Free Chapter: How To Find The Work You Love
Everyone has been made for some particular work and the desire for that work has been placed in every heart.
The quest for the work you love—it all begins with two simple questions: Who am I? and What in the world am I doing here? While as old as humanity itself, these perennial questions are born anew in every man and woman who is privileged to walk upon this earth. Every sane man or woman, at some point in his or her life, is confronted by these questions—some, while but children; more in adolescence and youth; still more at mid-life or when facing retirement; and even the toughest customers, at the death of a loved one or when they themselves have a brush with death. Yes, somewhere, some time, we all find ourselves face to face with the questions: Who am I? and What am I here for?
And we do make some attempt to answer them. We ask our parents and teachers, and it seems they do not know. They refer us to political and religious institutions, which often crank out canned answers devoid of personal meaning. Some even tell us that life has no meaning, save for eating and breeding. Most of us are smart enough to recognize that canned answers or begging the question will not do. We must find real answers for ourselves. But that takes more heart and effort than we are often willing to give.
What becomes of us? We get swallowed up in the rat race. Trapped. Before we have even begun in earnest the quest to find our own answers, we resign ourselves to lives without meaning. Once in this dreary and monotonous chase, it takes more courage than most of us can muster to stand up amidst the crowd and return to the quest for a fully integrated life. We sell out the ancient quest for bread, bed, and trinkets. Wordsworth warns: "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers"—but like lemmings running headlong to the sea, we are oblivious.
We give up the quest and shove the questions into a closet deep in the back of our minds. Once in a while, a wind blows through our lives, and the closet door swings open. We battle against the wind to close it once again. Frightened by what lies behind the door, we exhaust ourselves in the effort to keep it shut. Unanswered life questions are the real skeletons in our closets. Far more than by our dreadful deeds, we are haunted by these unanswered questions: Who am I? and What am I to do here? We dare not be alone too long without some diversion, lest their bones begin to rattle.
But not all are as frail as this. Some stand tall and embrace these questions in the broad light of daily experience. Some even succeed in answering for themselves these perennial questions. They are the ones who experience deep meaning and joy in life—they are the ones who find the work they love.
If our true nature is permitted to guide our life,
we grow healthy, fruitful and happy.
In all likelihood, you picked up this book because you are interested in finding the work you love. Of course, in order to find anything, it helps to have a clear idea of what you are looking for. Throughout this book, we will refer to the work you love as your life’s work. Your life’s work is the work you were born to do—the most appropriate vehicle through which to express your unique talents and abilities. More than a job or career, it is your special gift to mankind. Traditionally, life’s work was called vocation, a word which literally means calling. The work you love—your calling, or life’s work—is your unique and living answer to the question, What am I here to do on this earth?
While each of us must chart our own path on the road to life’s work, we should recognize that there is much to learn from those who have traveled it before. Vocational choice is an issue that has occupied many of the world’s great spiritual, artistic, and intellectual leaders. We cannot read the writings of Aristotle, the sayings of Confucius, or the teachings of the Buddha, the Bible, Koran, or Bhagavad-Gita—without sooner or later encountering a theory of vocational choice. The world’s great spiritual and philosophical traditions long recognized the central role that vocational choice plays in the total health and happiness of the individual and in the vitality and character of a culture.
It is not difficult to understand why. Perhaps nothing says more about us as individuals than what we do; certainly, nothing reveals as much about our character as why we do it; and taken together, our vocational choices determine the quality of life on this planet.
While vocational choice has long been recognized as a defining moment in the life of the individual and critical to the character of a culture, it has become, if anything, even more important in the modern world. Historically, vocational, or career, choice was available only to a relative few—the social, artistic, and intellectual elites in isolated urban centers. The great mass of people lived traditional agrarian or nomadic lifestyles, where little changed from century to century. Even in the great cities of the ancient world, many people were slaves or limited by class or caste in the work they could do. For most people, then, vocational choice simply was not an issue; they would expect to do what their parents before them had done.
Early in the twenty-first century, for the first time in human history, most of the people on this planet will live, not in traditional rural settings, but in modern urban ones, which offer at least the promise of a wide range of vocational options. Add to this the unprecedented size of the world’s population, and we can quickly see that today, vocational choice is a critical global issue—if for no other reason than that it affects the daily lives of billions of human beings. Moreover, with more people making vocational choices than ever before, the social and environmental impact of these choices has increased dramatically. Unless we begin to factor into our career choices a sense of our responsibility to the environment and the human community, continued environmental degradation and social disintegration are inevitable.
