“For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.” -James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t
A major part of our mission at Praxis is to help our participants find fulfilling work. Statements like “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” evince an attitude towards work that we wish to counteract. We agree with Mike Rowe’s observation that “We’ve waged war on work. We have collectively agreed, stupidly, that work is the enemy…I can say the willingness to get dirty has always defined us as an nation, and it’s a hallmark of hard work and a hallmark of fun, and dirt is not the enemy.” We do not believe that work is a curse or a necessary evil. We believe that work is a gift. We choose to see work as an opportunity. We honor work as a tool that we can use to reinvent ourselves and our world.
We see a society without work as a society without creativity, progress, and the opportunity for self-discovery. If there is any tragedy involved in working at all, it lies in the fact that many of us have never been taught how to develop innovative and inspiring approaches to work. Because we work by default, showing up to our jobs merely because that’s what we think we have to do in order to avoid becoming homeless, we’ve lost sight of the pleasure and power experienced by those who’ve learned to design their professional lifestyle with what Napolean Hill calls “definiteness of purpose.” People who possess this understanding of work are far from being dull because they’ve mastered the art of turning their work into play and their play into work.
In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin invites the reader to this broader more liberating understanding of work by making an all-important distinction between jobs and art:
The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed. Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can. The job might be difficult, it might require skill, but it’s a job. Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people. I call the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin. The job is not the work.
The reason we feel such resistance in relation to the topic of work, is because we’ve equated “work” with “jobs” and we’ve equated “jobs” with “doing what I’m told because I have to.” At the heart of the “work = job = do what I’m told” equation is an authoritarian philosophy that makes playing it safe, pleasing gatekeepers, avoiding risk, and blindly following tradition the locus of professional life. For Godin, however, true work begins when we dare to embark on a path that doesn’t have a preexisting map or instruction manual. True work, the kind of work that makes one come alive, can only be created by going beyond the scientific approach of looking for the right answers and adopting the artistic approach of making up one’s own answers. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to find fulfilling work at an existing job, but it’s a reminder that we’re bound to experience work as a soul-sucking enterprise unless we do whatever it is we do with a sense of artistry and autonomy.
In an interview with Todd Henry of the Accidental Creative podcast, Brian Koppelman On Practices, Courage, and Gatekeepers, Koppelman argues that the absence of a sense of artistry and autonomy in our approach to work is something that not only leads to less fulfillment, but that it significantly limits our career prospects as well:
One of the main things you have is your point of view. Your particular point of view is what fuels your work. If you’re just working on something because you have the skills to do it and it’s not triggering your point of view, the work can only rise to a certain level. So even as a career strategy, if the work only rises to a certain level, you’ll be thought of as a utility player, not as a superstar.
Being a superstar in your professional life, however, requires more than just warm-hearted inspirational appeals to “be more like an artist.” It demands that we do something that flies in the face of much of what traditional education has taught us: rigorously challenge the notion that authority figures, experts and gatekeepers have a better clue than the rest of us regarding what we ought to do with our lives.
The failure to have a healthy skepticism towards authority is the source of much futility in our world. Consider all the people who feel cheated, ripped off, and victimized not because they didn’t have the power to choose, but because they chose to transfer their power to authority figures who they blindly believed would function as their saviors. This is not to say that we shouldn’t feel sympathy for such people. Pity them we must. Help them we must. Better still, however, we must strike the problem at its root by challenging educational systems that encourage and reward such self-victimizing mentalities. People don’t need to be arbitrarily rebellious, but they do need to learn how to think critically about what authority is, why it exists, when it matters, when it doesn’t matter, what it’s limits are, and how to detect and defend themselves against its abuses.
In Guidelines for Rebelling Against Reality, Ash Ambirge, writes,
Stop doing everything by the book. It’s time to start drafting your own revised edition. Rules don’t always exist in the name of the greatest good; more often than not, they exist because someone wants to establish or maintain power. And that’s just not a good enough reason. Be inquisitive.
When we base our educational and career decisions on what others tell us to do or on what we think we have to do because of how things have always been, we become servants of the very traditions that were meant to serve us. Traditions are meant to honor creative people who established new trends by daring to be different. Traditions are tributes to the ingenuity of the human spirit. The moment we use tradition as an excuse for not being different, we betray and belittle their true value. One of the most self-stultifying ideas we can believe is the notion that things must be the way they are for a good reason. This belief keeps us from questioning routines, challenging conventions, and rethinking the rules.
In his interview with Todd Henry, Brian Koppleman shares the story of how Gene Simmons from Kiss discovered the band, Van Halen, early on in their music career. Excited about their potential, Simmons helped them produce high quality demos (demos including songs that would later perform well on their first three albums) and attempted to help them get signed with his manager. When the band met with his manager, he rejected them and said their music wasn’t commercial enough. Van Halen was devastated by the rejection and taken aback by the surprising criticisms of their music. Later on, Simmons’ manager admitted that their primary concern was making sure Simmons didn’t get distracted from his music obligations, given the success of Kiss, by devoting too much attention to trying to manage a new band. So they decided that they would be critical of Van Halen’s music no matter how it sounded.
The lesson Koppelman extracts from this story is a powerful one:
You’re going to hear the “no,” probably, in the way that’s least empowering to you because we’re all still, in some sort of way, that kid in the art class. So you’re going to hear the “no” as confirmation that you’re worthless when, in fact, it may have nothing to do with the work you’ve put in front of the buyer, or the agent, or the authority figure. That person may be under pressures and employing strategies that you have no way to know about.
