When one tries to find out what America believes about the concept of work, the picture is pretty bleak.
Back to the grind.
Case of the Mondays.
I find that songs are our modern day folk wisdom. We don’t sit around the fires telling stories anymore, but we do sit in the car and sing songs. So whatever Demi Lovato is saying speaks to our cultural consciousness. According to the radio, work is at best something to be endured: “Lord, I’m so tired/ How long can this go on?” Even if you can endure it, work is pointless: “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt.” At very worst, work is destructive and soul-crushing: “And you spend your life / Puttin’ money in his wallet.” It seems you’re “Damned if you do / damned if you don’t” when it comes to work.
Ok, so we are to believe that work is a terrible, soul-sucking thing that we do at a desk (or possible in a coal mine) for the sole purpose of getting a paycheck and leaving. Work has no greater value than making one more widget for the boss man, and we get nothing out of it besides that small benefit, money. Work is meaningless time you spend applying your body and mind to someone else’s goals.
* * * *
But let us, for a moment, redefine work. What if work was not reserved for your job and for someone else’s goals, but time spent pursuing your own goals? What if work just meant effort, and effort on your own behalf? To explain, let me tell you what I am working on:
Work, to me, means trying. Work is wherever I apply my focused and prolonged attention. Music, relationships, creativity, my own mind and heart, my non-profit, my career, these are the things that I work on and that I work for. So let us redefine work and dispel some of the lies that the world tells us about work.
LIE: Work is what you do at your job.
TRUTH: WORK IS FOR YOURSELF
Work is different from your job. Your job is what you are paid to do. Sometimes your job is pretty easy and requires very little actual effort or attention. Sometimes other things in life require much more work than your job. You might spend a lot more time and effort with your family than you do your job – that means your work is your family. Your job is the time you spend accomplishing someone else’s goals. Sometimes your work and your job might align. I’ve got things I want to do to serve teachers around the world, and my current job allows me to do those things. I’ve got things I want to say about the experience of teaching, and my job is helping me create a platform to say those things to an ever-widening audience. So I am lucky enough to get to do my work at my job. I have had jobs before, though, that did not require or even allow for my work. I was on autopilot, or I lived for Fridays, or worst of all, I was told that I had to follow the “guidelines” when I knew they were limiting or even destructive to my work. Those jobs stopped serving or started hurting my work, so I left.
But let’s get one thing straight: Your work and your job are not the same thing. Your work is yours, means serving your goals. Mark Twain said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I would amend this to say, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will get to work every day of your life!”
LIE: Work is something to be endured.
TRUTH: WORK IS FUN
If you’re not having fun doing your work, then it’s just a job. Anything can be a job – the laundry, a dinner with your family, a band rehearsal. If it is not furthering you on the path of your goals, then it is not your work. Work is for yourself. Work is for your soul. Work is for your life. If you’re not working on something then you’re already dead. We are sharks – if we aren’t moving forward, we are sinking. Work shouldn’t be a mindless, joyless grind. Work is just time and attention, so spend your time and attention on the things that bring you joy. If it doesn’t bring you joy or deep personal fulfillment, it’s not your work, friend. Move on.
LIE: Work is boring.
TRUTH: WORK MEANS LEARNING and LEARNING IS VULNERABLE
Work means trying something new. Work means going beyond what you know and have done in the past to do something different, something better. Work means doing your research, using your resources, and following new paths. It means listening to other people, reading a book on the topic, and talking with your friends about it. Work is not being able to shut up about whatever you’re working on.
Work, real work, is vulnerable. Working to accomplish something means admitting we haven’t accomplished it yet, and that requires us to set aside our vanity and pride. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron reminds us that, “you cannot get better and look good at the same time.” Working on something means that you have decided that getting better at something is worth the risk of looking foolish. Trying your hardest is scary, because what if you fail? What if your best is not good enough? Even writing that statement feels like a gut punch.
So, in lieu of trying our very hardest, in lieu of working, we self-sabotage – that way, if we fail, it’s ok because we could have done better. “There were extenuating circumstances,” we say. We self-sabotage by staying up too late the night before a big meeting, or buying junk food to keep in the house when we’re on a diet, or showing our budding creative work to an overly-critical friend for them to shoot down. We know our ideal conditions, but we don’t do everything we can to create them; and then when we fail, we blame the conditions. We cut ourselves down and blame the axe for chopping. We shut ourselves out and blame the door for closing. We show up naked and blame the dress for not being worn.
Stop it! You know the work, so do it! Furthermore, let people see you doing it. President Obama often said to his staff, “Get caught trying!” That’s what this blog is about for me. See? I’m trying, I’m working. Let’s do our work together. Sure, it takes courage to try something new. It takes courage to admit you don’t know, to step out on a new path, to walk the path, to be seen walking the path. But there are such riches on the path. Personal fulfillment, joy, growth, and love are on that path of working towards your goals.
LIE: Work is hateful.
TRUTH: LOVE IS WORK and WORK IS LOVE
You might notice that I listed relationships as something I’m working on. I don’t say this because my marriage is particularly hard or unhappy, or my friends are mean or destructive. I say this because love should be work. Love demands that you try at it. Sometimes love is easy, sure – even running 10 miles isn’t too hard if you practice, but it still requires you to engage with the process and move your legs. But here’s the thing: if you are not working on a relationship, it is stagnating. If you’re not giving a relationship your focused and prolonged attention, you’re not working on it.
But here’s the other thing: When you work on something, you are giving it love. They say “That which is measured improves,” and it’s true. When you start tracking your calories, you inevitably start eating better. When you start measuring your miles walked, you start to try and walk further. Whatever you give your attention, your work, your love, to will improve.
I’d like to pose a few questions to you. What do you want to work on? What do you want to try? What do you want to spend your time on? What has your attention right now? What if you worked on that? What if you made sure to do some work for yourself every day? (Every day.) What could you accomplish if you worked toward your own goals before someone else’s? What do you want to pour your love into? What do you want to work on?
I leave you with this sentiment from the writer and poet Khalil Gibran:
“Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour, a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream,
assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. […]
What is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching. […]
Work is love made visible.”