Certainly, the need for the wisdom reflected in the traditional understanding of vocational choice has never been greater; yet it has been all but forgotten amidst the hubbub of modern commercial culture. We have become fixated on the economic value of work to the exclusion of virtually all other values. Perhaps the simplest way of illustrating this is to consider what is generally regarded as a good job. For most people today, a good job means good pay, good benefits, and security. Little is said about the content or the quality of the work itself, let alone about the joy of expressing one’s unique talents, or the sense of meaning that comes from serving others.
When we contrast the prevailing notion of career success with any of a number of traditional theories of vocational choice, the modern view seems one-dimensional and shallow. Traditional theories of vocation were not necessarily more complicated, but they did reflect a deeper and more mature philosophy. Consider as an example of traditional vocational theory a simple formula given by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He said, "Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation." This simple statement tells you everything you need to know to find the work you love.
Like any theory for making vocational choice, it reflects a philosophy of life—a set of values. In the final analysis, we cannot answer the question, What am I here to do? without in some way answering the question, Who am I? For example, when we select pay, benefits, and job security as the key criteria for vocational choice, we are reflecting a set of values (whether we are conscious of it or not) that equates the individual quest for material comfort with the ultimate purpose of human existence. The implicit assumption is that human happiness and material comfort are one and the same. On the other hand, to suggest that when making vocational choices, we ought to look for an intersection between our individual talents and the needs of the world implies that human happiness springs from individual creative expression and meaningful participation in the life of society.
Within Aristotle’s simple formula, there lies a profound understanding of human nature. In effect, he is saying that because we are social beings, we ought to look to, become aware of, and identify the needs of the world; and because we are individuals, we ought to look to, become aware of, and identify our own unique talents. Furthermore, he is suggesting that these two elements of our nature, not only can, but in fact ought to be in harmony.
The decision as to what your career is to be is a very deep and important one, and it has to do with something like a spiritual requirement and commitment.
As social beings, our interest in the needs of the world is not a matter of doing good for others out of a sense of largess. It’s a matter of being true to ourselves. It comes with recognizing that, as Herman Melville put it, "we cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow-men; and along those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects." In the end, we are the world, and our individual choices, taken together, create the world we live in. The work of creating a better world begins, not with government programs or revolutionary movements, but with the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individuals.
As individuals, we each comprise a unique constellation of talents, abilities, and innate interests. Working in a way that takes advantage of our unique talents and abilities means working with our strengths. Many people spend their whole lives working against their strengths—doing work not really suited to their abilities. The key is to find the work you were born to do—the one that takes full advantage of your special talents, interests, and abilities. This brings, not only greater effectiveness, but greater joy. On the other hand, to fail to express your own talents is not only to deny your individuality, but to withhold from the world those special gifts which you possess.
We cannot, then, separate our philosophy of life from the practical choices we make about career. If we make our career choices solely or even primarily on the basis of material comfort and then complain that the world is too commercial, that people are too selfish, that our cultural life is bland and lacking creative vitality—it is simply because we have failed to recognize that we are the world. We are asking others to live by a standard we ourselves have failed to embrace.
Ultimately, the discovery of a life’s work begins with the realization of what it means to be a human being—embracing what binds us all together and appreciating what makes each of us unique. While we deny that we are social beings and ignore the needs of the world, we miss the sense that our work is meaningful. We feel cut off, lonely, and alienated. While we deny our individuality and fail to develop and express our unique talents and gifts, we miss the joy of creative self-expression. We feel frustrated, repressed, and trapped. Simply put: To the extent that your work takes into account the needs of the world, it will be meaningful; to the extent that through it you express your unique talents, it will be joyful.
The quest for the work you love—it all begins with a few simple questions: Who am I? What in the world am I doing here? What is my special gift to give? Where it ends is up to you. To be satisfying, your answers must be more than mere philosophical speculation; they must become your life. Any philosophy, no matter how high-minded or grand, crumbles like a castle in the sand unless its principles are applied in everyday life. Doing the work you love means living your philosophy. It means putting your values to work by determining to make what you do reflect who you really are.
It is the first of all problems for a man [or woman] to find out what kind of work he [or she] is to do in this universe.
Finding out what work we are to do in this universe—Thomas Carlyle called this "the first of all problems." It isn’t difficult to understand why. The typical person will spend more of their adult life working than doing anything else. It is through our work, more than in any other way, that we express ourselves and participate in the life of society. Moreover, since it occupies so much of our time, energy, and attention and is so critical to our sense of psychological well-being and social fulfillment, the quality of our work experience deeply affects other areas of our lives. Finally, it is through our work that we receive the financial support necessary, not only for survival, but for the full enjoyment of life. We will briefly explore each of these aspects next: work and the time of your life, work and the meaning of life, work and the rest of your life, and work and the riches of life.
