From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

Last week I invoked the writings of philosopher Charles Hayes to consider how the ripple effects of our good works can positively impact the world, perhaps in ways we will never know. I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….

First, some definitions may be in order here. By “hoop jumping” I refer to schooling, credentialing, networking, and gaining initial experience. These steps take us to where we’d like to be; they position us. (This is why it is rare for a post-graduate first job to be a true “dream job.”)

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Some people jump through their requisite hoops early, completing the heart of their formal learning at a relatively young age, promptly engaging in the necessary networking and positioning, and embarking on a long-term career that brings them much satisfaction. Certainly there may be setbacks and diversions along the way, but they start building their body of legacy work fairly early in life.

For many others, however, that process will include stops and starts, ups and downs, and recasting that often requires jumping through new hoops. A career is rarely completely linear, moving irresistibly upward until we reach some pinnacle and then retire. Furthermore, opportunities to do meaningful work, especially that which may fall into the legacy category, do not necessarily build toward some big crescendo close to the end. Whether they are handed to us or we create them, we rarely have full control over timing and sequencing!

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I realize that I have been talking mainly in the context of careers here. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested before, one’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Over the years, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. With some people, the discovery of legacy work has actually been a re-discovery, marking a return to interests and passions they put on the shelf in years past.

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Let me also acknowledge the sense of great economic and social privilege implicit in what I’m writing about. Those of us who are in a position to devote a good chunk of our waking hours to endeavors that provide satisfaction, meaning, accomplishment, and even joy are very fortunate. Countless millions of people around the world do not have that luxury; they are living in survival mode.

I hesitate to characterize such blessings as constituting a finger wagging obligation to make the most of them and to contribute something good to the world. That said, we live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

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Looking at the tortoise and the hare folktale, I personally identify more with the tortoise, at least when it comes to this general subject. In fact, I look with admiration at those folks who have figured things out much earlier than I did. I started this blog in 2008, over twenty years into my career as a lawyer and law professor. I now understand that it took me that long to forge a sufficiently wise, authentic, and mature worldview to start writing for a more public audience on the topics that frequent these pages.

Viktor Frankl on finding meaning in the face of great adversity

The good folks at Open Culture have given us a video interview and an essay featuring Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, psychologist, and author of the bestselling Man’s Search for Meaning. Here’s a snippet:

Among all of the psychologists, philosophers, and religious figures who have wrestled with these universal truths about the human condition, perhaps none has been put to the test quite like neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, but lost his mother, father, brother, and first wife to the camps. . . . After his camp was liberated in 1945, Frankl published an extraordinary book about his experiences: Man’s Search for Meaning, “a strangely hopeful book,” writes Matthew Scully at First Things, “still a staple on the self-help shelves” though it is “inescapably a book about death.” . . .

Frankl’s thesis echoes those of many sages, from Buddhists to Stoics to his 20th century Existentialist contemporaries: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Not only did he find hope and meaning in the midst of terrible suffering, but after his unimaginable loss, he “remarried, wrote another twenty-five books, founded a school of psychotherapy, built an institute bearing his name in Vienna,” and generally lived a long, happy life. How? . . .

The interview with Frankl runs a little under a half hour and emphasizes his ideas about finding meaning in the face of extraordinarily difficult times.

Many readers of this blog are dealing with their own significant challenges, often through the experience of work. And while even the most horrific work experiences cannot be equated with genocide, I have observed here that bullying and mobbing behaviors on the job can reflect, in virulence if not in scale, the eliminationist instincts that also drive mass killings.

Accordingly, for those who have been so targeted at work, it may be helpful to become familiar with the work of a man who managed to recover from exposure to horrible atrocities and to rebuild his life. I hesitate to characterize Dr. Frankl’s work as “must read,” because anything smacking of advice, guidance, or inspiration toward a road to recovery is intensely personal as to its individual resonance. Nevertheless, I think that many will find it beneficial.

 

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list”

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In a piece for Sunday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks writes about “The Moral Bucket List,” a sort of personal reckoning he has experienced about the importance of leading a meaningful, positively impactful life:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. . . . When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

He goes on to talk about two main sets of virtues:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.

A life built primarily around the résumé virtues, suggests Brooks, will prove to be a more empty one.

Brooks’s moral bucket list is comprised of the “experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.” They include a shift toward humility, confronting self-defeat and our own weaknesses, accepting “redemptive assistance from outside,” experiencing and giving “energizing love” with others, finding our callings, and embracing a sense of conscience.

