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Love your job and you'll be a winner

Banish fear of the new economy, re-frame mindsets and find work that is fulfilling

I guess it's a sign of the times that the most-talked-about topic with my friends, since I arrived in Singapore three weeks ago on my usual visit, has been work - especially the necessity and the uncertainty of it.

Do you realise we are more than halfway through our work lives now, asked a friend, who has been thinking about cutting back on her hours.

More than two-thirds, actually, if retirement age is 62.

She still works long days at her business, which is in healthcare, and that includes weekends. But, of late, she has been wondering what it is all for. More and more people our age are being diagnosed with serious illnesses and the proximity to mortality has served to telescope the important things of life into view.

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But I'd be surprised if anything changes. It's hard to break habits learnt over three decades of working life.

Perhaps that's why even those of us in industries that are, to use the nomenclature, rocked by disruptions, are not flocking to newer pastures.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Just like the frog nicely cooking in slowly boiling water might say: It's hard to contemplate starting over.

Being in the sandwiched generation, we find ourselves holding onto our jobs for dear life, even if those jobs sometimes cease to be fulfilling.

We feel a chill run up our spines to hear that PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) are now making up the bulk of layoffs (probably because blue-collar jobs have long been decimated) and having a harder time getting back into the job market. So we become the most obliging of workers, hoping to make ourselves indispensable to our companies, never mind that whether we end up as collateral damage or not has more to do with economic realities beyond our control than anything we can do to bump up our value.

Losing your job is not what you want to think about when you are still only 66.66 per cent of the way to calling it a day.

But contemplate it one must, for if push came to shove, it is not finding new work that is the main challenge so much as re-framing the mindset.

Back in the United States, where I live, someone close to me who was laid off from a well-paying job landed a good position recently. It took more than a year, during which she had to battle negativity and handle one rejection after another. But she kept at applying for jobs, while accepting lower-paying work in the meantime, so she could contribute to household expenses.

Her courage inspires me as not everyone can dog-paddle their way into safe harbour.

Another friend in a similar predicament here sank into depression, overwhelmed by watching his savings depleted to cover financial commitments, while various ideas for businesses were slow to get off the ground.

In fact, it takes about two years to establish yourself, says another old pal, who counsels patience and the smarts to get onto as many networks as one can at the start. She herself has made a success of her own consultancy and is planning on writing a book to get on the speaking circuit. She is also thinking about trying something completely different, just for the experience. Acting, for instance.

It's all about getting used to being out of your comfort zone, she says.

I guess if you are busy trying to dodge life's curveballs, you forget that the danger is only half of the equation.

At least, that's what my young friend tells me is the meaning behind the Chinese phrase for crisis: wei ji.

Wei is the character for danger, she says, and ji, in one of its iterations, can mean opportunity.

She speaks from experience. She was in her 20s and had just started working when her family lost everything. Overnight, she became the sole breadwinner, a terrifying prospect for a school-leaver with no seeming way out of her family's predicament.

But survive they did, not only because of their own efforts, but also because of the friends and community that rallied around them.

And indeed, is there any other country that is more willing to help stranded PMETs? SkillsFuture, professional conversion programmes and now, five office holders who will be coordinating efforts to match workers with jobs in industries facing the most disruptions. All places to start.

I would say the main problem for those of us feeling under siege in the new economy is not that the world is changing at a pace that has left us far behind. Or that we have skill sets which we are not assured will have any use in new jobs we can't even fathom. Our main problem, really, is fear.

Fear traps us in a prison of our own making, so we forget the reasons in the first place that we work and what we are capable of.

For me, an antidote to that feeling of helplessness can sometimes be supplied simply by meeting people who demonstrate work at its highest level.

On a girls' weekend to New York in May, for instance, my friend Andrea suggested we pay a visit to the brother of a friend from her gym, who apparently had an art gallery a few blocks from our accommodation downtown.

She didn't have a clue about who he was or what he did, but she rang him and he said we were welcome to drop in.

It turned out not to be a gallery after all, but the working studio of a stained-glass conservator. It didn't take long for me to realise we were in the presence of a master craftsman.

Tucked away on the 11th floor of an old building, the studio was a workspace-cum-wonderland of curios, stacked with art materials, glass panels of every size and, most intriguingly, life-size church icons rescued from demolition, crammed in with other objets d'art acquired over a lifetime.

In this modest space, Tom Venturella and his partner, James Murphy, restore and conserve stained glass from mediaeval Europe to 20th-century America.

While Tom showed us around, James worked on a multi-pane Tiffany window which used to be installed in a private home.

On another table were fragments from a magnificent glass, gold and silver mural that had come from a ballroom on the Normandie, the luxury ocean liner launched by the French in 1935, which burnt and sank in New York harbour in 1941. It seemed impossible, to my inexpert eyes, that something so broken could be put back together again.

Tom had graduated as an artist, but began apprenticing in the art of glass restoration in 1969, opening his own studio in 1985. He is today an internationally recognised glass conservator.

His passion for and mastery of his craft were infectious. I left his workshop feeling that I, too, had an obligation to up my game.

We've all heard the saying that if you do what you love, you won't work a day in your life.

I used to believe that, but no longer. Experience has shown me that the opposite is true: that you have to love what you do, whether it is work you choose, or that chooses you.

There is no doubt that uncertainty is the order of the day. It's still scary and there is no guarantee we will swim, not sink. But to look at it another way, one- third of the time remains to find and love the work you do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Love your job and you'll be a winner'. Print Edition | Subscribe