Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work”

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I’d like to revisit a topic I wrote about in August 2009, the idea that we create a “body of work” in our lives that helps to define who we are and what our contributions are to the world. Here’s what I said back then:

Until recently, I’ve regarded the term “body of work” as being somewhat odd. It refers to an individual’s total output, or at least a substantial part of it. We often hear “body of work” invoked when assessing an individual’s creative, artistic, or athletic endeavors, as in looking at the career of a great musician, writer, or baseball player.

But I’ve come to realize that we all produce our own body of work, even if we are not famous artists or athletes. It may include work we are paid for, but it also may capture our contributions as parents, friends, caregivers, volunteers, and members of the community. For some, their “day job” of showing up to work or caring for their children may be complemented by starting a band, coaching a softball team, or singing in a community chorus. Taking into account all of these possibilities, our body of work represents our contributions to this world while we are a part of it.

I confess that turning 50 has been a prod for looking at life in this way. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, if these notions were planted in us at a much earlier age — as opposed to more conventional ideas about success and achievement — our lives would be more meaningful and, quite possibly, the world would be a better place.

I’m happy to echo those words today. In addition, my current interest in this topic has been piqued by a recent book, Pamela Slim’s Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013). Slim pitches her book in career development terms, saying that it “shows how to find the connections among diverse accomplishments, sell your story, and continually reinvent and relaunch your brand.” Having spent some time with it, I’d suggest that it also can help us think about our lives more holistically, starting with her definition of “body of work”:

Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.

She adds, looking at this from a work perspective, that “(i)ndividuals who structure their careers around autonomy, mastery, and purpose will have a powerful body of work.”

Her point about careers is well taken, but I find myself more focused on her general definition of body of work. To me it’s a useful starting place for assessing where we are in our lives and where we would like to go. Being an educator, I’ll pose a couple of essay questions:

What is your body of work so far?

What do you want your body of work to look like when you’re done?

Discuss.

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Related post

Last fall I pulled together a bunch of previous posts on themes related to this in “Roundup: On legacy work, transitions, and the march of time.” 

4 responses

  1. Excellent post! I can’t wait to get my hands on Pamela Slim’s book, as I often have a difficult time defining my story. I’d like to think my body of work has brought people some joy & entertainment as well as strengthened communities and left them better off than before, but I’m not so sure that is the case. That said, when I’m done I’d like my body of work to have empowered others to create the resilient lives and communities they desire, according to their own definition of what is important to them and the community as a whole. I’d also like to have had an impact in stretching other’s thinking about the definition of a resilient community/organization/family in a rapidly changing & diversifying (in more ways than one) world.

    This is sort of me just taking a first stab at this, so I am sure it will change as I continue to think about it. Thanks for the brain exercise!

  2. Thanks for this. I’ve come to recognize that contributions are independent from financial reward. Even when I’m paid for a specific contribution (e.g., a full day’s work, representing a client, teaching a class), at some point it really isn’t the work product that matters as much as how I got there – through, with, and for others. In addition, we don’t always know what our true “body of work” is. Sometimes the smallest gesture of kindness offered in passing makes a world of difference to someone else. That has certainly been true for me.

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