Some years ago, when I was leaving my job in academia and wondering what my next career would look like, I did a bunch of questionnaires designed to tell me things about myself. Like many such devices, they were really tools to highlight things that I already knew, but they were remarkably useful. They brought my priorities into sharp relief.
Among other things, the resulting analysis made it clear that I needed to do something I believed in. Something I felt passionate about. Something I knew was going to make the world a better place.
Being of a rather literal turn of mind, I started to do pro-bono work for Oxfam Australia, then worked for the Breastfeeding Association of Australia. Both roles and organisations I felt strongly about, but not jobs where I really experienced flow. Flow, if you haven’t met it before, is the state of complete focus that you achieve when you are doing something you love, something you are good at, and something that you are challenged by – challenged enough that you are stretched and working hard, but not challenged so much that you are frustrated and not achieving.
I believe flow is closely related to mindfulness – in that you are wholly committed to what you are doing in the present moment. Your every sense and faculty is devoted to your task. It’s a great feeling, and I get it when I am teaching – especially when I am teaching content that I know well, that I feel strongly about, and that my students are engaging with and challenging me on. The greatest moments in my classes are usually when my students argue with me.You can throw your hands up
You can be the clock
You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame Hall of Fame, The Script.
While I was still working one day per week with the Breastfeeding Association I got the opportunity to start doing a little bit of curriculum development with my current school, and every time I set foot in a class I experienced the most amazing flow. It was a massive rush. The incredible attraction of the job and the school meant that it wasn’t long before I gave up my other work commitments and devoted myself wholly to teaching.
Last night our latest crop of year 12s had their valedictory dinner, and our illustrious leader made a comment about all of us – teachers and students alike – having stepped out of our comfort zone in order to move to our school. For me that was particularly poignant, as my first day at this school was the start of a completely new career. It was a massive step for me. It’s strange, in your late 30s, to feel as young, naive and ignorant as a new graduate, yet there I was. Established in one career, but nonetheless leaping off the deep end into an entirely different one. New workplace. New vocation. New life.
I don’t think I have spent a day inside my comfort zone since I started. And yet that is precisely why I experience flow so often in this job. I love it. I give it everything I have. And I push the boundaries every day. Every year I learn to know and love a new class of students, and every year it breaks my heart to say goodbye to them, even as I am excited and challenged by the next group. Every year I give my students everything I’ve got, and get more in return than I could possibly imagine.
Of course this does raise the question of balance. The problem with doing a job you love and believe in is that it’s very easy to want to do everything all at once. To reach higher, run faster, and do more every day. Sooner or later that doesn’t end well. It’s such a privilege to have a job that gives me astonishing joy, but it comes with a price that I have not yet learned to manage. I struggle to remember to take deep breaths and postpone some tasks until tomorrow, next week, or even next year. A colleague today teasingly implied that I effectively work full time hours for half time pay, and I was somewhat lost for a reply. It’s a lot more true than I’d like it to be.
At the very least, working the hours that I do, I would like to be doing my job better. To be more organised. To be more creative. To just be better at… well… at everything. But even working far more hours than I am supposed to, there just isn’t time.
Today a games developer friend of mine told my students that he has found that late nights mean more bugs. That starting at 9 and finishing at 5:30 ultimately gets the work done faster, and at higher quality, than trying to pull all nighters and work 60 hour weeks. I did a lot of not very subtle nudging of my students and saying “see? see??? more bugs!” and yet it took me all day to realise that I need to heed that lesson at least as much as my students do.
To have a job that fills me with such vivid delight is worth almost any price, but maybe I can negotiate the terms a little. With that in mind, perhaps I will go home on time today. Or at least less late than usual.