Nazi concentration camps can teach us a lesson about the workplace. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, famously writes in his book Man´s Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the hust comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms, to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one´s own way.
And there are always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers to threaten to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determine whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance.
Our workplaces are not, thank God, an expression of the worst of human condition. At least I hope not. But the same principles apply: the vast majority of us do not exercise our freedom, and we become the plaything of circumstance.
We are all subject to extraordinary levels of demands. This is mainly due to lousy job descriptions (that´s what knowledge workers do) and total accessibility (that´s what technology has enabled). Under those extraordinary levels of demands we become overwhelmed, stressed out and miserable. We work long hours, we lose touch with other important parts of our lives, and we alienate.
Under those conditions, we all blame external circumstances instead of questioning the choices we are making (or not making, to be more precise). We are living miserable lives and blaming email for it.
Last Monday, doing a 30 min catch up session with one guy at the office, he says: "We must review this project asap, we´re not making good progress here and you must intervene"; my response: "Sure, let me see... is Wednesday ok? 11.00am then". That hour turned out to be essential for a really important matter that popped up later. Same Monday, a colleague that has been out of the office due to a serious medical condition, returned to work, so we scheduled a session to put him up to speed. This session became a fairly personal walkthrough his problems during this time. I did not interrupted and what was supposed to be a 1 hour meeting extended to 2 hours. As a result, I had no lunch.
I could go on forever. Everyday I´m subject to an agenda full of meetings, plus unexpected surprises, plus the work I need to do. My daily routine for the past months has been: wake up at 6.30am, have breakfast, start working at home; then shower and commute to work until 21:00 or 22:00 or 23:00; get back home, eat someting if not exhausted, sleep. Then repeat. And the whole point is, no matter how extraordinary my demands are, I have made the choice to build my own nightmare, and still I blame circumstance. You will probably relate to this story, even if your conditions are not that extreme.
Exercising our freedom is possible a thousand times a day. Not possible, it is necessary. But doing so requires at least 3 things:
- Purpose. If you don´t know where you´re going you don´t know where youre not going, and therefore you drift.
- Presence. If you are not aware that you are about to make a choice, you revert to your defaults, and your defaults are based on fears.
Fortitude. You need courage to make a choice that confronts those fears (fear of rejection, fear of pissing someone off, ...)
Those 3 things are extraordinarily difficult to develop, that´s why so many of us fall under our own traps. Still, the price we´re paying for not doing it is, perhaps, the highest cost in your life (higher than the mortgage, I would dare to say.) Good news is that everyday starts anew, and everyday gives us thousands of opportunities to make use of our freedom, so let´s start working on what really matters.