Labor Day & The Meaning of Work

As I’ve studied calling, I’ve also ended up studying work: what it means, how we think about it and how it has evolved over time. I think often work is just something we do. While we may spend a lot of time thinking about work, we aren’t contemplating what works means in our lives, how it shapes and changes us. In honor of Labor Day, I’m re-posting two blog posts I wrote about work in 2010.

Work is Not a Four Letter Word

What comes to mind when I say the word ‘work’? Do you think about paying the bills, making money, providing for your family, putting in your time before retirement? Is it a four letter word in your mind? Maybe the lucky few of us love our work and get up excited to go do it each morning. The rest of us tend to think of work as something to complain about with our friends.

Work can look like the prison sentence we’re serving until age 65.

I’ve been known to harbor a few escapist fantasies about lying on a beach in Hawaii for the rest of my life, reading all the novels I can get my hands on, but at the same time, I know deep down, that isn’t what I really want. Escaping from work isn’t the answer. It’s a myth perpetuated by books like The Four Hour Work Week. While the author presents some great ideas on how to minimize the amount of busy work or unproductive work you do, the ultimate goal he proposes is to get a few money-making machines rolling, outsource most of your work and pursue a luxury lifestyle of pleasure. Not only is it shallow, but in the end a life like this is just as unsatisfying as the 9-5 world.

“It is not that men are ill-fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure.” – John Ruskin

Most of us know that more wealth does not automatically mean more satisfaction and happiness in life. We just like to believe that because it’s easy. It means we can pretend that it’s worth it to do high-paying but meaningless jobs because we can get bigger toys and go on better vacations.

The fact is, work is an integral part of our lives and should mean more to us than just a way to make money. Living our callings means changing the way we think about work. We need to understand that our work can be different than our jobs. We may need to keep the job in order to remain financially stable, but if we want to do more meaningful work in the future, we need to respect our dreams enough to starting working towards them. And that work may need to happen on evenings and weekends.

People often do meaningless work in boring jobs because they need to make money and they don’t believe that the work they would be interested in doing will support them. In This Time I Dance, Tama Kieves describes how she was a successful corporate lawyer on the outside, but a dying writer on the inside. Her catalyst for change finally came when a friend said, “If you’re this successful doing something you hate, why wouldn’t you be even more successful doing what you love?”

What would your work be, if you gave it a chance?

Meaningful Work

Sometimes we’re urged not to overidentify with our work because it’s “just a job”. Work in our culture is often defined as “labor” or “the grind” – something bad to be slogged through. People warn you not to place your self-worth in what you do. On the other hand, Arthur Miller writes in The Power of Uniqueness, “The surest way I have found to unlocking the essence of a person is to look at what he likes to do and do well.” The work you do should reflect who you are. The reason we often don’t identify much with our jobs is because they do little more than show we are competent employees. How many of us have jobs that doesn’t remotely speak to our real gifts, passions or interests? These jobs are not our real work.

Dorothy Sayers writes,

“Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”

Work was meant to be meaningful.

Can you imagine loving your work so much that you live to do it? Do you get as uncomfortable as I do at that thought? My initial reaction is negative because my brain equates “work” with “job” and, like we just mentioned, our jobs are usually not the full expression of who we are.

Beyond that, this quote may make us uncomfortable because it means we have a far greater responsibility than we realized: A responsibility to look for the work that is meaningful to us. A responsibility to not waste our lives. Our culture says being employed at a job means you’re not wasting your life, but if you’re an executive assistant twiddling your thumbs in a slow office when your real talent is cooking, you’re wasting a gift. Some of us are doing a job to avoid the responsibility of doing our our real work – the work that reflects who we are. Why?

I can think of three reasons:

1. We don’t know what our work looks like and haven’t spent time figuring it out. “I don’t know what I’d do with all my free time if I didn’t have a job.”

2. We’ve relegated our work to a “hobby” status with no obligation to it. “I love photography but I only get out my camera once a month because I’m so busy.”

3. We think our work won’t pay any bills. “I could spend all day landscaping but that’s never going to make me a living.”

How do you feel about the idea of being responsible to do your work – the work that involves your gifts, talents, interests and passion? I’m not trying to add another thing to your “to do” list, but I do want to encourage you to continue re-evaluating how you think about work. Consider this quote from John Ruskin,

“The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.” Doing meaningful work develops our character and turns us into the kind of people we want to be. This is what calling does. When we follow our calling and do the work involved, we experience joy and satisfaction and we are changed because of it.

What do you like to do and do well? Are you doing those things? If you’re not, why aren’t you? What excuses are you using to keep yourself from doing your real work and following your calling?

2 thoughts on “Labor Day & The Meaning of Work

  1. This is a great exploration and treatment of our work versus our jobs, thanks for writing! I think it’s so true that escaping our work is not what we really want. I can’t imagine anything worse, in fact, than feeling like a drifter without any real drive to succeed or working toward a goal or cause. There’s deep satisfaction in a job well done, and I believe we are created this way since work existed in Eden before sin. Sin complicated our labor, but did not degrade it completely.

    I think about this often when I look ahead at making a family, and I wonder how I will deal with the transition from full-time career to probably part-time work and full-time motherhood. While I look forward to having kids, part of me mourns the fact that my professional life will have to be compromised and that I will lose what I love about my work. I realize this is a tension many women feel acutely. I’d love to read a post from you about this!

    • Thanks for the comment Stephanie! In one book I read called The 9 to 5 Window, the author writes that Jesus came to save that which was lost – his interpretation was that this includes the workplace and he notes that an extraordinary amount of his parables take place in workplace contexts. I thought that was a really interesting point – that the concept of work itself, like man, was created good, cursed in the fall and now redeemed through Christ.

      I definitely think about how my work will be changed when we have a family. Not sure I’m qualified to write a full post on this since I am not yet a mom myself 🙂 but I think that it probably has to do with the process of being open to understanding how our work/callings will play out in different ways than what we once thought normal and that these other methods/avenues will also be valid. I think too that motherhood is it’s own calling so a shift in gears may happen for 10, 12, 18 years and then we may return to our individual work. My mom pursued a life-time dream of being a librarian once all of us were in school. It was a great witness to me that you still have lots of time in “the rest of your life” to do and become the things you wanted to do before you had kids. As a Millennial, I know I struggle with wanting to succeed at all my goals RIGHT NOW. Waiting for ten years seems like such a waste but might well be worth it, nothing lost and maybe much gained from the wait.

      Personally, I think because the work I love doing is already part-time due to having a different full-time job, I think the transition to be a mom will be like taking a new full-time job and my writing will remain part-time. I think it would definitely be harder when you love your full-time work and you want kids.

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