In his opinion piece, he introduces exemplars of these virtues, such as General and President Dwight Eisenhower overcoming a severe temper, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day surmounting an early life of indulgence and reckless behavior, and U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins deciding to devote her life to workers’ rights.

It’s an excellent article, very appropriate and wise for the age in which we live.

On the political scale, Brooks is regarded as a moderate to conservative commentator. Yet, to his great credit, he cites the lives and examples of men and women spanning a broad political and social spectrum, both in the article and in his new book that expounds upon these ideas and stories, The Road to Character (2015). Brooks’s article caused me to run out and buy the book, and my preliminary page flips tell me that it will be a worthwhile read.

Positive echoes

Brooks’s moral bucket list concept intersects nicely with the messages of other authors I’ve written about, who urge upon us the importance of finding our life purposes, living compassionate lives, and making a positive difference with the time we are here. I think these works are most resonant to those in the second half of life (or close to it), but anyone may benefit from them. For more:

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

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Does a sense of purpose contribute to a longer life?

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Shelley Emling summons research suggesting that living with a sense of purpose and direction can extend our stays in this life as well:

What’s the key to long life? Is it clean living? Lots of exercise? An abundance of vegetables? Actually, the key to long life may be something a bit more intangible: a sense of purpose.

Researchers studying longevity say those who feel a sense of purpose and direction in life may indeed live longer, no matter what their age.

She quotes Patrick Hill of Carleton University (Canada), lead researcher in a study suggesting that a strong sense of life purpose may have “protective effects”:

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve, can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. . . . So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Many potential sources

Although this blog is mainly about work and workers, let’s acknowledge right away that we can create or discover a sense of purpose in a variety of ways, including employment, an avocation, a hobby, or volunteer and philanthropic work. It can come out of devotion to others, such as parenting, caregiving, or helping animals. It may be inspired by a broader cause or a personal objective. Faith and spirituality may enter the picture as well.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, the capacity to develop our life purpose is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between humans and other living beings. Surely there are days when the life of a beloved dog or cat — basically hanging out, eating good food, playing when you feel like it, and getting lots of TLC — looks pretty good! But for we human folk, having a strong, motivating sense of purpose and direction is among the blessings that makes life worthwhile.

Wisdom at fifty-something

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Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and adult educator whose body of work urges us to look beyond the superficial aspects of modern life and create lives of enduring meaning. Among his many writings, my favorite is his 2004 book, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. Here’s one of the many wonderful snippets from it:

Most of us have spent the first half of our lives denying the inevitability of our own death, but something about turning 50 enables us to penetrate this barricade of self-deception just enough to stay dimly aware that the end of life is forthcoming. For those of us fortunate enough to have lived this long and remain in reasonably good health, I believe this period is the premium apportionment of life. This is a time when we can separate the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of experience.

Lest anyone under 50 take offense at my seeming endorsement of the view that one has to reach the half-century mark to accumulate a reasonable amount of wisdom, be assured that I speak with authority only about myself on this matter! That said, I think it’s fair to suggest that many of us squander big chunks of our earlier years attending to less meaningful endeavors. The question becomes whether we will “wise up” in time to live life to the fullest and contribute something meaningful to this world.

If we pass on this opportunity, then we may end up like the protagonist in Leo Tolstoy’s masterful 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilylich is a successful lawyer, public servant, and family man who, when confronted with his mortality by a fatal illness, finds himself tormented by the question of whether he has lived a meaningful life. The final scenes of the book are memorable and unsettling.

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We can create meaningful lives in many ways. It may be through relationships such as parenting, caregiving, friendships, and partnerships. It can be through voluntary, community, or avocational activities.

To the extent we create this meaning through our work, we must strive mightily to resist the superficial trappings and excesses of careers and occupational cultures. I see these dynamics playing out all the time in higher education, and I have not been fully immune from them. In fact, as I read how Ivan Ilyich — whose professional resume would document a successful career in law and public service — anguished over the life he had chosen to live, I silently wondered if I might feel the same way when my time comes.

Yup, this is pretty maudlin stuff, isn’t it? But I think it’s the lesson that writers like Hayes and Tolstoy are trying to teach us. We can pay attention now, or ignore it and possibly live to regret it later. And the earlier we understand this simple truth, the better, yes?

