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Teach Your Kids That Money Isn't the Only Reason You Work

04/15/2014 12:36 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT

A few months ago, out of the blue, my 5-year-old son presented me with a plan to get off the grid. His proposition went something like this:

"Hey mom... I have an idea. We should move to a farm, and when we get there, we can find some bricks and build a farmhouse to live in. And then we can make a huge garden and plant the food we need. And get some animals so we can have milk. And buy a sewing machine so we can sew our own clothes. And you and daddy would never need to go to work because we wouldn't need any money because we'd have everything we need right at our house. Let's do that! Can we pluh-eeeese do that?"

I sat in the front seat of the car in silence for a moment, not quite sure what to say in response. There was so much packed into that little plan -- the beautiful, simple, and untarnished purity of childhood, a clear longing for deep and lasting family time, and a pretty spectacular take on "work."

Somewhere, somehow, during his short time in the planet, my son has absorbed the idea that people work to make money, and if money were no object, people might make different decisions. In part, he's right. For most of us, money is one reason we work. But I want him (and his sister) to grow up believing that it's not the only reason.

I want my children to understand there are all sorts of currencies in which you can get paid. I want them to see the spectrum between work and play, and the reality that these two things are one for some people and very far apart for others. I want them to work for money, but also for love. I want them to someday know and strive to do these things, in their work and in their lives...

Be yourself. Authenticity and vulnerability are critical to building the trust needed to lead people and teams. And it's pretty darn difficult to be authentic at work when you're someone else the minute you leave the office. Be the same person at work that you are outside of work. Realize that all of the experiences you have in your life impact the way you work and the path you take and the impact you make. Don't check your personality at the office door -- work to find out who you are, and be that person at home, at work, and everywhere in between.

Find people you love to be with. The Gallup Q12 is the best-known set of questions/statements used to measure how engaged people are at work. "I have a best friend at work" is one of the most famous of these 12 items and stays on the list because close relationships at work are closely related to happiness at work. You can't choose your family, but you can choose your co-workers. Choose wisely.

Do things you're good at. In the personal development and learning worlds, this is best known as playing to your strengths. Marcus Buckingham, a former Gallup researcher turned author, espouses that people who spend the majority of time doing work they're good at and enjoy are more likely to be engaged and productive at work. Spend time discovering your strengths and finding ways to use them in life and work.

Master something. Dan Pink, a business author well known for his work on motivation, talks about three keys to human motivation at work -- autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Mastery is a long-term commitment -- the standard number of hours it takes to become an expert in something is 10,000. The world we live in is becoming increasingly specialized, and it will be important to get good enough at something to share it with a person, a group, or the world. Start on the path toward mastery early, and try to hang on when the going gets tough.

Expect pain. Speaking of the going getting tough, with mastery comes pain. Our current media climate abounds with articles encouraging people to "do what you love" without showing the gritty reality of what it takes to make real progress. With learning and growing comes failure and frustration and pain, and if you figure that out early in life, it's easier to handle the bumps and the setbacks when they show up. Keep your eyes on the prize, understanding real tradeoffs, negotiating them, and moving onward.

Find purpose, big or small. In the "do what you love" dialogue today, there's lots of talk about purpose. As Viktor Frankel shows us in his masterpiece, "Man's Search for Meaning," purpose is deep and important part of our human existence. We all strive to know why we're here and what we're leaving behind. Search for meaning in whatever you do, serving something or someone beyond yourself.

Keep learning. Another one of the Gallup Q12 items is "this last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow." Learning leads to discovery, which is one of the things that keeps life exciting. I love seeing the excitement in my son's eyes as he figures out how to tell time, and as the words on a page begin to make sense to him. This wonder is pure and beautiful and I want my children to know that this wonder never ever has to cease. At the end of the day, sharing knowledge is about teaching people things you know and learning things from other people. Plant yourself right in a learning-rich environment and participate in earnest.

Work for the right currency. On Maslow's hierarchy of needs, money is at the bottom of the pyramid. It's something we all need, and we different amounts of it depending on where we live and what choices we make. But I want my children to know that money isn't the only currency to work for. They can choose work based on local and global impact, learning, freedom, service, and a bounty of other things. Figure out where money fits into the currencies that matter most to you and stick to your guns.

Make something every day. Two Harvard researchers, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, developed some research now known as the Progress Principle. The basic version of this is that people feel happy and engaged when they can tangible see something moving forward, or "shipping," every single day. One simple way to realize this in any kind of work is to commit to making something every day. It could be writing a brief, it could be taking a picture, it could be doing a surgery, it could be clearing out one garden bed. Just make something... do something... every single day.

Accept where you are. There's an old Zen saying, "wherever you go, there you are." For many of us, we grow up with more dialogue about where we're going than where we are. "Where are you going to college?" "What are you going to be when you grow up?" "What are your goals?" All of this future talk can program us to focus on where we're going, causing us to lose sight of or feel stressed out about where we are. I hope my son can grow up with a steady acceptance of both who he is and where he is, while still entertaining ideas about where he might want to go next.

See the big picture. On their deathbeds, one of the main regrets people voice is "I wish I wouldn't have worked so hard." Work is important for many reasons, but I hope my children know that it's just one part of a bigger, deeper, richer life. I want my children to blend work and life in a healthy way, leaving room to enjoy the small moments and feel the sunshine on their backs. Build a big picture life... and make room for work within it.

If in a few decades, my son understands these things and still heads off the grid to build his farm, I'll be cheering him on and bunking in. But between now and then, as the world awakens before his eyes, may he see healthy examples of people doing incredible things in the world and getting paid in whatever currencies matter to them. May he learn about money, but also about love.

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