Preview a Chapter of Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Self Help Author Laurence Boldt

Free Chapter: Zen and The Art of Making A Living


To love what you do and feel that it matters—
how could anything be more fun?
—Katherine Graham

More than twenty years ago, I began this work with the conviction that people of all ages and professional levels were ready to embrace the challenge of creating work they truly love. Through good economic times and bad, I’ve seen this conviction borne out in the lives of countless dedicated individuals who have found their own ways to put their passions to work. The success of this book and, even more, the many letters and comments I’ve received from readers who’ve found it helpful in mapping their own journeys to fulfilling work have been truly gratifying. This revised edition has given me an opportunity to sharpen and clarify my thoughts on a number of topics. Considerable revisions have been made throughout. The entire text has been updated, and a lot of new material has been added. For those familiar with this book, the bibliography and most of the Web resources that appeared in its previous incarnations have been greatly expanded and put online (, where they can more easily be kept current.

This book is really about two things: the “what” and the “how” of creating a fulfilling experience of work. Most of the new material in this revised edition addresses issues related to the “how.” For example, I’ve incorporated a variety of new tactics for career development and marketing made possible by the advent of new technologies. Nevertheless, most of the essential principles remain unchanged, with respect to both the “what” and the strategic elements of the “how.” Since this is a large book, it may prove useful at the outset to briefly sketch some of these principles. (The “prologue” and four “acts” mentioned below refer to the book’s five major units; see “How to Use This Book.”)

What to Do: Embracing Your Trajectory

First your must find your trajectory, and then comes the social coordination.
—Joseph Campbell

When it comes to the fundamentals of vocational guidance (determining what to do), nothing significant has changed since this book was first written. Indeed, nothing essential has changed in the more than two thousand years since Aristotle wrote, “Where your talent and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” Were he alive today and whispering in your ear, Aristotle could give no more relevant or timely advice. Over seven hundred years ago, the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Everyone has been made for some particular work and the desire for that work has been placed in every heart.” This too is every bit as relevant today as it was the day it was first written. In a sense, either of these formulations (Rumi’s or Aristotle’s) provides everything you need to identify your vocation or life’s work.

If we were to recast Rumi’s maxim as a question, we might come up with something like, What was I born to do? or, What does my heart tell me to do? If we were to reframe Aristotle’s dictum, we might get, Where (or what) is the nexus between my talents and the needs of the world? or, Where can I find a mix of passion and purpose, of joy and meaning? Now, I’ve found that most people have a difficult time answering any of these questions straightaway. On the other hand, if you ask folks a targeted series of more manageable questions, you find that many move definitely (though at first almost imperceptibly) toward an answer to the larger questions.

Act I of this book addresses this process, approaching the big questions in bite-sized pieces. I call it the “quest” for life’s work for the simple reason that questions provide the compass points with which to chart the path to purpose and passion. To ask the questions relevant to fulfilling work is to seek the answers that will transform your work life. The quest for your life trajectory, direction, or purpose moves through the field of visions and the forest of values. In the field of visions, you articulate your worldview, clarify your perceptions, and see where your imagination wants to take you. In the forest of values, you sort out the meanings of life. Competing interests pull you this way and that; yet you find the deepest, most enduring well of motivation and the sustaining values of your life in what moves your heart and soul the most. The quest for passion goes by way of talents and goals. Your talents are your innate strengths—the things you’re naturally good at. Expressing your talents has joy, energy, and creative engagement in it. Goals arise from your desire to grow, to achieve, to complete. In moving toward, fighting for, and completing goals, energy is renewed and released, and as Blake said, “Energy is Bliss!” If you listen to them, your visions and values, talents and lifelong objectives will tell you what you want to do with your life.

When it comes to vocational choice, I don’t rely on personality tests, for the simple reason that the personality is not the soul. The soul, or deep Self, is the source of one’s true passion and purpose, while the personality (from Latin persona, “mask”) is inexorably linked to familial and societal conditioning. The questions suggested by Rumi’s and Aristotle’s vocational formulations are addressed to the soul. Typically, answers to these kinds of questions are not lying around on the surface but are the fruit of a deep inner work. Joseph Campbell called this work “finding your own trajectory”; Carl Jung, “individuation.” The outlines of this inner work are discussed in the Prologue of this book. I call it the “art” of life’s work because the beginning of all creative transformations (whether of form or experience) lies within—in consciousness. More often than not, the recognition of vocation results from a journey of self-discovery. This journey may be undertaken deliberately, or it may be forced on us by circumstances. Either way, it moves us toward that deeper Self, where clarity is found. Some advanced souls seek their own trajectories from an early age. Many more get caught up for a time in socially defined images of themselves and don’t seek their own trajectories until their mid-thirties or well beyond. (If you are in either of these groups, consider yourself fortunate.)

Most of us have been taught to approach work as though the requirements of our souls are superfluous or peripheral to the real business of living. The body demands food and sex; the ego, attention. The emotions want security; the mind, knowledge. In the market society we live in, money is in one way or another tied to the fulfillment of all of these aims. Most of our lives, we are chasing food, sex, attention, knowledge, security, and—most of all—money. Without the real engagement of our souls, all this can seem quite empty as the years go by. For the soul too has its demands. It has a way of letting us know when we neglect or abandon its imperatives—authenticity and responsibility, joy and compassion. At some point, many come to realize that listening to their hearts and souls isn’t a luxury but an essential part of their psychological and spiritual health. With respect to work, they understand that it makes a difference whether they work to go on earning or earn to go on doing what they love.

