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Can You Feel More Alive at Work?

An interview with Dan Cable.

Source: RichVantage/iStock
Source: RichVantage/iStock

Do you bounce into work Monday morning? Are you full of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas for the week ahead? Are you looking forward to all of the opportunities you’ll have to truly show up and perform at your best? Chances are this is not your average week or your average day. But given that you’re likely to spend over 90,000 hours at work across your lifetime, wouldn’t it be good to feel really alive while you do it?

“Unfortunately, rather than see work as part of our real lives, many of us just see it as a commute to the weekend,” said Professor Dan Cable of the London Business School and author of Alive at Work, when I interviewed him recently. “Where you strap on the seatbelt of boredom on Monday morning, and then you take it back off on Friday night.”

Unfortunately, many organizations remain stuck in management principles founded during the Industrial Revolution to control people’s behavior by focusing them on specific tasks that could be measured and monitored in order to increase production and reliability. While this may have worked well when predictability was the goal of most workplaces, in an increasingly dynamic, complex and connected world the cost of these antiquated approaches is that they suppress people’s natural impulses to experiment, learn, and find ways to meaningful express themselves.

“Many organizations deactivate the part of employees’ brains called the seeking system,” explained Dan. “The seeking system creates the natural impulse to explore our world, learn about our environment, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When our seeking system is activated, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in our brains, and we feel more motivated, purposeful and zestful. We feel more alive."

This seeking system is triggered when you’re able to play to your strengths, experiment and learn, and you care about your purpose. It can unleash positive emotions such as curiosity, excitement, hope, gratitude, and enthusiasm that can lead not only to innovation, creativity, and openness. So rather than the emotions of fear, anxiety, and conformity of cultures based on assumptions from the industrial revolution, these positive emotions are a competitive advantage, by helping help you and your organization to thrive.

"Exploring, experimenting, and learning is the way we are designed to live and work. It’s basically free energy,” said Dan. “Just like turning on a tap and having great ideas, creativity and enthusiasm pouring out, and you’re lit up, you don’t want to leave, and you become an ambassador because you start to love where you work.”

How can you trigger your biological seeking system at work?

  • Bring your best self to work. Reflect on when you feel you are at your best or have your best impact at work. Write down a story about a time you can recall—what were you doing, who were you effecting and what was the situation. Chances are this will really light you up, and can give you a strong emotional reaction that generates enthusiasm and motivation to do more. Then consider what parts of your job help you be your best self, or help you get there more often.

While you mightn't be able to do this eight hours a day, even if you can do this more for ten minutes a day, that you may then expand into an hour where you're bringing your best, and you're feeling lit up. And then over time, that hour starts to become more as you craft the role toward your strengths and the things that you care most about. You literally start to create more, do more, and have a greater impact.

  • Find your purpose story. Your purpose is personal, and it's emotional. Start finding your purpose by breaking down your role into different chunks. For example, it might be ‘customer service' chunk, and a ‘doing paperwork' chunk, and ‘finding new leads' chunks. Now for each of these, ask yourself, "Why do I do it? " four times. This can help you find the story you're using about what matters about what you do. And once you surface that story ask yourself: "Is this my best story?" Consider what's your best story in terms of what skills you're using, what values you hold, and what do you cherish about the impact you're making.
  • Be playful. While fear and anxiety can shut down your seeking system, play can trigger it. Play balances out your fear responses and keeps you wanting to try new things and be innovative. When you respond to fear by putting more KPIs in place, you can ramp up more fear and risk creating a downward spiral of negative emotions in your organization that can undermine your success. Instead, this is the exact time you need to be ramping up your curiosity through play.

What can you do to feel more alive at work?

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