. This one might have you scratching your head. But really ask yourself, why say “networking” when you could just say “meeting people”? After all, that’s what networking really is: meeting people with a certain goal in mind. And here The Assumption rears its ugly head again. The reason we we use “networking” to describe meeting people for business reasons, is because we think business HAS to be different from life: it has to be stiffer, more formal, less spontaneous, less fun, more bullshit-y. “Networking” is just another way of saying “socializing I wouldn’t do if there wasn’t a buck in it.”

Basically, these 3 ideas all paint a very unflattering picture of work. They imply that work is a compromise: it’s phoney, a means to an end, what you do when you’re “not really living.” They set you up to go into your work half-heartedly. They give work a taint of ‘fakeness,’ which leads people to adopt the meekly dishonest ‘office persona’ lampooned in movies like Office Space.

If you operate on The Assumption, you’ll subconsciously treat your business like a curse. You’ll take it for granted that work involves lying, begging, faking, cheating and cutting corners, because The Assumption ultimately equates work with falseness. The Assumption is, at bottom, a product of not knowing what you want.

Which leads me to…

… The Question Must Ask Yourself (If You Want To Break Free From The Assumption And Learn To Love Your Business)

By now we’ve established that there is an all pervasive assumption underlying mainstream thinking about work, one that leads to massive discontent and even vaguely unethical behaviour. It’s an assumption that makes you settle for less than you want, less than you could get, and less than you should be doing. Worst of all, it causes you to deserve all of this, too, so you don’t even have the right to complain.

Wow, what a downer.

Luckily, there is a way to break free from The Assumption… It’s almost ridiculously simple, and best of all, you can start doing it today.

And that is to answer the question, “what do I really want?”

Yes, it’s really that simple. And it doesn’t even need that much elaboration, truth be told.

Now, you might be saying to yourself…

“I Know Damn Well What I Want, Mostly Pizza, Beer and Netflix… Now Cut The Crap And Get To The Point.”

And to that I answer:

No. You actually don’t know what you want. 

By now might be thinking, “what a load of Chutzpah this guy has, telling me I don’t know my own business.” But the truth is, MOST people don’t know what they want. At least not beyond basic physical desires. It’s the reason advertisers are able to lead us around on a leash by shoving images of food, sex and status in our faces–when you don’t know what you want out of life, you tend to pursue the things you want this very minute. It’s the reason that people who lack a sense of purpose tend to resort to drugs, compulsive eating, gambling, and casual sex: without a higher purpose, we fall back on satisfying our animal urges.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a famous model now known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” The model depicts human needs in ascending order, as the steps on a pyramid. At the bottom are our physiological needs, which we share in common with animals (food, safety, shelter). At the top are self-actualization needs, which come from fulfilling our potential and “becoming who we want to be.”

In the developed world, most people acquire the lower needs on Maslow’s hierarchy easily. Very few people in Europe or North America want for shelter, and even the homeless can usually access food. The second level–“safety” needs–is trickier, but not a lot of people really struggle with it. Sure, there are people who are financially insecure, but almost every bad debt can be discharged in bankruptcy.

It’s on the third level of the hierarchy (“love and belonging”) that things start getting complicated. If asked in an anonymous survey, most people would probably express doubt as to whether they “love,” “are loved,” and “feel a sense of belonging.” And yet according to Maslow, you need to have this area handled before you can proceed to self-esteem and finally self-actualization. Yikes.

Which leads me to my final point:

Knowing What You Really Want, Is Hard

… And in fact, it’s really a life-long process.

Most people probably think they know what they want. But if asked, they’d probably provide answers that relate to lower-level pleasures: food, comfort, a nice house, a fast car, financial security. Certainly, most people wouldn’t be able to tell you what would give them self-actualization.

To know what you really desire at the highest levels of your being involves a life-long process of growth, development, trial and error. It simply can’t be any other way. Because you can’t know what you want until you’ve actually found it. At best, you have a vague idea of what you might want–and there’s a very good chance that idea was planted in your head by advertisers and others who don’t have your best interests at heart.

The key to finding out what you really want, is to:

  1. Start by knowing what you don’t want, and cut it out.
  2. Commit to experiencing things you’ve never tried before until you find something that compels you to explore it more.

The second step is a lifelong process that is never truly over. There is no hard and fast rule here, and everybody must follow their own path.

The first step, on the other hand, is extremely easy, and you can actually start it today. Just think of the things you do that cause negative emotions with no benefit other than helping you make money. Basically, the things you would NEVER do, not even for 5 minutes a week, if there was no money in them.

A quick rule of thumb: have you ever hated something so much that you can’t even joke about it? That when you complain about it, it’s just a non-stop stream of condemnation and hate? That’s something you need to cut out. Even if you’re currently generating money with it. No matter how much you’re making from it now, you will make much more by rededicating time to something you actually care about.

As an entrepreneur, you’re fortunate enough to be able to cut aspects of your job out if you don’t like them.

That client who constantly asks for 10 rounds of revisions without compensation? Fire him.

The blog posts you can’t stand writing? Outsource them.

The customers that just aren’t right for you? Target different ones.

This is crucial: do not mistake something that has a painful aspect to it, with something you hate entirelyAs Mark Manson writes in his bestselling book, “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck,” everything has some element of pain to it. The key is to find the things where even the painful elements give you some kind of satisfaction. The classic example here would be the bodybuilder who LOVES the feeling of waking up in the morning with aches and pains, because it means his muscles are growing. But there are many others. Think of a job where you’d get a weird exhilarated feeling when things would get busy, or a relationship where you actually liked talking to your partner about the difficult issues they were going through. This ‘finding good even in the bad’ is probably the single best sign that you really want something.

The real key to succeeding in business is to align your work with your highest values and priorities. Conceptually, this is simple; but in practice, it requires a lifetime of dedication.

The good news is, you can start right now. Ask yourself, “what’s one thing I could do today that would make my business more meaningful, more purposeful, more in line with my values?” And commit to doing at least one thing in that direction today.

You’ll be surprised how quickly such a commitment can lead to lasting, positive, fulfilling change.

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