Stairway to heaven…sorry, work

Published on Apr 7, 2017

by Dr. Duck

As a youngster, the sight of the escalators at Parliament station in Melbourne was the trigger for great excitement. The steps climbed almost vertically, way off into the distance. The destination was The City. It was full of activity, toy shops, nice food and video arcades.

Flash-forward, say, 10 years. When I started my first real job – the job where you had to start being all serious, dress professionally and conform. The escalators no longer represented that joy and expectation.

Instead, looking around at all the melancholic faces on a Monday morning as people filed up the escalators was downright depressing. They reminded me of soldiers marching off resignedly to war.

There was a faster march for some—about five per cent or so—who somehow generated the energy to walk upwards.

But most of the people around me didn’t look happy. They were gloomy. The weekend that promised so much freedom had passed. Now they were nursing hangovers and anticipating the long week ahead.

Today when I visit this Parliament station, I still see those same faces. Not the same people but the same faces nevertheless.

Those sometimes promising, sometimes demoralising steps remind me of an anecdote from the satirist and comedian Barry Humphries, alias Dame Edna. Humphries recalled sitting on the tram going into the City as a young man, carefully observing everyone around him in their suits on their way to their office jobs. He knew then—instinctively—that real work was not for him.

So, Humphries became one of the lucky ones who managed to sidestep adulthood and drudgery and live a life of games and make-believe.

Most of us elect to join the people in suits. How do you feel about it?

This is, of course, a most pertinent question. People in Australia who are lucky get to live the average life span of about 80 years. If they work from 18 to 65, that’s about 47 years or 2,256 weeks. Basically, 85,728 hours or so.

That is a lot of time to play or work with. It can be spent working hard from day one, using your body and mind to toil away so you can start saving for a house or pay the rent, buy a car or travel the world.

You might put another plan in place, devoting the time to education and postponing the immediate monetary rewards for a longer-term strategy. You might trade an hour now to make your future hours worth two, three, or perhaps many, many more, depending on how lucky or clever or resourceful you are.

You could invest in a career or university degrees.

You could squander the hours by making a bad decision or simply having bad luck. Perhaps that career or degree wasn’t really right for you or maybe the industry changed so fast that you’d already become redundant. You could lose a good 20,000 hours of your career doing that.

Alternatively, your strategy might be to use those hours to manipulate and thrive off the existing corporate structures and workplaces that are doing well to get ahead through your networking and devotion to a team and workplace.

Perhaps you could go it alone and vow to run things your way. But, ultimately “your way” is trumped by the voice of the customer. The hours, one way or another, are always devoted to helping other people and following their plans.

Of course, most people use a combination or all of the above whilst other aspects of life come and go. Marriages and relationships blossom, kids enter the scene, and travel and entertainment lure us away from responsibilities. Then there’s the rude interruption of illness and death. But I had all these hours…

That 85,728 hours is a lot to play with but you don’t ever get them back. Some of those hours or perhaps even a good few months, can be spent walking up stairs to a place where you really don’t want to go.

I’ve now spent a good hour at least writing this blog. I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been so busy investing my hours in other things.

The ultimate dream was to be able to work for myself so that I could have the freedom and flexibility to write and reflect, which is what I enjoy the most. Hence, this reflective and meandering blog.

I guess sometimes you have to put all those hours aside and just do what you like to do. Right Barry Humphries?

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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