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Do you do good work?

Wendell Berry has what you might call a “hyphenated vocation.”  He’s a farmer-activist-essayist-poet.  No one role adequately describes his work in the world.  Not surprisingly, Mr. Berry of Kentucky is not content with how the world describes work or workplaces these days. His reality is broader, deeper, and described with a poet’s precision and farmer’s practicality in his 1992 essay, Conservation is Good Work:

“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an ‘environment.’ None has ever called its feeling for its home place ‘biocentric’ or ‘anthropocentric.’ None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as ‘ecological,’ deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of ‘ecology’ and ‘ecosystems.’ But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.

And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is ‘work.’ We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another. The name of our proper connection to the earth is ‘good work,’ for good work involves much giving of honor. It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing. Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known. Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.

The name of our present society’s connection to the earth is ‘bad work’ – work that is only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, that enacts no affection and gives no honor. Every one of us is to some extent guilty of this bad work. This guilt does not mean that we must indulge in a lot of breast-beating and confession; it means only that there is much good work to be done by every one of us and that we must begin to do it.”

What do you think of Berry’s distinctions between good and bad work?  By his definition, do you do good work?  If not, how could you do it to make it better work?

How did you get hooked?

Night SkyThe Globe and Mail published an essay called “Missing the Mark” by Chris Smith on its Facts and Arguments page today.  Chris describes the experience of finding a box of unimpressive report cards in his parents’ basement.  They lead him to wonder how he ever made it through university and graduate school with a BSc and a MSc in astronomy and astrophysics.  He analyses the data and searches his memory to gather evidence to explain how such a shaky start could end so well:

“Around age 13, I became hooked on the night sky.  My parents bought me my first telescope, a wobbly department store item boasting ridiculous and unusable high magnifications.  I didn’t care.  I could see the Orion Nebula and lots of other neat stuff.

I began building my own telescopes, grinding and polishing mirrors, always moving on to a bigger one.  Maybe this focused and motivated me?  Or maybe it was my dad, the engineer, who always discussed with me how mechanical things worked?  Perhaps it was the influence of my mom, who talked about politics, world affairs and geography with me?

Maybe report cards aren’t as blunt these days.  I know those early warnings of struggling brought on many hours of remedial spelling and arithmetic with my parents.  Maybe there was no silver bullet or magic trigger, but just a combination that finally got me interested in what teachers were trying so hard to teach me.”

Has something comparable to the night sky hooked you?  At what age did you first feel a pull in its direction?  What was the combination of people and experiences that got you interested in a particular course of study or field?

How much work is too much?

“I am angry and I am sad that all around me good people must engage in the theatre of work above all to keep their jobs and ironically their families afloat,” wrote Ralph Benmergui a few days ago.  He’s troubled by how many of us give our all at work and have very little left over for anyone or anything else including ourselves.  Here’s his blog post entitled Your Money or Your Life.

With Cortney Pasternak, Ralph hosts a regular Friday night meal at their Toronto home for a random mix of acquaintances, friends, neighbours and relatives — a weekly sabbatical of sorts.  Their New Sabbath Project “opens the flood gates to dynamic, passionate, sometimes volatile conversations about life, love, religion, politics, community, society and more.”  Quoting Leonard Cohen, they explain that they’re building “a fence around the sacred” to protect and nurture it in their lives.  Tables like theirs help us take in a greater portion of reality, resist the temptation to give too over much of our lives to work, and refill our cups before they become dangerously empty.

How much is too much for you?  What causes you to overconsume work?  What helps you turn away from your ‘to do’ list and turn toward significant people, questions and activities beyond the fences of your work?

What makes you come alive?