While they want more from their experience of work, many aren’t sure if it’s really possible to get it. Most of us start with an unexamined but deeply ingrained belief framed in a dichotomy between soul and money. Why worry about what my soul wants? I need money, and I can’t possibly make money doing what my soul wants. Why should I get in touch with my purpose and passion? I will never be able to make a living with those. This reminds me of the fairy tale where people hear rumors of a great and wonderful city over yonder but are told that if they venture over the mountain, some terrible monster will get them. That’s enough to keep most at home. Of course, some do venture over the mountain and discover that the “monster” isn’t nearly as fearsome as it’s cracked up to be. In much the same way, some discover that they can make a nice living—thank you very much—doing what they love. Now, to extend the metaphor, you still have to climb the first mountain (identify your passion), you still have to traverse the peaks and valleys twixt it and the city (develop competency), and you still have to gain the support of others along the way (find a way to market yourself doing what you love). I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to climb the mountain of self-awareness, develop the knowledge and skill you need for the journey, or gain the support you need to succeed. What I am saying is that the path is knowable and has been traversed by many before you.

Identifying what moves you, your passion and purpose, is the place to start. After all, if you don’t know what you are aiming for, your chances of hitting it aren’t very good. Many who can’t or won’t admit what they want to do hide behind the “impossible” meme. Since the desires of the soul must subordinate themselves to the demands of money—why even bother identifying those desires? This is a rationalization—not an argument. It’s clearly possible for people to make a living doing what they love to do, since many are doing it every day. The real question is: Can you do it? Once we admit what we want in our hearts, we immediately confront another challenge. At one of my workshops, the group listened intently to a young woman who stood speaking before them. With obvious joy and elation, she was telling the group what her true passion was. She described the profound sense of freedom she felt in proclaiming before others what she really wanted to do with her life. She was describing how she had come to this realization and what it meant to her, when, suddenly, she stopped abruptly and said, “I feel scared.” She turned from the group toward me and asked, “Is that normal?” I assured her that she was expressing something I’d heard many times before (and since). When we reveal our heart’s desire with respect to work, we feel an emotional vulnerability not unlike what we feel in our first confessions of love for a would-be partner. In contrast to the responses of a would-be lover, we have much more—though far from complete—control over our career destinies. Still, it’s worth pointing out that there is a marked emotional difference between claiming what we would really love to do and discussing the merits of a good job or sensible career. Yet it is only after making that claim that we have a chance of creating a life where what we do matches what we are at the deepest levels.

How to Do It: Making the Social Coordination

Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.
—Leonardo da Vinci

For purpose and passion, we must rely, not on society, but on ourselves. On the other hand, if we are to transform our inner motivations into viable work, we must coordinate our efforts with the existing social order. We must be capable of doing the work we desire and capable of getting others to help us. That’s what the second half of this book is about. It’s concerned with “how to do” your “what to do” in the world we live in today.

Choose a Career Vehicle: The first coordinating step is choosing a career role. More than anything, society defines us by the career roles we play. I call Act II the “game” of life’s work because, while others will define us by our roles, we are better off seeing our careers as vehicles for fulfilling our self-defined “what to do’s” (purpose and passion). The word career comes from the Latin, carrus, meaning “a wheeled vehicle.” The point of any vehicle isn’t so much the thing itself, but where you can go with it and how it feels when you’re in it. A beautiful car without a battery isn’t going anywhere. An expensive but cramped sports coupe may look great but leave you with a sore back or stiff neck. To the extent that a career role allows you to fulfill your purpose, it can get you where you want to go. To the extent that a career role allows you to be and express yourself—to do what you are naturally good at—you will enjoy the ride. A career role is a vehicle through which to pursue your purpose and express your passion, and it gives others a way of relating to you so they can help you achieve your goals. Act II is designed to help you choose a career that works for you, before you engage in the often expensive and time-intensive process of retraining.

Develop a Marketing Strategy: Since we live in a market society, we all have to market ourselves in one way or another. This is the subject of Act III. Marketing just means getting people to help you do what you want to do—be it someone to hire you or people to buy your products or services or to fund your nonprofit organization. Of course, the higher the quality of your work, the more inclined people will be to help you. But in a market society, there is more to it than that. You have to communicate what you do in ways that connect with your (paying) audience—employers, clients, customers, financial backers, etc. How you market yourself will depend on your purpose and passion and the career role you choose. I call Act III the “battle” for life’s work because however you choose to market yourself, it will take courage and strength to resist the temptation to settle for less than your best, to keep fighting for your “what to do” in the face of resistance. Act III explores a variety of marketing options including conducting an aggressive job search, starting your own business or freelance operation, and starting a nonprofit corporation.

Plan on Growth: Depending on your current circumstances and future goals, additional knowledge and skill may be required to qualify for, and/or to succeed in, your new career. I call Act IV the “school” of life’s work because learning and growing are necessary not only to gain mastery of the work you want to do but also to live a rich and full life. More often than not, what separates us from what we want to do is what we don’t know. This section addresses developing a strategy for transitioning into your new career and includes information on how to maximize and expedite your efforts to acquire new knowledge and skills, how to maintain a positive self-image, and how to gain the support of your family and friends as you make the transition. It also considers how to maintain the positive energy you need to make the transition—by loving what you’re doing until you are doing what you love.


Copyright © 2009-2010 by Laurence G. Boldt

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