MAKING OF OURSELVES
I often hear people say, "I have to find myself." What they really mean is, I have to make myself." Life is an endlessly creative experience, and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.
That is why the work you choose for yourself is so crucial to your sense of value and well-being. No matter how much you might believe that your work is nothing more than what you do to make money, your work makes you who you are, because it is where you put your time.
I remember several years ago when I was intent upon building my reputation as a photographer. I took a job waiting on tables, because, as I told people, "I want some job that I will never confuse with a profession." Yet within six months, I was talking like a waitress, thinking like a waitress, looking at the world through the eyes of a waitress. My anecdotes came from my job, as did my observations about life. I became embroiled in the personalities and politics of the company for which I worked and developed the habits and rhythms of life that went along with my all-night shift. On the days when I did not wait and instead worked on my master degree and photography, I still carried the consciousness of a waitress with me.
Whether I liked it or not, I was a waitress during college days.
This happens to anyone who takes a job. Even if you hate a job and keep a distance from it, you are defining yourself in opposition to the job by resisting it. By giving the job your time, you are giving it your consciousness. And it will, in turn, fill your life with the reality that it presents.
Many people ignore this fact. They choose a profession because it seems exciting, or because they can make a lot of money, or because it has some prestige in their minds. They commit themselves to their work, but slowly find themselves feeling restless and empty. The time they have to spend on their work begins to hang heavy on their hands, and soon they feel constricted and trapped.
They join the legions of humanity who Thoreau said lead lives of quiet desperation - unfulfilled, unhappy and uncertain of what to do. Yet the lure of financial security and the fear of the unknown keep them from acting to change their lives, and their best energies are spend creating justifications for staying where they are or inventing activities outside of work that they hope will provide them with a sense of meaning. But these efforts can never be totally successful.
We are what we do, and the more we do it, the more we become it. The only way out is to change our lives or to change our expectations for our lives. And if we lower our expectations we are killing our dreams, and a man without dreams is already half dead. So you need to choose your work carefully. You need to look beyond the external measurements of prestige and money and glamour to see what you will be doing on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis to see if that is how you want to spend your time. Time may not be the way you measure the value of your work, but it is the way you experience it.
What you need to do is think of work as "vocation."
This word may seem stilted in its tone, but it has a wisdom within it. It comes from the Latin word for calling, which comes from the word for voice. In those meanings it touches on what work really should be. It should be something that calls to you as something you want to do, and it should be something that gives voice to who you are and what you want to say to the world. So a true vocation calls to you to perform it and it allows your life to speak. This is very different from work, which is just an exchange of labor for money. It is even very different from a profession, which is an area of expertise you have been sanctioned to represent.
A vocation is something you feel compelled to do, or at least something that fills you with a sense of meaning. It is something you choose because of what it allows you to say with your life, not because of the money it pays you or the way it will make you appear to others. It is, above all else, something that lets you love.
When you find a vocation, embrace it with your whole heart. Few people are so lucky. They begin their search for work with an eye to the wrong prize, so when they win, they win something of little value. They gain money or prestige, but they lose their hearts. Eventually their days become nothing more than a commodity that they exchange for money, and they begin to shrivel and die.
I often think of a man I met on the streets of Cleveland. He was an assembly-line worker in an automobile plant. He said his work was so hateful that he could barely stand to get up in the morning. I asked him why he didn't quit. "I've only got thirteen more years to go to retirement," he answered. And he meant it. His life had so gotten away from him that he was willing to accept a thirteen-year death sentence for his spirit rather than give up the security it earned.
When I spoke with him I was about twenty. I was young and free; I didn't understand what he was saying at all. It seemed incomprehensible to me that a man could have become so defeated by life that he was willing to let his life die as he held it in his hands.
Now I understand too well. Lured by what had seemed like big money at the time, he had chosen a job that didn't offer him any inner satisfaction. He lived a good life, rolling from paycheck to paycheck and getting the car or the boat that he had always dreamed of having. Year by year he advanced, because businesses reward perseverance.
His salary went up, his options for other types of employment went down, and he settled into a routine that financed his life. He married, bought a house, had children, and grew into middle age. The job that had seemed like freedom when he was young became a deadening routine. Year by year he began to hate it. It choked him, but he had no means of escape. He needed its money to live; no job he might change to would pay him as much as he was currently making. His fear for the health and security of his family kept him from breaking free into a world where all things were possible but no things were paid for, and so he gave in.
"I've only got thirteen more years to retirement" was a prisoner's way of counting the days until the job would release him and pay him for his freedom.
Most people's lives are a variation on that theme. So few take the time when they are young to explore the real meaning of the jobs they are taking or to consider the real implications of the occupations to which they are committing their lives. Some have no choice. Without money, without training, with the pressures of life building around them, they choose the best alternative that offers itself. But many others just fail to see clearly.
They chase false dreams, and fall into traps they could have avoided if they had listened more closely to their hearts when choosing their life's work.
But even if you listen closely to your heart, making the right choice is difficult. You can't really know what it is you want to do by thinking about it. You have to do it and see how it fits. You have to let the work take you over until it becomes you and you become it; then you have to decide whether to embrace it or abandon it. And few have the courage to abandon something that defines their security and prosperity.
Yet there is no reason why a person cannot have two, three or more careers in the course of a life. There is no reason why a person can't abandon a job that does not fit anymore and strike out into the unknown for something that lies closer to the heart. There is risk, there is loss, and there likely will be privation. If you have allowed your job to define your sense of self-worth, there may even be a crisis of identity. But no amount of security is worth the suffering of a life lived chained to a routine that has killed all your dreams.
You must never forget that to those who hire you, your labor is a commodity. You are paid because you provide a service that is useful. If the service you provide is no longer needed, it doesn't matter how honorable, how diligent, how committed you have been in your work. If what you can contribute is no longer needed, you are no longer needed and you will be let go. Even if you've committed your life to the job, you are, at heart, a part of the commercial exchange, and you are valuable only so long as you are a significant contributor to that commercial exchange. It is nothing personal; it's just the nature of economic transaction.
So it does not pay to tie yourself to a job that kills your love of life. The job will abandon you if it has to. You can abandon the job if you have to. The man I met in Cleveland may have been laid off the year before he was due to retire. He may have lost his pension because of a legal detail he never knew existed. He may have died on the assembly line while waiting to put a bolt in a fender.
I once had a professor who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics where the work was secure and the money was predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glissando and then, abruptly, stopped. "Do what is in your heart," he said. "I really only wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been."
Don't let this be your epitaph at the end of your working life. Find out what it is that burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and you will be at peace. Take a job instead of finding a vocation, and eventually you will find yourself saying, "I've only got thirteen more years to retirement," or "I spend every day wondering how good I might have been."
We all owe ourselves better than that.