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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Friday, February 16, 2007

Discovering your work

Waking up, these days, the thing I’m least certain about isn’t whether I’ll succeed in the new job. It isn’t whether we’ll find a life we enjoy in the U.K. And it isn’t whether we’re making the right decision in up-ending our lives again. After all, the safety nets under all these things are wide and tightly woven. Even if we chuck it all in after a year, we’ll be fine. We are risking little more than a smidge of preference for the status quo, and maybe some pride. The risk of standing still is far greater. To stand still is to be carried out backwards.

The thing I’m least certain about, the thing that sometimes won’t let me wait ‘til morning to worry about it, is whether I’m losing my soul.

What you do changes you if you do it for long enough. And what I do for more hours a week than anything else is push corporate barrow.

I am lucky in almost every way, in my job. It is financially rewarding. It is intellectually challenging. I have a good boss. Frankly, I know relatively few people who can say all three of those things as affirmatively as I can. I am fortunate.

This is not blind or dumb good fortune, I know. In addition to being blessed in whatever supernatural way, I’ve also contributed to ending up where I am now by making a series of decisions that have led me here. I only say that to emphasize a corollary point: I continue to choose to do this job every day. And it is a sound choice. The job returns to me things that I value: principally the esteem of my peers, the ego-food of being valued for being good at what I do, and -- most compelling on the mornings when I’d rather not face all that comes with corporate existence -- a rewarding salary. This last isn’t just a necessary wage; it represents the base of a secure financial future for my little family, and it enables Flame-Haired Angel to pursue her professional dreams, which are not yet self-sustaining.

That’s all pretty obvious: common, even. The trade-offs I make every day are so normal as to be entirely banal: relative security and recognition within a framework society endorses. That this trade-off is common and that it is completely rational do not prevent it from causing me continual re-examination. Recently, perhaps brought on with clichéd predictability by the approach of mid life, that re-examination has grown more intense.

There is nothing ignoble about how I have structured my life around the job I do. There is nothing bad -- and there is much good -- about the job, itself. In the big picture, I am in an industry that benefits people, providing something that people genuinely want and which -- not always the same thing -- benefits their lives.

Yet, I cannot deny that I am experiencing the most stereotypical upper-middle-class malaise imaginable. It comes, I think, at the moment when one can, for perhaps the first time, imagine that he can see the path carved for his entire future, and feels constrained by it. At that moment, he issues his plaintive cry, hoping it’s not a rhetorical question: Is this all there is?

I am grateful to be unsatisfied. It means I’ve still got perspective. It means routine and habit have not yet seduced me completely. I know that this job, with its fancy title and salary, is little more than a post pitching plumbing supplies, high tech thought they may be. I don’t belittle all the many ways in which I should exalt my good fortune at having such a fine job, but I haven’t lost track of more than one set of values by which it can be judged. So, questioning it, as the fundamental structuring element of my current life, is a good thing.

I am, however, more fond of action than contemplation, especially when the contemplation begins to loop on itself. That’s particularly frustrating when the first part of the answer is so obvious, but I can get no farther. That obvious answer: No. This isn’t all there is. What else there is, that’s up to me. So, what is that?

And that’s where I get stuck. I’m in no prison of my current choices; not even the prisons that most people like me brick themselves in to from which they are convinced there is no escape: the demands of children, big mortgages, paltry savings, rich parental expectations. I have the freedom and the will power to make other choices. What choices? That’s the question that unhinges me. The rest of my professional life is not a picture of high-tech plumbing supplies as far as the eye can see, but what is it? I have no idea.

It is that, not the numbing nature of corporate barrow-humping, that gnaws at me with the idea that I might be losing my soul. Working the white-collar production line isn’t the problem. It’s not knowing what else I would have myself do.

I have been reading a lot of Jon Katz’s books, recently: the ones about dogs. He’s partial to Border Collies, and he’s entranced by the notion of dogs and their work. That dogs, at least working breeds, need to find work and apply themselves to it in order to be at peace, is a simple notion. His interspecies conversation, spoken in the habits of his life with dogs, has convinced him that not just any work will do. It isn’t as simple as concluding that herding breeds need to herd, or hunting breeds need to hunt, or that boxers need an inexhaustible supply of squeaky toys.

In his experience across many different Border Collies, he has seen different dogs lighting up about different kinds of work. Some are, sure enough, completely addicted to herding. Others aren’t. Those that exhibit less passion or talent for herding seem to find other pursuits that they consider their work. And that is the point for the dogs, Katz believes: they are a working breed, and they are most at peace when applying themselves to their work. Discovering, with the dog, what its particular work is, well, that’s a little harder.

Reading these books, I have come to the conclusion that I do not yet know what “my work” is. I have a job. I have a career, even. I’m just not sure I’ve yet discovered my work.

I’m grateful for that way of thinking about it. The word “work” in this sense, as the idea of the kind of thing I am trying to discover, is an exact fit for a couple of reasons. First, it points to the idea that, at the end of life, we will leave behind us the results of our labour: our body of work. As it is for artists, work is both what we do, and what results from our having done it. A painter works with brushes and paint and canvases. Afterwards, her work hangs on the wall. It reminds me to ask, for a given kind of work, what will be the resulting works I leave in legacy?

Second, it crystallizes that I am not seeking a mere diversion. It’s not play I’m looking for: not a hobby or a toy or an acquisition. There’s nothing wrong with those things. I have plenty of them. They are not what’s missing. What’s missing is the realm of work into which I will put my shoulder with passion.

The danger is that work is associated with jobs. I don’t want to confuse the two. I have a job. I’m not so sure I’ve discovered my work.

There’s a cliché about the happiness of those whose passion is also their job. They’re lucky, indeed, but I’m not sure that it’s necessary that one’s work be one’s money-earner. I would think, in fact, that the confluence is rare. So many people I know who go to jobs every day consider their real work to be raising their families. I’m not that different. The most meaningful work I have, today, is loving Flame-Haired Angel. It is fulfilling and passionate work, but neither she nor I consider it enough work for a full life.

We, all of us, spend some moments in our lives wondering about work that is worthy of us. Few of us find a full measure. I’m still looking.


Comments on "Discovering your work"


Blogger scootergrrl said ... (5:11 AM) : 

Hey there Houston

Paul Graham's words in "How to do what you love" came to mind as I read your post.



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