Sep 29th, 2009 by Christopher J. Coulson
The following quotation – from the innovative, courageous and dynamic dancer and choreographer Martha Graham – exemplifies the essence and context of living dynamically:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.
“It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”
[Quoted by biographer Agnes de Mille in “Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham”]
The challenges of awareness
It is not easy to build a dynamically aware life. The different requirements often seem to clash, leaving us saying of the quotation above: “It’s all very well for Martha Graham to keep her channel open! She didn’t have to take care of a sick mother, work two jobs to pay her mortgage or constantly watch the back yard to stop the neighbor’s dog from killing her cat!”
The point is a good one: how can we ease our hurt at not living a more fulfilled existence when just surviving is such a challenge? The answer is in this sentence:
“You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.”
The following thoughts offer some ideas on how this can be done.
Life is a process, not an outcome
We start post-natal life on the run, merely continuing a process of development that started nine months earlier. We end mundane life if not on the run, then at least still moving forward. We go on breathing right up until we stop. In other words, life is an ongoing process, not an outcome.
For a process to have significance, it must have an intent. Once it has an intent, it doesn’t matter how slow or elaborate the process is, it is going somewhere.
To ease your hurt, therefore, and to feel that you are going somewhere – ‘keeping that channel open’ – it is useful to have a stated intent. This does not have to be a precise statement of material goals, and perhaps – if you are truly to ‘be open and aware to the urges that motivate you’ – ought not to be.
The following affirmation, repeated daily, will keep your intention to listen to your inner self in the forefront of your unconscious mind’s priorities:
“I direct all my strengths toward living a life which is true to myself.”
That statement sets the overall strategy. Then all you have to do is find tactical ways to ease your inevitable anger, frustration, hurt and other negative reactions to your daily work.
A questioning look at ‘work’
I saw a survey quoted recently which suggested that 94 percent of people are unhappy at work.
At first sight, this statistic seems shocking, but it’s also not really accurate. The term ‘work’ is too general and the common assumption that work is a coerced activity – “I have to go to work” – is bound to leave most of us complaining of it.
A truer response might be: “I enjoy the drive to the workplace, and it’s always a pleasure to see Jason, but the two days a week I have to spend administering the payroll drive me up the wall and leave me feeling I’m wasting my life.”
The following assumptions about work are designed to help you feel better about what you do. They will also give you ways of reassessing your work satisfaction in terms of your overall work output, rather than just from those two days you spend on the payroll . . .
You never stop working
In a mechanical sense, you – the physiological organism we call ‘you’ – will never stop working from the moment of conception to the moment of death.
Your career – the one called ‘life’ – starts as an in-utero bio-engineer, processing nutrients to create healthy flesh and bone. It continues after birth while you take on additional tasks as the Surgeon General , organizing the fight against infection.
Next, you’re walking, talking, lifting, balancing. You’re processing information, even when asleep, all the while keeping your heart and lungs going and monitoring all the complex functions of your body mind system. You never stop, 24/7. You are one workaholic!
Our life’s work evolves
In our first fifteen to twenty years, the majority of our work is of a developmental nature. We’re building body, intellect, knowledge and skills.
As time goes on our work becomes increasingly a maintenance function: in addition to sleeping, eating and grooming, we spend hours on work-for-hire that indirectly acts as our source of nutrients and shelter.
For some people, developmental work of all kinds seems to cease as soon as they reach physical maturity. This is not the case, however, with gifted individuals. They seem more likely to neglect some aspects of routine maintenance.
Sadly, this works against a happy work-for-hire life, because this is largely a maintenance activity.
Work-for-hire is largely a maintenance activity
I’ve adopted the term ‘work-for-hire’ to cover that activity we think of as our job or career.
It doesn’t mean that the reward is entirely financial, though it is almost certainly predominantly so. Very few people would maintain their work-for-hire situation in exactly the same way if they weren’t dependent on it for an income.
Using this term makes it clear that work-for-hire is not a top-level activity in itself, but a sub-category of the overall work we have defined as maintenance. We do it to help keep food in our bellies and a roof over our heads.
No wonder most people don’t think it’s much fun. As a source of pleasure it’s right up there alongside other maintenance functions like cleaning one’s teeth and doing the washing up.
Once upon a time, when the world was more primitive, humans could meet their basic needs in four hours’ outdoor work each day. That left them plenty of time to think, tell stories, paint on the walls of their caves and so on.
Today, work-for-hire has expanded to fill at least twice that number of hours because we’re no longer just meeting our own needs but also those of shareholders, governments, and other forms of society at large.
