I’ve had a challenging and sometimes dangerous journey through the world of work. Now, I’m on a mission.
I’m on a mission to create a world where we have the skill, knowledge and desire to create a working life that is right for each of us and create thriving organizations.
For most people, work is the single largest project in life. Research and our own experience shows that we will spend more time engaged in the many aspects of our working lives than we will spend with our children and intimate partners. Research also shows that most people are dissatisfied with their working lives, and dissatisfaction with work can be the source of dissatisfaction with life itself.
Since we’re going to spend so of our lives working, we need to get work right.
“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one, but I give myself to it.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke
First lesson about work & life
When I was 12, I asked my father if I could get a summer job. He said, “You’re going to have to work for the rest of your life, enjoy your summer.”
Then, he raised my allowance.
I didn’t work that summer, but I got a job the next summer. And, he was right, I’ve been working ever since. At 12 years old, I had my first lesson about work and life.
Almost killed at work, the first time
My father was in the military, and when I was 18, I followed in his footsteps. Serving my country was the most meaningful work I could imagine. Later, I understood that I joined only because I didn’t know what else I could do.
Being in the military was difficult for me.
Although I always got great performance reviews from my supervisors, I was never satisfied with the work or with military life. But the highlight of my career was a deployment to the former-Yugoslavia.
I was trained for war and I was going to a war zone. I was trained to want just that.
“The life of a man [sic] consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The deployment was everything I wanted it to be. It had intensity, learning, camaraderie and adventure. I had experiences that few ever have. But it was a dangerous mission and, one day toward the end of my six-month tour, we got shelled.
In moments like that, a soldier’s training takes control. All I thought about was protecting myself and preparing for what might come next. But, when the shelling stopped and I heard the “All clear,” the first thing I thought was, “I need to get a different job.”
“The ultimate measure of a man [sic] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
I served my country for eleven years. I made great friends and had many deeply meaningful experiences. But even with all the intensity, learning, camaraderie, and adventure, it was still only a job to me. It was a job I had grown to hate, and it was a job that might get me killed. The job that I’d dedicated my life to had lost all meaning. Meaning evaporated.
I left the military a year after I returned from Yugoslavia. I’m thankful every day for those men and women in uniform who serve their country, but it wasn’t for me.
Almost killed at work, the second time
When I left the military, I was living in Calgary, the headquarters of Canada’s energy industry. I got a job working as a roughneck on a drilling rig, and I was thankful to get it. I worked twelve-hour shifts in the frozen forests of northern Canada. I wore coveralls and I got dirty. It was the hardest I’d ever worked.
At that time in western and northern Canada, it was said that boys were made men by working as loggers, miners, ranchers and roughnecks. Now, I was one of those men. I was part of the fabric of the land, the salt of the earth. It was full of meaning. It was a solid, durable meaning that I could hold on to.
“Work is not man’s [sic] punishment. It is his reward and his strength and his pleasure.”
One day, I was standing in the middle of the rig floor and working on a large pipe that came up to my waist. Somebody yelled, and I jumped to my left. There was an eardrum-bursting, metal-on-metal crash and the whole rig shook.
Our driller had accidently released a large piece of equipment that had been winched to the side of the rig floor. A ton of iron had swung to the middle of the floor crashing into the pipe I had been working on. If I hadn’t jumped out of the way I would have been chopped in half at the waist, sheared clean. My hips and legs would have flopped to the floor and my torso would have landed on the other side of the pipe.
There was another accident the next day. But I didn’t want to stick around for a third, so I quit. The job that made men was not made for me.
For a second time, meaningful work, meaning that had been so real, evaporated.
Almost killed, a third time
When I was working on the rigs, engineers and other specialists would fly in for a day and do fascinating, technical work. They normally worked in high-rise office buildings in downtown Calgary. I knew they had more education than me, but they always treated me well.
At 29 years old, I decided to go to college.
When I graduated, I landed a job in one of those high-rise office buildings. I worked with smart, respectful professionals. I wore nice clothes, travelled around the world, and I was well paid. But, as the years passed, the job became stressful and boring.
I realized that I needed to build a “meaningful life” outside of work. And since I was living next to the Rocky Mountains, I decided to become a climber.
Soon I was climbing rock in the summer, ice in the winter, and travelling to climb big mountains in Europe and South America during my vacations. I wrote a book about climbing safety, and I was becoming part of the small mountain culture scene. And, I had a plan. I would save money, retire early, and travel the world to climb.
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
-Sir Edmund Hillary
In the summer of 2008, I was climbing a mountain in Peru. At 19,000 feet, just below the summit, I felt sick. I was having difficulty breathing and concentrating. We made it to the top, but as we began our descent down the summit glacier that would take us to a trail and back to basecamp, it happened.
I began hallucinating and, for a moment, I stopped breathing. I started moving my mouth as if I was trying to gulp or bite at the air and I thought, if I don’t start breathing, I’m going to die. I made a sound. It was a quiet grunt at first, but it got louder. I began yelling. I wasn’t saying words at first, but the yelling made me breathe.
We made it back to basecamp and I recovered, but my summer of climbing failure wasn’t over, yet. Two months later, I was rescued off a mountain in France. That was the beginning of the end of my climbing career. The meaning I found in climbing evaporated, just like all the other meaning had evaporated before it.
Work, life, and death
Reaching early retirement had been a kind of finish line. My goal was to cross it as quickly as possible so I could start living more deeply immersed in meaning. That meaning was going to come from climbing mountains. When climbing lost meaning, work lost meaning. I was close to falling into a deep depression, but instead of becoming depressed I started reading.
I read book after book about work, life and death. I began to understand that my decisions about work, and how I would live my life, were made with inadequate and misleading information. Next, I completed graduate studies focused on the world of work. I began helping individuals and organizations. And, I discovered my personal mission.
Learn more about the world of work and how we can make it our own.