It wasn’t the lobster: How we often do work we don’t notice

work we don't notice

Work we don’t notice

Do you know that we do work we don’t notice?

During the summer of 1993, I was dining with my wife, Celia, at a Maine shoreline restaurant. Eighteen years later I can still see our wooden table with the red and white check plastic tablecloth. I had just consumed an excellent lobster along with a pint of beer, and was feeling more relaxed than I had felt for many months.

Leaning back, well fed, I had no inkling what was about to happen. And then, suddenly, out of my mouth came these words:

“I think I’d like to give up working at Marlboro”.

My professional life was hectic. I had a full time salaried position at Marlboro College, teaching half time and running the IT department half time. I was also freelance consulting half time. Oh, and the first two half-time positions were, in reality, more like three-quarter-time commitments. You can do the math.

Until that seafood-fueled moment, I had never consciously thought about making any kind of drastic change in my work life. And yet, as soon as the words were out of my mouth I became aware that I was going to resign from the college and move to full-time consulting work.

And it felt right.

How did I get there?

Well, ultimately, it wasn’t the lobster or the beer that caused this epiphany—they were just the welcome catalysts. I’ve written elsewhere about how you can learn from stories that resonate, but there was no resonance here.

Instead, my relaxing meal provided an opportunity for months of underlying percolating work to emerge. We often do work that we don’t notice. While steeped in the stress and the toll that long workdays were taking on my life, I didn’t notice the analysis and unconscious calculation of risks and tradeoffs that were bubbling under the surface; the hard, drawn-out preparation needed to make such a drastic change in my professional life.

Looking back, I remember a moment in Maine when I moved from employee to self-employed, and I call it an intuitive choice. Perhaps this is what intuition is: a sudden realization of a conclusion from steady unconscious processing of our experiences. Whatever the mechanism, I believe that we have significant unconscious resources that can often help us respond effectively to difficult situations. How we bring them into our consciousness is for you to discover. Perhaps lobster and a beer?

Have you ever experienced this kind of sudden insight in your life? Please share your story!

Image attribution: Flickr user subinev

2 thoughts on “It wasn’t the lobster: How we often do work we don’t notice

  1. For me it all came together as I was skiing down toward the lodge at Breckenridge and started thinking about how I would miss Colorado skiing after I’d moved back East. Whoa, where did that come from? When I thought about it later, it must have been percolating for months due to changes in my work and personal life. I’d been busily burying my head in work and singing “la la la” to myself in the attempt to not think about whether to stay in Boulder or move to Massachusetts, but somehow my brain had been processing without me even really knowing it until that slopeslide epiphany. By the time I thought about making a decision, it had already been made. All I had to do then was figure out the details.

    It can look impulsive to an observer, but I’ve worked this way a lot in my life. You know, like sometimes it’s easier to have a good conversation with a teenager when you’re driving in a car–amazing things come up when your attention is at least partially diverted. Maybe things that are otherwise hard to consider slip past your guard easier when they’re on the periphery? I don’t know. I do know that most of my major life decisions have kind of blindsided me in just this way, and that my subconscious has been right pretty much every time. Though I do still miss Colorado something fierce.

    1. “Maybe things that are otherwise hard to consider slip past your guard easier when they’re on the periphery?” I think you nailed it, Sue. I still continue to be surprised by how significant percolating can go on for so long without our being aware of it.

      I’m really glad to find at least one other person who’s had the same experience! Thank you for sharing yours!

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