The problem is, this doesn’t leave us the same time for essential restorative processes such as artistic creativity and manifesting our unique selves in social groups. The need for these processes remains, however, and drives us to seek rewards from our work which go beyond the purely financial. And that ‘s where the painful inner conflict starts . . .
Work-for-hire isn’t a matter of choice
Many of us have a near-desperate need to manifest our true selves in the workplace but find ourselves frustrated by the harsh realities of work-for-hire. We then tend to castigate ourselves for not having a more meaningful job. This might display powerful motivation, but it is not kind to ourselves.
A swift blast of reality helps us ease up on the self-punishment that often accompanies the need to do an apparently ‘meaningless’ job. The truth is, most of us don’t have a choice. Just as we typically don’t have the attributes needed to become billionaires, or launch major charities, so we are unable to create or obtain meaningful work at will, even when we want to.
It is oddly reassuring to recognize that we are constrained by forces beyond our control. The frustrations engendered by this reality are less damaging then the sharp, debilitating sense that we ’should’ be able to do something else. Even in a fluid society such as exists in the USA there are many factors which govern our choice of work-for-hire. They include:
- Personal aptitudes
- Family preferences
- Sociopolitical environment
- Local opportunities for education and work
- Minority issues: sexuality, age, gender, ethnicity, physical capabilities
- Language issues
- Economic condition
- Personality type
- Financial situation
- . . . . . . . (Add your own)
None of the above are matters of choice at the age when we are forced into deciding what our work-for-hire is to be. Nor are they later on, because once we have started making a living we still tend to be governed by the prevailing set of circumstances.
It doesn’t always look that way, though, which is why we hear so many statements like: “If it hadn’t been for the wife and kids, I’d have gone on to medical school/law school/business school . . . “.
It may be true, but it’s unlikely. More probably, if it hadn’t been for this wife and these kids there would have been another wife and other kids. We simply do not have that kind of control over the determinants of our lives.
Swap ‘Work-for-hire’ for ‘Life’s work’
The relative lack of freedom to choose can actually be quite liberating. It means that we can free ourselves from having to find the perfect job – lots of money, liberal working conditions, loads of autonomy, worthwhile product or service, beautiful location – and concentrate on designing and building the perfect life.
Suddenly, the reality that every moment of life is a moment at work turns work into a playground of opportunity. Then, ‘work-for-hire’ becomes just one activity in your ‘Life’s work’ and the question: “Do you enjoy your work?” now means: “Do you enjoy your life?”
Instead of feeling constrained by the limited capacity of one employer to meet all our needs, we can construct our own life-work. We can list the things that are valuable to us, we can apportion percentages of ‘need ‘ to them, and then we can work out what we need to do to achieve them.
For example, if we want to spend some time ‘doing good‘, we may find that an evening a week of condensed activity at a local community center is more useful and hassle-free than taking a job as a probation officer. And if we’re working-for-hire as a mailperson, we’ll have plenty of time to rest and freshen up before going to the center, thus being ready to deliver and gain maximum benefit from the encounter.
This is a suggestion of how a Life’s-work model might look,structured in terms of percentages of your time devoted to different activities:
Example Life’s-work Structure
- Development work: 15 percent (3.6 hours/day)
- Intellectual: 5 percent
- Emotional: 5 percent
- Physical: 5 percent
- Maintenance work: 85 percent (21.4 hours/day)
- Physical (sleeping, eating, grooming, exercising): 53 percent (12.5 hours/day)
- Work-for-hire: 32 percent (8.9 hours/day)
The percentages broadly reflect my own beliefs and constraints.
It actually makes more sense to spread this kind of calculation over a week, because most people are not at work-for-hire seven days a week. Nor will they spend an hour and a half at exercise every day. This means it is usually possible to ‘trade’ hours between activities on different days.
However, it does reveal that living a healthy life in which continuing development is matched by a healthy maintenance schedule is difficult to manage in the Western world. Lengthy commutes and fifty hour working weeks are real threats to the good life. The compressed schedule they cause leads us into trying to combine developmental time with maintenance time, to make more effective use of our time.
Even without being able to establish too much overlap it is possible to schedule a full and enriching Life’s-work which includes sufficient work-for-hire to meet financial needs. Unfortunately, meeting our financial needs is not all that work-for-hire is used for.
Freeing yourself from work-for-hire constraints
Work-for-hire carries an enormous and disproportionate amount of social significance. That’s why, if she’s in any way typical, your mother will say: “My daughter’s a doctor!” with much more pride than: “My daughter cleans lavatories!”
