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“I hate my job sometimes.  Yesterday it sort of sucked the juice out of my soul,” I lamented to a friend.

“Well of course,” he said. “That’s why they call it work.”

I take umbrage with his response and the whole mentality that supports it, and yet this is what we’ve been conditioned to believe—that if we’re working up to code we should be suffering. This explains the personal “misery index” competition we’ve got going on in this country. If we complain just the teensiest bit about what monstrosity we have on our plate, someone is sure to reply oh tell me about it and go on to describe their own work-martyr heroics: I’ve worked four weekends in a row. I haven’t been home in time to tuck my kids in for two weeks. I answered e-mails on vacation—if I hadn’t I would’ve fallen too far behind.

According to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive, American employees only use 51% of their vacation time. What’s more, 61% work while they’re on vacation, despite complaints from family members. One-in-four report being contacted by a colleague about work issues while taking time off, while one-in-five have been contacted by their boss.

Culturally speaking, that’s the kerosene. Here’s the match: a recent Gallup poll found that 70% of workers are “disengaged” at work. What is going on? This is going to kill us and kill our economy, right? This is the fall of Rome! Why isn’t the Emergency Broadcasting System going off? Why aren’t our leaders—no, hell—why aren’t all of us up in arms, searching for reasons and remedies?  Instead: baaaa, baaaa, baaaa.

Again, fear is the prime suspect. Widespread unemployment has made the employed wary, looking over their shoulders, willing to work harder for less. We need the money and we really need the health benefits. As we age we’re less cavalier about changing jobs, and less likely to be eyed as a top candidate in spite of our experience. Seeking alternative work that fills us up may seem like a risky luxury if we haven’t saved enough to retire. This is true even for professionals in the shrinking middle as they absorb the high cost of college for their kids and expensive care for their aging parents.

So many of us at midlife and beyond believe we don’t have the financial prerogative to move into meaningful work for the sake of being happy or fulfilled, and we almost always associate “that kind of work” with being broke. But what if our disengagement and time poverty is breaking our spirits?

In a recent Oprah interview, Paul Coelho (The Alchemist) said he is convinced that every person knows their true calling.

“It’s very difficult to accept that you know what you’re supposed to do when you are not doing it. Because from the moment that you know, you have to either leave a lot of things behind or live aware that you are not fully treasuring the miracle of being alive,” he said.

Yes, in our hearts we know our heart’s purpose. But in order to hear our hearts we have to get quiet and away. And if we can’t do that on vacation, when can we?

In my dream of righteous work, we are all employers of the gifts that make us unique. The ones that keeps calling from deep inside, still audible above the sound of our own bleating.

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

— Alice Walker

The formal working world, loosely referred to as “day jobs” even though they spill over into night, seem to be working against what we as Americans have always done best:  dream.  If we are afraid of losing what we have, we are less likely to take risks and create the very solutions that will get us out of the mess we’re in.  Our busy-ness makes us less productive, not more.

In 2005 I left corporate to start my own product development and branding business, traveling to China to see if I could help factories market new products directly to U.S. retailers.  Every last one of them echoed the words of Willy Tang, a friend and owner of

Hop Shing, known for producing cost-efficient and reliable kitchen appliances. “The Chinese are great reverse-engineers. We can make anything. But it is Americans who know how to dream.”

Are we losing that innate ability?

Look no further than our at-risk kids. If they’re not diabetic, morbidly obese couch potatoes they’re in so many activities they don’t have time to dream. Look at our cities. They’re becoming ubiquitous, predictable, unoriginal models of mass production—the same franchises and concrete strip malls everywhere you look.  Those brilliant,

stand-alone architectural creations and unique, organic individual enterprises that made our towns sparkle like little jewels in the national mosaic are fewer and farther between.

I’ve been ranting about this in my own head since the company I used to work for closed down their factories and moved everything to China. Today I took the morning off to decompress, lounge around and read.  In my “idleness” I stumbled upon the words of three very different Americans that seem to bring my angst into focus:

“Conformity is that jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

–John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States


“There’s a wild-ass quality to this country that he (Kennedy) personified…the  greatest fear is that we’re losing that — we’re losing our creativity, our individualism.”

–Joe Klein, Author of Primary Colors and Woody Guthrie: A Life


“This land is your land, this land is my land.”

–Woody Guthrie, Folksinger


Let’s figure out a way to take our land and our lives back into a dream state, shall we?

This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1

This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1

Holly Smith-Berry
Holly Smith-Berry
Like you, I’m a shape shifter, living as many roles as an umbrella has spokes: marketing exec, entrepreneur, parent, daughter, friend, sister, yogi, writer. Most of my career I’ve worked in the Housewares Industry developing new products. Sometimes I’ve taken them all the way from the gleam in an inventor’s eye to America’s kitchens.
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