What happens when work is fun?



Recently I found myself standing on the stage of one of the most respected Operas in the world dressed as a Russian Policeman. I was totally in flow in my role of protecting the Tzar. All of a sudden I looked up and saw the audience of nearly 2000 people. It took all of my internal strength to stop myself from laughing out loud. All I could think was:  “How did I end up here?” 

As a Meaning of Work expert, Researcher, and a generally curious person, I could tell you that joining the Vienna State Opera as a part-time Extra was part of my latest phenomenological / auto-didactic research project. It wasn’t. I took this job purely for fun. Or, at least, so I thought. It has absolutely been fun but it’s also been full of surprises and I’ve learned a lot about myself, what’s been missing in my work, and how we can all make work a little bit more awesome.

How did I end up on the Stage? 

Like most things in Vienna, it started with a coffee. Vienna is an Opera and Classical music city. It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing someone on a bike with a cello strapped to their back whoosh past. It’s also a coffee and relationships city. A highlight of my day is drinking coffee with some of the other Dad’s after Kindergarten drop-off. One of them plays Viola in the Opera and he casually asked me: “the Opera are looking for male Extras, are you interested?”

My first reaction was to scoff at the idea. “No”, I replied firmly, semi-offended that he thought I might not be working 100% in flow with my life’s one true purpose. “I’m too focused on launching my Meaning of Work projects in Vienna”, I stated. The more nuanced truth is that although I was focused on a purpose, I wasn’t feeling totally amazing about my work. Something was missing. I was working alone from home, in a foregin city, and I was feeling pretty lonely. He persisted. “Isn’t meaningful work about trying new things and having fun?” 

I realised he was right. What did I really have to lose from taking a little time-out from my main work? I decided that at the very least this would make a great story one day and I should jump in.

Leaving the comfort zone

I was put in touch with the Opera contact and after sending some photos and my resume (which includes zero acting experience!) I was cast as a Reserve Extra in “The Valkyrie”. On my first day something strange happened. I turned up early. This is not normal and a clear sign that I was nervous. Where do I go? What will they ask me to do? What if I can’t understand the German instructions? And worst of all, What if I mess it up and make a fool of myself? My fears were (mostly) unfounded, I eventually managed to navigate the maze of the opera house and find the rehearsal room. Apart from committing two or three major faux pas (apparrently it’s not normal for an Extra to call the Director by his first name, nor to sit with the Singers at lunch time. Oops!), I made it through the first day. 

Experiencing joy

The reward for getting out of my comfort zone was immediately obvious. I was totally energised by the experience. I’d met new, fascinating people and I’d done something difficult and survived. Most mind-blowing of all was the sound. I’d never experienced so close-up the power of a world-class Opera Singer at full volume. The scene we’d rehearsed is one of the most exciting in all of Opera, The Ride of the Valkyries, where the Valkyries are chasing soldiers killed in battle to take them to the after-world. You know the melody, it’s the dramatic “do-do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-doooo-do” one. I couldn’t get it out of my head but it wasn’t just this ear-worm I’d been infected with, the feeling of joy was bubbling around in my head for the rest of the day. There was an extra spring in my step and a spark had been struck inside me.

What I learned about myself

I realised this new energy was obvious to others too. I was lighter, more playful, more me. I was  genuinely a better Father/Partner/Friend/Member of society for the rest of that day. Can work be awesome all the time? I started to imagine what the long-term effect would be if work was even just a little bit more awesome permanently. There is a better questions to ask: How can we make work more awesome all of the time?

There is a TONNE of science and evidence that shows how we can find meaning / happiness / joy in our work, including my own Bubbles of Meaning framework. There is also a TONNE of evidence to show the innumerable positive effects. Even though I am an Expert in this topic it still requires constant work to make it happen and that work starts with some very honest self-reflection. The opera experience has taught me several things, and some were pretty uncomfortable to confront and accept. No matter how committed I was to achieving my purpose and goals, I was missing something important in my work. In fact I was missing at least three of the seven main elements that make work meaningful (Connection, Belonging, and a little bit of Achievement). The great thing about these realisations is that they are the key to changing things to make my work feel better. Below are my personal revelations and some ideas of how we can all make work a little bit more awesome:

  1. I NEED human connection and belonging. – We all need human connection but some of us need it more than others. I was reminded that I’m at my happiest when I’m interacting, vibing, and swapping ideas with other people. I’ve been missing this. 

What’s missing? → The key is being honest with oneself when reflecting on what’s really missing in our work.

  1. I can’t just think or wish work into being meaningful or awesome –  I spent a long time in lockdown trying to design my perfect Vienna work experience. It’s only by taking a leap and ‘doing’ that anything changes. The Opera wasn’t part of my plan but it jump-started a process of doing-reflecting-learning-doing things better. 

What can you do right now? → Have a think about what easy thing could take you even just a tiny bit closer to better work? If you found something, then do it now, don’t wait!

  1. Change the story – “I’m doing this because…X” Sometimes our motivations for our actions go too long unquestioned. Once I made the revelations noted above, I realised I had been telling myself an out-of-date story about my purpose and it needed to be re-written and my work re-framed. 

Does your story make sense? → Sometimes it helps to have someone to talk to about this and reflect back to you to see if your work story still makes sense. If it doesn’t, then change it! 

  1. Don’t let fear get in the way of opportunities for experiencing joy – I initially said no to the Opera. When I was really honest with myself about it, I had to admit that it was because I was scared. The fears seem ridiculous in the light of day, “what if I can’t do it?”, “what will people think about me?”, there was even some status anxiety. But bringing them, and the other fears I had about my meaning of work projects, into the arena of daylight helped me get over them. 

What’s holding you back? → Write your fears down, talk them out. Do they have legitimacy? Are they still scary? Naming our fears is a great way to make them smaller.

  1. Do more of what I love – This might seem obvious but life is always a little bit better when we do more of the stuff that makes us feel alive! I just had to allow myself to do it. 

What do you love? → Take a side-job as an Extra, or even just climb a mountain for fun and get your head out of work. Whatever it is, make time for something that brings you joy. It always makes life feel better.

More info

If this story resonates with you, here are some links to further info for digging a bit deeper. As always, I’d be happy to chat if you want to know more. 

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