Now it may be that you’re cleaning lavatories because the pay and schedule exactly conform to your Life’s-work desire to run marathons, play classical piano and write screenplays based on historical events. Also, your mother may have overlooked the fact that lavatory cleaners live longer than doctors, have more freedom than doctors, and don’t have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in malpractice insurance.
Nevertheless, for mom as for most of society, the urine in a hospital ward is of greater social value than the same thing in the facilities at the local park. This kind of status-related societal pressure affects us and makes it hard to sustain our commitment to our Life’s-work.
In order to protect yourself against societal and family pressure to do work-for-hire that is antithetical to your Life’s-work, here are some reinforcing statements:
- – You are not your job description. You are a human being, with a unique combination of aptitudes and motivations. The use of terms such as lawyer, professor, personal assistant, computer programmer, writer, queen, tell us nothing about you whatsoever and would not help us pick you out in the crowd. (Except, perhaps, on Coronation Day!).
- – Your security lies between your ears. I thank Peter L. Gill Ph.D. for bringing this one firmly to my attention. Too many people have trusted their employer with their life and the profit of their life’s work, only to have it stripped away by involuntary redundancy or some such mechanism. Had they been more self-protective, they would have maintained a level of skill and connection such that they could move quickly and relatively easily to a new job if necessary. View yourself as a self-employed skilled artisan, even if you are in full-time employment, and you will be better protected against all manner of misfortune than if you depend on someone else to watch out for you. ‘They‘, after all, only have interests in common with you to a limited extent.
- – Don’t rely on the workplace for significant relationships. The strings that tie us to a workplace or even a line of work are many and subtle. None are more so than our innate need for community, external validation and even – small ‘l’ – love. Once we depend on our workmates to provide these essential emotional nutrients, it becomes much more difficult for us to change our circumstances, even in our own best interest.The solution to this is not necessarily to become a solitary lighthouse keeper, but to build community and social interaction outside your work-for-hire into your Life’s-work structure. It will then stay with you no matter how you may be forced to change.
- – Pursue the healthy rewards of work-for-hire. Even if you don’t place great personal value on the particular tasks you fulfill as a worker-for-hire, there are real healthy benefits to be obtained from the workplace. In addition to the virtual resource called ‘money’, it can also provide executive opportunity, intellectual stimulation, risk-taking satisfaction, confirmation of skills, affirmation of integrity and opportunities to develop in all these areas.
- – Your happiness is a right and a benefit to everyone. ‘Happiness’ is a rather vague term, but I use it here to imply an overall contentment with the direction of your life’s effort that is sufficient to keep you reasonably motivated.
People who are unhappy at work – no matter how their employment is rewarded with some form of familial or social approval – spread debilitating energy around them. I don’t know how one could measure it, but I’ll bet unhappy doctors’ patients recover more slowly.
You can see how unhappy street sweepers leave the same hard-to-sweep bits of garbage behind, day after day, because they’re not motivated to stop the truck and pick them up.
In this way, unmotivated attitudes make life worse for all of us. Unmotivated workers don’t call you back; make mistakes that beget more mistakes; and may lie, cheat and even steal to compensate themselves for their misery.
The opposite is also true. Happy workers enhance life for everyone. So please don’t be an unhappy clerk in the city taxation office. Take a ten percent drop in pay and be a happy swimming teacher at the local pool. That way you could save someone’s life AND it might lift your depression and give you the time and stimulus needed to write the children’s book which is going to knock that ridiculous Harry Potter right off the shelves.
. . . and in conclusion
The real conclusion, the definitive, end-of-process point of it all, is the one marked by that gathering which will meet to celebrate your departing this life.
If you’re going to live to be 110, then not too many people there will remember what you did as work-for-hire ninety years earlier. I hope, however, they will remember that you kept at work-for-hire until the day you stopped all work. There is such honor in work-for-hire that to stop without good reason is to dishonor ourselves.
Nevertheless, the talk at your funeral will not be about your work-for-hire life, but about your Life’s-work life. Your mourners will represent and remember everything about you: your personality, your warmth and courage, and your range of activities, conventionally successful or not. Your work-for-hire activities, while significant, will be seen in the context of your larger existence.
Perhaps, for example, they will admire your persistence in writing twenty-seven books that never found publication, while pointing to the fact that your inspiration found its success in your brilliantly successful writer daughter.
Surely that’s what Martha Graham meant: that the intention and the organizing of our work – all our work – around our intention is the important thing. The benefits to the world of this are simply incalculable. cjc