Motivation and Meaning: Why Do You Do What You Do?


Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill

When we work with people who are unfulfilled or unhappy in their careers, there are often plenty of understandably practical gripes: pay, pensions, hours, travel, working conditions, equipment, leadership (or lack of), wellbeing support (or lack of), technology (or lack of) and so on.

But what of the more abstract, emotional side?

Have you ever found yourself thinking:

“what am I doing here, really?” or

“is this all there is?”

Well, if so, you might just be asking some existentialist questions – which often aren’t a popular topic of conversation on most public order carriers, I’ll admit, but I’m going to explain why they should form a key part of your thinking about a potential move in your career.

There’s a reason my first question to any of my clients (or potential clients) is:

“What do you want to do?”

I don’t expect an immediate answer to that, it takes time and it takes effort – but it frames the whole process as a positive pursuit of something meaningful on an individual level, rather than a negative process of escaping something externally applied that makes you unhappy. Focusing on what others are doing is the fast-track to remaining unfulfilled. Uncomfortable truth time:

“What you allow is what will continue”.

Don’t get me wrong – in the context of all that’s wrong with the emergency services as a place to work in 2019, I’m working as hard as anyone to change things at an organisational/cultural level – but there comes a point where you as an individual have to draw the line. It’s commendable in a lot of ways that police officers, paramedics, firefighters, prison officers and many more continue to sacrifice their own selves for the good of society – but it also papers over the cracks of the overall system, meaning that healthy working practices are often ignored, self-care is nigh on impossible and so those same dedicated people are not really supported at all. People join these professions because of their meaning – to make a difference, to support others through hardships they themselves have experienced – selfless, societal motivators. Over time though, this selfless nature allows poor practices to continue, dampening that original fire to do the job.

That meaning is what I truly see at the heart of so many of the journeys we assist with.

Allow me to digress to illustrate my point – one of the classic existentialist tales is Albert Camus’ retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king who wanted to climb the ladder – setting up his own kind of early Direct Entry scheme, I suppose – and wasn’t afraid to use trickery and cunning to get there. Zeus wasn’t impressed and condemned him to roll a huge boulder up a mountainside, only for it to roll all the way back down as he reached the top. A lifetime of futile, back-breaking, soul-destroying effort – labours anyone who has policed Notting Hill Carnival, tried to get through to the CPS by phone or answered 999 calls about Facebook disputes will identify with. Camus thought that the boulder represented the absurdity of life and equated it to the modern absurdity of turning up every day to perform the same monotonous tasks without making real progress – which showed remarkable foresight as he wrote his book in a time before most public sector IT systems existed. Anyway…

The good news is that Sisyphus’ fate is mythical. You do not have to emulate him. There are many other things that are mythical, such as having to stay in a job forever just because:

- You’ve been there 10/20/30 years

- You don’t know anything else

- You don’t have a degree

- You wanted to do this job for your whole career

- You still want to make a difference

- Someone in the pub/on Facebook said you had to

Celebrate the things you’ve done, be proud of them, but don’t make them into the boulder.

Life is fleeting, it’s absurd, it’s unpredictable and it’s a whole lot more in your hands than you think it is. Of course, breaking out and making a change isn’t easy (hence why so many people stay stuck and unhappy), but it is possible and with the right approach and support it’s probable. Ask for help, learn, be vulnerable, try, fail, learn, try again, fail again, learn, try, succeed.

It’s never been easier to convince yourself of any theory being true and absolute, however ludicrous. Search Google for “why the Earth is flat” or “why Marmite is disgusting” and you’ll find plenty of zealots presenting their “evidence”. It’s the same in the emergency services when you survey the canteen (if you can still find one): You can’t just leave. You won’t be wanted. You don’t have any skills. You’d have to work in Tesco if you did.

Says who?

Why wouldn’t you succeed? Plenty of others have – but they’re often too busy moving forward to sit around being negative and creating the boulders that hold others back. Success stories of people just like you are everywhere – I even publish them for this exact reason - just take a look at our Facebook page!

I understand why those myths exist; I really do. Lots of awful things have been systematically imposed on public services in the UK for years now. We all agree on that – but it isn’t my fault and it isn’t yours so let’s focus on what we can do and shed some of that guilt that isn’t ours to feel.

What’s my point, you’re probably wondering by now. Fair question.

Sometimes all this requires deep thought – personally I enjoy that. I’m a thinker, I enjoy philosophy, existentialism and so on. But none of this means anything without action. So be a doer too. Ask yourself the questions but commit to doing something about the answers. We are building the biggest, strongest and most comfortable safety net we can for you – but you still have to jump into it, with open eyes and a willingness to make tomorrow more meaningful than today.

If those answers lead to you leaving your organisation, so be it. They might not – that’s great too. We’re not about digging tunnels to strip the 999 worlds of talent for the sake of it. What we want is the right people in the right place at the right time, acting with passion, skill and meaning – because that’s a combination that really can move mountains.

If this made you feel even 1% more motivated to act, act. Don’t wait for the “right time” because last time I checked the clock, it wasn’t one of the options.

If you want to continue reading into all this from people who were actual philosophers rather than me rambling about it, check out Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and loads of others.

If you’re in an emergency services role and felt any of this applied to you – just get in touch with the Mightify team. We run events, we run courses, we write, we coach, we train – but you have to ask!

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