My employer uses twenty-six years of my life for every year I get to keep. And what do I get in return…for my life?
Have you ever stopped to consider how much of your life is going into work? If you are like most people, nothing will occupy more of your waking adult life. Consider what becomes of the 168 hours you have each week. Today in America, a typical adult works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. In addition, we average another 1 1/2 hours daily in preparation and travel time. American adults sleep an average of 7 1/2 hours each night. If you add the work, preparation, and sleep time, you get 103 out of 168 hours. That leaves just 65 waking hours per week for anything other than work. Thirty-three, or more than half, of the remaining hours are on the weekend. That means that on weekdays, the typical person has little over 6 hours a day for anything other than work. An hour per meal leaves less than 3 1/2 remaining hours.
Since the great majority of people find neither deep meaning nor real joy in their work, it is hardly surprising that we have developed a popular fantasy called "living for the weekends." Weekends are the only time most people feel free to do what they want. Yet weekends and vacations comprise a tiny fraction of the hours we invest in work. Spending most your life doing something you don’t enjoy or believe in, to buy a little freedom on the weekends seems a terrible bargain indeed. As Joseph Campbell put it, "I think the person who takes a job in order to live—that is to say, [just] for the money—has turned himself into a slave."
On the other hand, in the words of R. G. Collingwood: "Perfect freedom is reserved for the man who lives by his own work and in that work does what he wants to do." Since you probably spend more waking hours working than doing anything else, your work must be something that you can be proud of, be creative in, and enjoy—if you are to have a happy and fulfilling life.
The only ones among you who will be really happy
are those who have sought and found how to serve.
Somewhere along the line, we may have gotten the idea that life is for getting. We think that if we could just get more money or approval, more fame or love, everything would be terrific. As corny as it may sound, giving really is what it is all about. Tapping into your desire to give is the key to unlocking your own sense of purpose and to releasing your talents. It is the key, in other words, to finding the work you love.
Everyone wants to feel that they are making a constructive difference in the lives of others. Even the most jaded, selfish, or greedy person will offer a rationalization for how what they are doing is really helping people. In a sense, we are all already giving in some way. Yet, by focusing on our desire to serve, we increase our capacity to make a difference and grow into the best use of our lives. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, "Consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does render some service or other. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make, not only for our own happiness, but that of the world at large."
Again, expressing your desire to give is the path to greater meaning and deeper joy. Think of the times when you’ve felt happiest and best about yourself. If you look carefully, you’ll find that most of the time, it was because you were in some way giving to others. Think about what you did today. Isn’t it the giving that counts? Think of the movies you’ve seen, the novels you’ve read. Aren’t many of the great ones about individuals learning to give and the struggles they encounter on the way to giving their gifts?
Your contributions will be what you treasure most in the final analysis. But don’t take my word for it. Go to nursing homes and listen to people who have the wisdom of age. The stories of their giving are the most memorable—the ones that bring out the twinkles in their eyes and the smiles to their faces, the ones that warm your heart and make you feel proud to be a human being. We find lifelong meaning in giving through the work we love.
People who are truly dedicated to their work—people like Buckminster Fuller, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Pablo Picasso—continue to thrive on into old age. On the other hand, an inactive retirement ages people faster than the sun makes raisins out of grapes. Jose Ortega y Gasset puts it well when he says: "An unemployed existence is a negation worse than death itself because to live means to have something definite to do. . . a mission to fulfill. . . and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. . . Human life, by its very nature, has to be dedicated to something."
Giving your gifts to others is, in a very real sense, giving to yourself. You may think you are giving to others, but you are really giving yourself a chance to be your best. You’re giving yourself a chance to live your values, express your talents, and share your love. You’re giving yourself a chance to experience yourself making a meaningful difference and to feel fully alive in the process. Since you spend most of your time working, isn’t it worth the effort to arrange your life so that what you do to earn a living is what makes you feel best about yourself? Isn’t that a gift you owe yourself?
There are costs and risks to a program of action,
but they are far less than the long range risks and costs
of comfortable inaction.
—John F. Kennedy
Life is an integrated whole. We fool ourselves if we think it can be divided into discrete segments or compartments. Each area of our lives affects all the others. The unhappiness that results from a frustrating experience of work cannot be contained; it spills across the entire spectrum of our lives. On the other hand, doing the work you love promotes happiness in other seemingly unrelated areas of your life. Once you have identified the work you love and have begun taking positive steps to realize it, you can set about balancing it with other important aspects of your life.
