Work is both an expression of our selves and where we negotiate our relationship with the world. It involves the practical, day-to-day activities and things we do to provide for our physical necessities that give us dignity in return, and also a desire to pursue mastery in a craft or a chosen field of inquiry.
“Work is frighted with difficulty and possibility of visible failure, failure to provide, to succeed, to make a difference, to be seen and to be seen to be seen,” says David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. When our identity is tied too closely to our work, we are extremely vulnerable to private and public shame. Says Whyte:
We find the core essence of work, firstly through its fear-filled imagining, secondly, in the long necessary humiliations of refusal, courtship and apprenticeship, thirdly in the skill and craft we learn by doing and finally in the harvest of its gift and its gifting and, the surprising ways it is both received and rejected by the world and then strangely, given back to us.
Profit, recognition, wealth: are beautiful by-products only when they come as children of the falling in love, the patient courtship; this falling down and getting up, this learning to live with and this long careful presenting of our work.
For those of us who are in love with helping people have this conversation between the inside—the skills, experience, personal story and overall energy—with its expression in the here and now of the jobs do be done, work becomes real and concrete through this connection. This is where the most value comes from the most practice.
But when we take a reductive view of work, of this exchange, we cut our potential short.
To reduce work in our societal imagination merely to competition, and to the act of beating the competition, is to condemn our societies and our individual lives to imaginative poverty of the very worst kind.
In the real world it is also an isolating approach that closes off the possibilities of cooperation and conversation across both scientific boundaries and artful borders.
With the right work, the right relationship to that work and the mystery of what is continually being revealed to us through our endeavors, we find a home in the world that eventually does not need debilitating stress, does not need our exhausted will and does not need enormous amounts of outside energy constantly fed in to sustain it.
One of the challenges with work in current environments is the inability to bring oneself to this conversation. We keep trying to explain the organizations of the future with the language of the past. We need new words and definitions to help us imagine how we can once again create long term viability for individuals and organizations.
Engagement is the product of clarity of purpose as we go about co-ordinating resources to ensure sufficient capital, assets, and treasure to sustain a healthy enterprise. To do this, we still require judgement, creativity, problem-solving skills, and the ability to understand social cues.
Further, many industries and fields still involve questions of taste and customer preferences where direct relationships and interpersonal interaction are critical elements of success.
We need people who show up for these conversations in their entirety for the work in which the process and outcome depend on variables and changing factors—for example, changing physical and social environment, customization levels, and professional expertise.
These are all areas where we can create better conversations “not only through what we do, but in the way we feel as we do, and even, in the way others witness us in our feeling and doing, giving to them as they give to us.” This is at the core of what compels us to make. Lest we forget.
Corollary: making stress work for us
Stress is a body's method of reacting to a challenge.
We're not going to eliminate it completely, because some stress is actually good for us. For example, in high stakes situations, we want to be hyper alert, focused, and energized. Luckily, our brain and body are our allies here. This kind of stress is a good reminder of what matters.
The type of stress we want to decrease is that generated in an environment where we lack autonomy, the tools to pursue mastery, and clarity of purpose. In an environment where we can grow on their own terms, it's a challenge to get through the day. This kind of stress blocks creativity, inhibits trust, and destroys progress.
We can't wait to raise to the challenge in the first scenario; we can't wait for it to be over in the second. We know exactly what we don't want, and we can describe it in painful detail.
[Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.]