I LIKE TO WORK, and thankfully, I work a lot.
The mortgage we paid when we moved in a few years back was paid for with two jobs. Nowadays I need at least five jobs to meet the transfer with enough funds, so it’s good that I like to work.
Working for money is good because it feeds and shelters my family, however, much to my wife’s chagrin I like to work on holiday, too. If it’s a choice between lying around by a pool or working on my turns (snow or surf, doesn’t matter) I’d much rather the work.
One of my great doctors once told me, “As long as you’ve got something to do, and a healthy reason to do it—you’re going to be ok.”
There was a time in my life when I really struggled with my mental health, and unfortunately got very unwell. In those calamitous moments, I had enormous amounts of anxious energy flowing through my body, flooding my mind with noise.
I had no outlet for it, so it turned inwards and very nearly killed me.
Having a sense of purpose can help that energy get out of your body, allowing you to harness that sudden rush of adrenaline and put it to good use. A sense of purpose is vital when it comes to staying healthy.
Some guys are fine just being in themselves. Me? I need something to do and a reason to do it.
Imagine any machine that you can think of—that machine was designed because a problem needed solving. What happens to that machine when you just leave it on and give it no problem to solve? Usually it burns out or runs too fast until it breaks, or if it’s a moving machine it can hurt or even kill people.
A high-powered speedboat with a captain that’s piloting it across the bay? Brilliant. A high-powered speedboat with no captain flying across the bay? Now it’s a terrifying death machine that will carve up every turtle, dugong and human in its path. I feel that in many ways, humans are the same.
We are the most intelligent, most highly-powered machines on the planet. And if we don’t have a problem to solve or a job to do, that’s when things get dangerous. Because a lonely man with too much time on his hands is a danger to himself, and a danger to others.
You are probably reading this on a phone, so it might be a stretch but can you think about how it feels when you’ve got nothing to do? I detest having nothing to do so much I can’t remember the last time that I had nothing to do. Probably because it feels so icky when it happens. What we don’t realise is that feeling compounds and pretty soon you’re on a downward trajectory that’s impossible to get out of by yourself.
For someone who likes to have something to do, being aimless is not healthy for me. In my late teens, I was on the dole a few times between gigs and the feeling of nothing to do became mixed with shame and hopelessness. The worse it got the harder it became to escape. Like a free diver trying to get to the big lobster right down under that big rock—no the bigger rock off the edge of the shelf way down there—there’s a depth you can swim below where your lungs compress to a point that they no longer displace enough to keep you buoyant, and you just keep sinking.
I didn’t realise it, but as an unemployed 19-year-old I’d already passed the point of being able to float up by myself. Luckily someone noticed and I wound up as an outpatient in a public health psychiatric clinic.
Whenever I’ve been in those particularly low points, having something to do and a reason to do it was incredibly powerful when it came to kicking my way back up to the surface.
The ‘something to do’ starts with ‘go see your psych today’ and the reason you’re doing it can be for you—but it can also be your partner, your parents, or the bus driver you’re going to see on the way to the psych who is kind of weirded out because by this point you’re pretty strange and mumbly and don’t make much eye contact. Do it for the bus driver if you have to.
Sure enough, day by day, week by week things start to feel better because you’re now having a bit of agency about your day. When you’re not doing well, the amount of organisation it takes to pick out a T-shirt and get to the bus stop on time is equivalent to the moon landing. However, if you put the work in, reclaiming that ability starts to build up resilience, transporting you to a healthier place. Soon enough you’re able to make eye contact with the bus driver.
Once you get to a place where you can get out of the house a bit—finding a reason to do something for someone that isn’t you begins to unleash a sense of belonging that may have been missing for a while. You are connecting yourself to the rest of the community, and as social creatures it’s vital that we are able to feel like we have a part to play. We might not always have control of what work we do, yet we always have control over our reason to do it.
A way in to finding reasons can be as simple as swapping out a vowel. “I’ve got to go to work” becomes “I get to go to work”.
Connecting with purpose is a profoundly powerful way of finding motivation where there wouldn’t otherwise be any. So perhaps ask yourself what’s the purpose you have in your work? In your home life?
Take some of my TV jobs, the preposterously cushy gigs where I have dressing rooms and catering and someone paid to comb my hair. Those things are wonderful, and there are also 16-hour days and sometimes weeks away from my family, and no matter what you get paid you can’t buy time back.
So, what’s the purpose that helps me get on with the day when I’m at work and Audrey [my wife] has been up since 2:30am for work, dealing with a sick toddler who’s home from daycare and she’s working the phones trying to get someone to cover her afternoon shift because he’s cooked and I’m not home until midnight? What’s my purpose that makes sure I do the best job I can do? It’s to provide for my family, and ultimately to give people who sit together to watch the show we’re making a reason to be with each other. Helping bring those strangers together is as strong a purpose as anything else.
Connecting with those two things get me out of my head and helps me harness the otherwise uncomfortable feelings about not being home to support the family and instead channel that energy into doing the best job I can do that day. Once you get a little practice with reframing what you’re doing through the lens of a healthy purpose, you’ll be surprised at how much pride you feel inside when you’ve completed even the most banal of tasks.
And yes, it takes a little work—but that feeling doesn’t cost you a cent.