Howard ThurmanA GigaOM post called The Values-Driven Startup by Dave Kashen caught our eye today.  Dave blogs about organizational culture and describes himself variously as an entrepreneur, startup advisor, investor and leadership coach.  He’s part of the world that has a reputation for putting profit before people but he’s asking questions that suggest he believes they’re not mutually exclusive.  Listen in:

“In the startup world, thousands of entrepreneurs focus their ingenuity on finding ways to make millions of dollars. They look for market inefficiencies and focus on questions like: “Will consumers pay for this?” without asking “Will this make people’s lives meaningfully better?” It’s not that we shouldn’t try to make money, it’s just that money should be merely one of many factors we strive for, and it’s played far too central a role for far too long.”

What is the focus of your entrepreneurial energy?  What are the factors that you strive for in your work? 

Dave cites the words of educator, theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman at the end of his post: “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Do you agree with Thurman’s assessment of what the world needs?

What do you do?

Shubha BalaShubha Bala is a Canadian living in New York City.  She wears the iron ring of Canada’s engineering profession and was one of the original architects of Engineers without Borders.  After three years on a traditional engineering path, she returned to school – to put an academic foundation under her original passion for economic and political development as well as the media. 

Shubha graduated from Columbia with her Masters in International Affairs at the height of the recession into unemployment.  In a recent blog post, she writes to her peers who have found themselves – after grad school — in the same place.  It’s the place where people ask daily “what do you do?” and your response carries the invisible weight of conflicted emotions.  Shubha concludes, however, that the work of unemployment comes with unexpected benefits including greater vocational clarity:

“Unemployed, I saw how difficult it can be for people, people worse off than I, to get what they need during the times they need it most. I have, and continue, to devote my education, my career, to trying to create institutions that allow people to live with freedom.  But during that time, I also felt how important individual support was: food banks, scholarships, mentoring.  I saw that no real change can happen without people first being able to live each day.”

Unemployment is hard work.  What makes it a lot harder or a little easier?  What have you learned from doing this work (or from observing others) that informs what you do each day? 

(By the way, Shubha is employed now.  Her new job draws on her education, work and other experiences to help people find their digital voice through the Media Development Loan Fund.)

How do you put regret to work?

International journalist Kathryn Schultz regrets getting a tattoo but that’s not all.  In her 2011 TED talk, Kathryn considers the possibility that our cultural aversion to regret does more harm than good.  Regret, she says, is the “best worst feeling … it serves as a rich source of information about ourselves: about what we value, what we want most in life, how we believe we should act, and who we hope to be.”

Noting that most of us harbour regrets about education and career more than any other, Kathryn suggests that they do not simply remind us that we did badly.  They remind us that we know we can do better.  Read her recent essay or listen:

What regrets have proved most useful in your work?  What has helped connect the negative and positive to send “a little current of life” back into you?

Who are you when you’re unemployed?

Sarah Banks is looking for work but she is not unemployed.  She’s writes a blog about urban issues called sill pillow.  She serves on a citizens’ advisory committee on waterfront access and protection for the City of Burlington, and has been recently lobbying the school board in her hometown of Peterborough to reverse its decision to close her old high school.  She’s the mother of two busy boys under the age of 5.  She describes the trajectory of her vocational path as “slow,” as you will read in this blog post, but that’s not the speed that her friends or colleagues associate with her.

Sarah’s story leads us to wonder: who are we when we’re unemployed?  When we’re not standing on the platform provided by an employer, how do we see the connection between our work and vocation?  How are we seen — or not seen — within our culture?

How are you using your public voice?

Allan GreggPolitical commentator and pollster Allan Gregg left CBC The National’s At Issue panel in May 2011, saying that he “want[ed] the latitude to get involved in issues and causes and express [his] views freely and unfettered of journalistic objectivity.”  In the 2011 Gordon Osbaldeston Lecture in November, that’s what he does.  Here’s how he ended it:

“In summary: Throw out the scripts. Talk to the people – really. Decide the three big issues and deal with them at length. End the ads. Stop sounding professionally pious. Speak from the top of your head and the bottom of your heart. And finally, tell us why your party is right, not why the others are wrong and evil.”

