Many years ago I took my two sons up to the Omega Institute for Family Week and enrolled them in an experiential workshop called “Little Forest People.” They played in mud and snuck up on the adults and identified plants and generally were supposed to have a terrific time being kids in the woods, shepherded by enthusiastic teens. Except one son – the one who currently has a subscription to Outside – hated every minute of being outdoors and was miserable every stinking minute of the entire week, leading me to miss most of my workshop, “Wanting What You Have Instead of Having What You Want.” Blame him for my next decade of materialism!
But I have always been intrigued and bit mystified by colleagues who carried a similar concept to work and talked about “doing what you love.” In my working class family the idea of doing what you love seemed ridiculous and out of reach. You worked to support yourself or your family, put food on the table and pay the rent. You looked for a job that was steady and not seasonal. In my family the protection of a union was a big plus. If you were lucky your job was not too exhausting and you still had some time and energy left to see friends or do something in the community, the activities of life that really mattered.
When I went to college I was advised to study a field that would provide job security. My stepfather suggested the burgeoning field of computers; my Mom thought maybe I could be a teacher. My desire to be a psychiatrist was considered ridiculous (and my performance in organic chemistry rendered it so).
When did we begin to believe that we should do what we love? It didn’t quite start with Steve Jobs, contrary to popular belief, when he said, in 2005, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” In 1985 Joseph Campbell, in an interview with Bill Moyers at no less an iconic place than the Skywalker Ranch, talked about his own iconic quote, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
Work and bliss together – this had to be a Baby Boomer phenomenon, didn’t it? My guess was correctly reinforced in an article in The Atlantic (August 7, 2015) in an interview with Miya Tokumitsu, art historian and author of Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness (2015), who theorizes that the “do what you love” concept came out of post-World War II prosperity and the culture of self that arose beginning in the late ‘60’s through the ‘70’s and continues to this day.
There is no question that work takes up much of our waking hours and how much better if we are spending that time doing something that we enjoy rather than something we despise. But let’s not forget the fact that this viewpoint evolves from a middle class and educated perspective. My Grandfather Love and his brothers worked in coalmines, work I am sure did not allow him to follow his bliss. My Grandmother Mears worked on a factory line and stood for long shifts each day. I worked in a factory but only had to do it for the summers. We can’t forget that work is often just work, not necessarily self-actualization, allowing us to live the life we choose.
How can we love what we do? Here are the five steps that I found to fundamentally change the way I thought about work:
1. Be grateful. I tried hard to focus on what this work was allowing me to do. When the work was the night shift at the pill packaging plant, I was grateful that I only had to do this for a summer. When the work was running a company and I felt overwhelmed, I was grateful that this position allowed me to send my kids to college, see the world, have few financial worries and develop skills that would serve me well. There is always something for which to be grateful.
2. Consciously identify the skills that you are acquiring. Write them down. Poke at them. See this job or position as a step in your journey. Use this as an opportunity to round out your skills and develop them more fully.
3. Remember that organizations don’t love you back. I would let the stress get to me and put work first. I had to struggle to remember that I was doing this because I wanted the life that this position afforded me and yet I was too tired and stressed to live that life.
4. I looked for ways to get out of my comfort zone. How could I learn new things? How could I push myself? How could I see the problems that I needed to address with fresh eyes?
5. I wrote my own eulogy. That must sound weird. But every year, on my birthday, while wearing my tiara, I wrote down how I wanted to be remembered. I always wrote a specific section about how I wanted to be seen and remembered by those with whom I worked. When the exigencies of the organization no longer allowed me to work in a way that honored my values, it was time to go.
My postscript: after many years of loving what I do, I am now doing what I love. The years of business training and that early desire to be in psychology have come together and I am working as an executive coach. But I do believe that I would not be as effective if I had not taken a winding path to get here, a path that included working in a factory, typing, waitressing, being a cashier, scraping plates in the dining hall, bar tending and myriad other jobs. I feel grateful that I’ve done so much work.
“Work is love made visible. And if you can’t work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of the people who work with joy.”
– Kahlil Gibran