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Circle Back

Reappraising Risk and Ownership

“You've heard of people calling in sick. You may have called in sick a few times yourself. But have you ever thought about calling in well?

It'd go like this: You'd get the boss on the line and say, "Listen, I've been sick ever since I started working here, but today I'm well and I won't be in anymore." Call in well.”
— Tom Robbins

Call in well.

It sounds mischievous, fantastical.

But it’s much more. It’s honest, observant, hopeful.

For some of us, it points out our truth: We pursued jobs we believed would amount to our financial security and intellectual fulfillment. Yet we found ourselves feeling insecure and unfulfilled.

And it’s just so accepted, that people should hate their jobs, like it’s a rite of passage that means you’re firmly in adulthood.

Meanwhile, idealistic voices cry out, “Do what makes you happy!” and “Find your passion!” and the ever-present, “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.”

And that’s pretty much garbage, too. Because no one is happy all the time, and no one always loves all parts of their job. Find me an artist that loves doing their books.

But that isn’t what Robbins is saying, anyway. We don’t have to expect ultimate joy and fulfillment out of everything we do. But why are we afraid to admit that we could be more happy? More fulfilled?

More well?

I think a lot of us want to live in a world that fosters individuality and creativity. One that is open to people taking risks, and accepts the failures and hard-earned lessons as willingly as it celebrates the victories and successes.

But then we remember the bills. The mortgages, student loans, property taxes, dental costs, fuel prices, RRSPs, weddings, funerals. Trips to the corner store for $6 milk. Children who eat three times their weight, sports equipment they outgrow over night. Airfare prices to anywhere.

So how do we call in well?

That’s the question we wrestle with... it keeps us up at night when we’ve had a bad day (or year) at work. The desire might be even more present when we’ve had a great day that’s awakened our excitement and our longing for control of our own lives.

It’s a tiny voice that waits as we list off the million practical reasons why we just absolutely cannot, undoubtedly, under no circumstances, may we take charge, or do things differently. Do things simply. Do things willingly.

It’s so tiny, that voice, and so patient, and when we’ve exhausted our fears and our doubts with our checklist of no’s, it whispers, “but what if...”

What if we did. What if we took a chance.

What if we succeeded? What if we failed? Would it be so bad? Would we be consumed by shame and doubt and fear of mediocrity?

I watched a news segment once about a study that questioned whether Canadians are so afraid of failure that we’ve stunted our own entrepreneurial spirit and economy. Because there are communities (notably Norwegian ones) that view failure as a completely normal and acceptable outcome, and embrace trying new things and being entrepreneurial.

The theories behind why we are hesitant are numerous and debatable. And the aversion to risk is understandable.

Many of the very early generations who came to Canada built homesteads from scratch and worked plows, or fishing boats, or laid bricks year after year for their children to have more opportunity and an easier life. Failure for them wasn’t just an emotional bruise, it was often the difference between survival, or not.

More recent generations were corporate homesteaders. They worked decades for the same company. They gave their full commitment and trust, securing gold-plated watches and modest retirements.

They helped their kids go to college and tried to impart the wisdom of being cautious, colouring inside the lines, being grateful to be a spoke in the company wheel.

Security, they’d say. Retirement, they explained. What you put in you’ll get out, they assured us. And for some of them, that proved to be true.

So we saw the argument for spending money to make money, stuffing degree after degree after training seminar after professional development session under our belts. We looked for new homes with warranties in bustling centres close to the most promising company jobs, and we committed.

It’s a formula that works, we were told. Have faith. Be patient — your generation needs to be more patient. Our identities and our worth became messily entangled with our jobs, with the jobs we hoped to get.

But then the jobs became scarce. The once booming industries busted. The retirement funds dried up. Lay-offs were common. Degrees once touted as promising income generators and intellectual outlets were overflowing with graduates who couldn’t get hired.

Working overtime and towing the company line meant nothing. Workplaces became so deeply unhappy and fundamentally unhealthy people who still had jobs couldn’t even do them.

And so, that tiny voice that whispers, “What if...” keeps getting louder and bolder.

The things our parents dreamed of for us, that equated to security and longevity and prosperity and opportunity in the past, are the things that leave us empty. Our bank accounts, our sense of fulfillment, our trust and security — it’s all in the red.

So we are calling in well.

When you’ve lost your sense of security and all the right things — the new house, the company jobs, the degrees and the training and the money invested in retirement plans that will never pay off — are now the wrong things, it doesn’t seem so risky to try something else.

There’s no keeping up with the Joneses. Now that we’re here, we don’t even like the Joneses.

We are leaving our offices. We are abandoning the practical plans. We are picking up pens, teaching yoga, and hanging shingles with our own names on them rather than someone else’s. We are raising hammers and laying bricks and planting gardens because we want to go back to when the things we did had meaning to us.

We are the generation that will circle back. Far enough back to find ourselves, and to be spokes in our own wheels.

We are calling in well, abandoning the jobs that perpetuate our sickness. We’re buying our grandmother’s house and working her garden. We’re reading books and watching our kids play in the backyards of modest homes that show the wear and tear of generations before rather than warranty stickers.

We’re trying to find the sweet spot.

The one that means we’re secure, but we’re happy. The one that means our kids have all they need, and they have us. The one that teaches our kids to still aim carefully but also aim bravely.

We are saying the words that make our parents wring their hands with worry: “We don’t know if it’ll work.”

We might fail.

But it won’t be a surprise. It won’t be a Friday afternoon layoff in a beige office filled with fear and sickness.

If we fail it will be our own. We will possess our successes and our mistakes and we’ll know we did all we could, and if we didn’t do all that we could, we will own that.