Koppelman cautions listeners against being too quick to surrender their judgment to gatekeepers and experts:
If you have a really strong sense that your project is worth doing, and you know yourself…if a little secret voice that’s not insecurity, that’s reality says “this one’s not great,” listen to it. But if that voice doesn’t show up, keep working on it. [I’ve had] material that I knew was right that was passed on at various times, but then by continuing to focus on it and work on it, I ended up getting a “yes” and finding out those people were wrong and I was right to believe in it. I have a real skepticism about gatekeepers and supposed experts and their ability to judge the value of something.
Koppleman’s advice about trusting your own judgment over that of gatekeeprs and authority figures mirrors the sentiments of Herman Hesse:
Gaze into the fire, into the clouds, and as soon as the inner voices begin to speak… surrender to them. Don’t ask first whether it’s permitted, or would please your teachers or father or some god. You will ruin yourself if you do that.
This understanding and recognition of one’s own inner compass combined with the unapologetic determination to adhere to the truth that speaks from within is precisely what it takes to build a career with a sense of artistry and autonomy.
Robert Greene wrote, “Understand this: The world wants to assign you a role in life. And once you accept that role you are doomed.”
If you don’t think critically and creatively about who you want to be and how you want to live based on your own preferences, principles, and priorities, you’ll end up being condemned to a life where you’re existing for the sole or primary function of satisfying other people’s expectations. Thinking about others is good. Taking other people’s needs into account is good. Serving others is good. But a good life ultimately begins with self-authenticity. Your ability to create fulfilling work and contribute lasting value to others is significantly diminished if you have no concept of, or loyalty to, your own internal compass. Until you are capable of thinking independently of the world, you are incapable of improving the world and finding satisfaction in it.
Sean Stephenson, a therapist and motivational speaker who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, is three feet tall, has fragile bones, and uses a wheelchair. In a TED talk called The Prison of Your Mind, Stephenson talks about the importance of fighting for your right to define who you want to be in this world independently of well-meaning authority figures:
Lesson # 1: Never believe a prediction that doesn’t empower you. When I was born, the doctors told my parents that I would be dead within the first twenty four hours of my life. Thirty five years later, all those doctors are dead and I am the only doctor that remains. Never believe a prediction that doesn’t empower you. How many predictions have been thrown at you your whole life? If you believe predictions that do not empower you, you will wither away and day; either physically die or your spirit will die as you just walk around the world like a carcass that is just following the masses. You will be given a lot of titles in your life. You will be told so many different things. You must only listen to that which empowers you.
Gatekeepers, authority figures, and experts, however well meaning they may be, do not have the power to predict your future or define who you are. More importantly, they don’t have the power to jump inside of your body and live out the consequences of your life should you ever find yourself stuck in an empty, unfulfilling, or monotonous life.
If you never get around to writing your poems, telling your stories, making your music, or following your dreams, life will go on. With or without your perspective on the record, life will go on. With or without your input, life will go on. With or without the realization of your ideals, life will go on. Society holds no particular bias toward your creative impulses. The sun will rise and set whether you ever pursue what really matters to you or not. Should your own unique account of the world go unexpressed, the historians will not gather together and weep as if it were a tragedy. They will simply provide an outsider’s description of what you have actually done and the books will be closed. Only you can know the pain of your unmade art. Only you can feel the emptiness of your unlived life. Only you can can see the haunting vision of what might have been. The great tragedy of the conventional view of work is not only that you may find yourself doing things that don’t meet your need for a sense of meaning and purpose, but that society will likely regard such a state of affairs as normal or as a necessary evil. We live in a society that has the audacity to praise people for suppressing their creative impulses in the name of following superficial understandings of what it means to be responsible.
We do not succumb to the false dichotomy of “be responsible or do what you love.” We do not see begrudging work as a necessary evil. We see doing what you love, or at the very least, finding the love in what you do, as a necessary good. One of our world’s greatest needs is for people who see their work as art and who see their art as worth creating whether that decision makes the gatekeepers, experts, and authority figures, comfortable or not.
As Steve Jobs said in his infamous commencement speech at Stanford University,
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And 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. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”
When people are reminded of such timeless wisdom, they tend to commit what Zak Slayback calls “The Steve Jobs Fallacy.” This fallacy is based on the kind of thinking that sees creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial people as special geniuses who are lucky enough to be able to afford taking the risks necessary to do fulfilling work. For the rest of us — those who are not destined to be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Richard Branson — we can’t afford to listen to advice like this. In contrast to this self-disparaging view of human potential, we believe that creating is not merely the special privilege of a select few. To be human is to create and the more we do it, the better we get at it, the better our lives get, and the more humane our world becomes.
As I wrote in Are You Using Your Weekends to Escape Your Weekdays?
If we devoted more of our free time to discovering and nurturing the things that make us feel truly alive, bliss would become a phenomenon we experience on a Monday morning or Tuesday afternoon just as easily as we experience it on a Friday night or Saturday morning. We don’t have to live in misery for five days a week while we look at our free time as nothing more than a chance to drown away our sorrows and rest up for the next week-long train ride through hell.
Work that makes you truly come alive is experienced as an investment of your energy rather than an expenditure. The adage, “when you find what you love, you’ll never work another day in your life,” isn’t a false promise of a life free from discipline and demand, but rather an invitation to a kind of work that gives back. For those who manage to carve out their life’s calling, work is experienced as a reciprocating force. The energy one pours into it is reflected back to the worker in various forms. Rather than condemning ourselves to the soul-sucking monotony of the so-called “daily grind” or “rat race, we can create a lifestyle in which work is found to be a deep source of nourishment. However, this isn’t easy. In order to experience work in this way, we must work harder at building a healthy relationship to our work than we do at just showing up to our jobs. At Praxis, we see that kind of work as a work that’s more than worth doing.