It’s easy to grasp the importance of work in terms of paying the bills. A lot has been written about the need for challenge that many meet with their work, too. And the social value of going to work has been thoroughly documented. But there is something even more basic about it. It’s almost as important as food…water….shelter.
I’ve been trying to get a handle this elusive aspect of work for more than a decade. I think I finally found it in The Second Mountain by David Brooks. Brooks has taken a lot of heat for that book. For starters, he has the audacity to suggest that there is more to a good life than “things” and “being the very best You.” But he has also knit the pieces of a life together like a wise uncle, and what he has to say about work is spot on.
He quoted a conversation William Least Heat-Moon described having with an old man who was walking his dog on some American backroad: “A man’s never out of work if he’s worth a damn….It’s just sometimes he doesn’t get paid….that’s got nothing to do with working. A man’s work is doing what he’s supposed to do, and that’s why he needs a catastrophe now and again to show him a bad turn isn’t the end, because a bad stroke never stops a good man’s work.”
In current society, we look at those “bad turns” as a character flaw. And we are convinced that not having to work is the ultimate brass ring–just short of winning the Powerball lottery in solving all life’s problems.
We are so off the mark.
Work gives us a way to know our own value and to contribute to the community so we feel we belong. But instead of a moderate dose on an ongoing basis, we pile it so high we can’t do it all for years and then try to not do any once we can “retire.” Why?!
Brooks goes on to say “A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you.”
He carries the concept across a lifetime using advice first offered by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Your work should have length–something you get better at over a lifetime. It should have breadth–it should touch many other people. And it should have height–it should put you in service to some ideal and satisfy the soul’s yearning for righteousness.”
All that makes good sense as you work through your career years and build a list of “professional achievements.” But the pith of this idea is just as relevant after you give up paid work. We still need to “fulfill the responsibility that life has placed before you.” We need to work.
Unless you look beyond the obvious, work is hard to find at this stage of the game though. Plus options are distorted by prior experience, particularly if you did something “important” during your career years. The expectation is that you can pick up where you left off in terms of authority and impact. It just doesn’t work that way.
But work abounds for every single one of us if we stop pretending it has to be grandiose and custom tailored to what we already have done and know how to do. To do work at this stage of life well, we need to notice what needs to be fixed and get on with it. For a while, this might be all the things around the house that didn’t get attention while you were in career mode. But eventually, you start to see things beyond home sweet home. Maybe a kid in the neighborhood needs someone to talk to on a regular basis. Maybe a stretch of road you travel often is littered and needs some TLC. Maybe you notice an article about a local food bank needing someone to transport food donated by grocery stores.
Ideally, what you do as work both deepens what you already know and lets you learn more. Maybe you’re already really good at logistics but know nothing about food distribution. Maybe you’ve been in the grocery business your whole life but now have the chance to learn how to work as part of an effective volunteer team. (I once helped a city of 33,000 create a public art plan. When I started I knew zero about public art, but I was highly effective at building teams who could create solid plans. And we did.)
The specifics aren’t as important as the commitment to keep working in some way. We need work.