If you had the podium to speak your views freely and were unfettered by your job, what would you say?  As a citizen, what would you “go public” to change?  How does your work encourage or discourage participation in public life?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

John LennonThis quote attributed to the late John Lennon of Beatles fame has been making the rounds lately:

“When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

What do you remember wanting to be when you grew up?  What did your parents, teachers and other significant adults in your life want you to be?  What are you doing now?

Where do you stand?

Gates of HopeVictoria Safford wrote an article called The Gates of Hope for The Nation back in 2004.  These words stuck with us:

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything Is Gonna Be All Right.’ But a different, sometimes lonely place, of truth-telling about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but joy in the struggle.  And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we’re seeing, asking them what they see.”

Where do you stand today?  What do you see from that gate?  What is it keeping in and what is it keeping out?

Should you run for public office?

Terry FallisEarlier in the year, Canada Reads 2011 winner Terry Fallis and Pat Thompson hosted a conversation at Massey College about work and vocation: the work that makes a difference, the work that defines and inspires us, the work we share as citizens, and the work of our times.  It was inspired by his novel, The Best Laid Plans, which tells the story of an engineering professor Angus McLintock who wins an election that he wanted to lose.  A reluctant candidate accidentially becomes a Member of Parliament.

Terry kicked off the conversation with Massey Junior Fellows, Massey Journalism Fellows, and a few friends with his own vocational story which begins as an engineering student, takes him to Parliament Hill and then into the world of public relations before he finds himself on the dais accepting the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.  Here’s an exchange between two political veterans who are working on Angus’ campaign:

“If Angus does win, persuade him to serve.  [Angus’ late wife] Marin Lee wrote in her last book that she always regretted not running for public office and trying to change Canadian society from within our democratic institutions.  She spent her life on the outside.  She made a real difference, but I can’t help wondering what she might have achieved if she sat around the Cabinet table.  Maybe Angus doth protest too much.”

Have you thought about running for public office?  Can you imagine moving from the outside to the inside of politics — from protest to participation?  If not you, then who?

(By the way, we love this piece on how Terry’s engineering education “prepared [him] for life as a political advisor, public affairs/public relations professional, and a novelist.” Check it out.)

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Sheryl SandbergFacebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, gave the commencement address earlier this year to Barnard College students.  On the wall at Facebook HQ, there is a poster that asks:  “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  She said that it was an echo what the writer Anna Quindlen once said, which was that “she majored in unafraid” at Barnard.  Sandberg went on:

“Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold. I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try. You’re going to walk off this stage today and you’re going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. . . . Go home tonight and ask yourselves, What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it!”

What are you afraid of?  What would you do if you had the courage?

Should you have a coach?

The New YorkerNew Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande is also a surgeon.  In the October 13th, 2011 issue, he makes the case for professional coaching in his article “Personal Best“.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in ‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.”

We’re interested in hearing your experiences with having a coach or being a coach.  We’re also interested in your experiences with peer support, mentors and other collegial relationships.  How have you improved your performance or honed your craft?

What work needs to be reinvented?

Blogger and activist Courtney Martin caught our attention with her fabulous TED talk on “reinventing feminism.”  Her fresh take on intergenerational issues, set within her own vocational narrative, got us thinking about how old stories get re-written.  Listen:

What work do you think needs a makeover?  What reinventions have caught you eye?

What might happen if you set your work down?

Sorrento CentreEach year, people come to the Sorrento Centre on Shuswap Lake in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to renew spirit, mind and body.  They stand still — to listen to Bluegrass music, hone a craft, take in mountain vistas, learn from each other and more.  Recently, writers, artists, academics, clergy and other professionals have started taking sabbaticals there. 

Reading about Sorrento’s new sabbatical centre reminded us of Lynn Ungar’s poem Camas Lilies:

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas
opening into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you — what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down —
papers, plans, appointments, everything —
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming.”

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.

Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

“And you — what of your rushed and useful life”?  Can you imagine setting your work down to do something different or nothing at all — for an hour, a day, a week, a month or a year?  What’s stopping you?

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