While, in the long run, doing the work you love is critical to a balanced and harmonious life, the process of making a change in an area as fundamental as work can be disruptive. Going through the process of a career change can put significant strain on our relationships. Our loved ones may feel neglected should we have to devote additional time to our work through a period of transition or retraining. We may have to deal with the fears and anxieties of our life partners or parents or with their inability to see the merit in the course we are pursuing. We may have to confront, as never before, our own insecurities and self-doubt, as we leave behind the security of what we have done before and risk going after what we really want. For these and many more reasons, it may seem easier to settle for less than to take the risks and endure the temporary upheavals that accompany change. To be sure, the risks and costs of making a career change are immediate and apparent. Yet, while they may seem more remote and obscure, there are even greater costs associated with settling for anything less than the work you love.
The individual who continues in work that he hates, is bored with—or merely indifferent to—or who resigns himself to being treated like a cog in a machine loses self-respect. His self-confidence evaporates. He begins to feel bitter and resentful or beaten and depressed. As Albert Camus put it, "Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies." To live your life to the fullest, you must find a way to put your heart and soul into your work. If your present work does not allow you to do this, determine to find another.
When we fail to confront the unhappiness or frustration we feel in our work lives and make the necessary changes, we may turn to self-destructive forms of escape in a vain attempt to mask or numb our pain. One who feels trapped in a hopeless and desperate work situation may seek escape through a variety of means—everything from excessive television watching and overeating, to drug or alcohol abuse—all the way to suicide. Escape may take the form of endless love affairs, as one tries to fill with admirers the void left by his failure to adequately express himself and his gifts. It may take the form of excessive spending. One may bring great anxiety upon himself and his loved ones by attempting to live far beyond his means in an attempt to impress upon himself and others that he has made it, that he is okay. Far from bringing relief, attempts to run away from the pain of one’s work life inevitably inflict further damage to the individual’s self-esteem. The best course is to face the issue square on, to admit your unhappiness and begin charting a course that in time will lead to a fulfilling life’s work.
Many personal relationships have been destroyed by the failure of one or both parties to achieve a clear sense of direction or purpose in their lives. The aimless party feels badly about him- or herself and so begins to find fault with the other and make excessive demands on them. They demand attention, wanting the other to constantly reassure them that they are lovable and okay. This becomes a horribly destructive and draining game. We cannot demand from others what we can only earn for ourselves by committing ourselves to living up to our best. We are not here to be someone else or just to be with someone else. We’re here to be ourselves, to make our unique contributions to the world.
When we are unhappy at work, we don’t leave our unhappiness on the job; we carry it with us wherever we go. The frustration, resentment, or anxiety we feel in our work experience is inevitably, even if unintentionally, taken out on our loved ones. It is not only marital relationships that suffer; our relationships with our children can also be profoundly affected. The great psychiatrist Carl Jung said, "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on . . . children, than the unlived life of their parents." When we fail to live up to our potential and settle for less, we are giving our children a model and a message of what life is about. We may tell them that they can do whatever they want, but our own example makes a stronger impression. We may tell ourselves that we are sacrificing for our children’s sake, but the pain of our creative repression can leave them with deep psychological wounds. Determining to live your life to the fullest, to follow your dreams and express yourself is the greatest gift you can give to those you love—and to yourself.
For many years, it has been known that job-related stress is a major contributing factor to a wide range of diseases. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die at nine o’clock on Monday morning than at any other time of day or on any other day of the week. Recent studies have indicated that the greatest risk factor for fatal heart attack is not smoking, hypertension, or high cholesterol (of which we have heard a great deal)—but job dissatisfaction. Researchers at Columbia University have observed a link between coronary disease (the leading killer of American adults) and the individual’s sense of control in their work life. These studies suggest that as you increase creative control, you reduce negative stress. Without a doubt, bottled up creative energy is a great source of stress. Energy wants to flow. Without constructive channels for creative release, it builds up in tension and stress, endangering our emotional and physical health.
Lord Byron said, "’Tis very certain the very desire of life prolongs it." Surgeons will tell you that an individual’s chances of survival after a difficult operation depend largely upon the patient’s will to live. A strong will to live presupposes something to live for. In his book, The Will to Live, Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker concludes that "the will to live in civilized man is a combined biological and psychological drive. As long as we have something to live for, the will to live carries us through the moments of crisis which are inevitable in every life." Committing yourself to your life’s work, then, fosters good health by reducing negative stress and by strengthening your will to live.