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Go here for Hayes’s Self-University blog.

Go here for Hayes’s September University blog.

Go here for more about Hayes’s published books and essays.

Here is a free version of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Maude translation). Inexpensive print and e-book editions of that popular translation and a more recent (and well-received) translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky are available at bookstores.

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Addendum: Soon after posting this piece, I found this excellent essay by Fred Branfman, posted to AlterNet: “Embracing Life-Affirming Death Awareness: How to Transform Yourself and Possibly Save Human Civilization.” If this general topic interests you, it’s worth a serious read.

The myth of the “dream job”

“It’s my dream job.”

How many times have we heard variations of this phrase? It usually pops up when someone is interviewing for a job that sounds like a wonderful, perfect fit, or after they just accepted the offer.

If you follow up with them a few years later, it’s likely that reality has set in. It may have turned out to be a very good job, a decent job, a tolerable job, or an absolute horror show. But if they’re still sticking to the “dream job” line, they’re either (1) truly fortunate; (2) fibbing a bit to keep up appearances; or (3) deluding themselves.

Reality check

The idea of a dream job reflects high, often pie-in-the-sky expectations that may ignore the realities of organizations, human behavior, and economics. Indeed, the very concept of a career or a vocation that blends a good salary or wage with a chance to do inherently rewarding work is very much a product of a first world, late 20th century, upwardly mobile culture. A century ago, I doubt that many people were thinking in such a manner.

In the meantime, there are bills to be paid and mouths to be fed. These are not trifling matters. In fact, basic survival is what most of the world confronts on a daily basis.

Furthermore, even a good paying job may be short on psychic income. There are plenty of people who are toiling away mainly for the money, sometimes sacrificing their own desires in order to pay a mortgage or to send the kids through school.

Realistic hopes

Dream jobs may be few and far between, but I’m not suggesting that we give up on finding great meaning and a decent paycheck in our work. When it comes to pursuing our life’s purposes and passions, I’m still a romantic.

I think it boils down to expectations and aspirations grounded in reality. The world of work may disappoint us at times. But we can strive to create better opportunities for ourselves and to take full advantage of those presented to us.

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The School of Life on finding fulfilling work

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Here’s a thought-provoking question that writer and lecturer Roman Krznaric poses at the end of the first chapter of his very good little paperback book, How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012):

What is your current work doing to you as a person — to your mind, character and relationships?

I’ve heard and offered less compelling variations of questions like this one — How’s work going? What’s good and bad about your occupation? Is your job meeting your needs? — but nothing so neatly framed.

School of Life series

How to Find Fulfilling Work is one in a series of short books on practical philosophy sponsored by The School of Life, a London-based entity that offers “a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” The book series is entering the U.S., and this title will be available soon.

The School of Life sounds like a fascinating initiative. Reading its description makes me wish we had something similar here in Boston:

The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about these and other concerns. You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.

The quest for fulfilling work

Krznaric mixes ground-level philosophy, vocational guidance, and inspiration into this quick read. Here are the chapter titles:

The Age of Fulfillment

A Short History of Career Confusion

Giving Meaning to Work

Act First, Reflect Later

The Longing for Freedom

How to Grow a Vocation

The book concludes with helpful recommendations of books, movies, and other resources to help people in their quests for work that suits them.

But first: Basic needs and obligations

If you’re weighing your career and vocational options, especially with an eye toward pursuing more meaningful work, this book is worth your time.

But I also know that some readers are not in a position to be selective. They need decent paying work, period, and with bills mounting they’ll be grateful for whatever comes their way. Indeed, anyone who is free enough to consider options for making work a fulfilling activity in itself is very fortunate.

So, if you need to pay for food, shelter, and clothing, the type of work you’re doing may matter a whole lot less than getting a sufficient paycheck. And if your obligations include kids and/or other dependents, you may not be in a position to “go for the gusto.”

In fact, one of the few quarrels I have with Krznaric is his suggestion that financial fears can be softened by having a backup fund of three months worth of expenses in case the “dream job” falls apart. In the first place, saving up that kind of money is difficult in tough times. And secondly, a three-month emergency fund isn’t all that comforting anyway for someone who must care for others as well.

Onward

Still…my hope is that we will evolve into a society where decent pay and good work come together more often than not. Books like How to Find Fulfilling Work point us in the right direction. So, let’s put these options for individual initiative and change out there, and gravitate toward them when we can.

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