It is hard to feel creative in a job that you are doing just to get by. Creativity is a way of life, not a matter of chance or a mysterious force to be summoned out of the ethers. If what you are doing most of the day requires no creative skill, chances are your creativity is on the way downhill. You’re not going to walk in the door and suddenly be creative at home if all day you’ve been vegetating at work. Your creative powers grow and develop through use; the more you are challenged, the more you grow.
Failing to find the work you love has costs, not only to your self-esteem, relationships, health, and creativity, but to your world. As a human community, we all lose when people’s creative abilities do not find expression in constructive, purposeful action. We lose in terms of needless human suffering and untapped human potential. Around the globe, useless, even degrading work steals the spirit and saps the joy from the lives of millions while much necessary work goes undone. Giving your gifts benefits the world, not only through the direct contributions you make and the joy you radiate, but through the living example you provide others of what is possible for them. Determine to play your part in creating the kind of world you want to live in.
If you love and serve man, you cannot,
by any hiding or stratagem, escape remuneration.
Sadly, today, we too often put concerns about financial security ahead of our creative passion. Ironically, many people discover that when they shake off their fears about money and commit themselves to doing the work they truly love, they begin to experience a prosperity greater than they had ever known before. They feel richer and more prosperous, not just in monetary terms, but in every aspect of their lives. As their sense of self-esteem grows, they begin to open to receive more. Because they value the contributions they are making, they feel as though they deserve to be well paid for their efforts. As their sense of deservingness increases, money becomes less and less of an issue. Their entire relationship with money begins to transform when they no longer associate earning it with doing something they hate or dread, are bored with, or even just indifferent to, but with doing something they truly love and believe in.
In his book, Getting Rich Your Own Way, psychologist Srully Blotnik concludes, after a twenty year study of over one thousand men and women, that the popular belief that "wealth can come to you only as a result of doing things you don’t want to do" is without basis in fact. "Like so many other thoughts about how to get rich, it sounds reasonable and is flatly contradicted by the evidence. In fact, if you don’t like your work, you are losing money. Lots of it."
Yet true prosperity can’t be measured with dollar signs alone. It’s difficult to feel really prosperous, no matter how much money we may make, if we earn it doing something we don’t love and respect. Socrates said, "If a rich man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it." We could say as well that a man is not truly rich until he earns his wealth in a way that benefits others and expresses his own innate talents and abilities.
Joseph Campbell used the term "following your bliss" to indicate the lifelong pursuit of your creative passion. He said, "If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track, which has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living." He went on to say that when you commit yourself to following your bliss, "doors begin to open for you where there were no doors and where they would not open for anyone else." While this may sound somewhat mystical, it is really a matter of trusting that the intelligence which is in all of life—the intelligence that turns the heavens, that migrates the birds, the intelligence that tells a seed when to germinate, that beats your heart and digests your food—lives inside of you and knows what to do with your life.
There is only one wisdom: to recognize the intelligence that steers all things.
The same intelligence that put the desire for a particular work in your heart has also built in a support system to help you realize it. A story from the legends of King Arthur illustrates the key to recognizing this built-in support system. At one point, the knight Sir Lancelot confronts a wide chasm which he must cross. Apparently, there is nothing but a bottomless pit of empty space between where he is and where he wants to go. Yet he discovers that when he takes a step out into this empty space, there is a kind of bridge connecting the two sides. While this bridge had been there all the time, it only became visible to him after he had taken his first step. In much the same way, when we take the first steps into the seemingly empty space that separates the life we are leading from the one we have imagined, we too discover that there is a kind of invisible support for us. Only after we have stepped out into the creative emptiness do we discover the bridges that have been all the while waiting to help us across.
People who take the plunge, who commit themselves to going after what they really want, often receive a kind of invisible support they had no idea was there for them. They begin to attract to themselves the knowledge, relationships, and resources they require to accomplish their work. They have the sense that their lives are being guided by an intelligence larger and more comprehensive than their own reasoning or intellect. Listen to the voice of this natural intelligence and it will guide you to the road of happiness and the best use of your life. Rudyard Kipling called this voice "the inner helper." He said, "I have learned that when the inner helper is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift—wait—and obey."
Now, it is true that creating your life’s work is not something you do overnight, and that you may have to support yourself doing other things through a period of transition. Yet if you commit yourself to a work that you truly love—in time, you will find that you begin shaping a life in which you are supported by that work. Make the commitment to settle for nothing less than your best. As George Bernard Shaw put it, "The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them." Are you willing to apply the effort necessary to demand of life a real sense of purpose and creative passion—the work you truly love? Or will you settle for a fearful existence haunted by the ghost of might-have-been? If you think you might be ready for the adventure of your real life’s work, read on.
Copyright © 2004 by Laurence G. Boldt
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt from How to Find the Work You Love may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.