According to Gettysburg College, people spend an average of 90,000 hours at work during their lifetimes. I am about halfway through my career. If I’m average, I’ve clocked about 45,000 work hours. At this midpoint, I am taking an inventory and asking myself if I’ve used the time wisely.
Harvard Business Review comfortingly assures me that a “mid-career crises can happen to anyone.” Mine has me thinking, what really is good work? There are a lot of businesses doing different kinds of work, employing many different people in different roles. There’s a lot of movement and activity in the corporate world, but when I think about how organizations actually add value to society, I come up with only a few basic categories.
Heal and Protect
Healing is good work. And there is a lot of it to do. We need healing of the body. Healing of the mind. Healing of the spirit. Healing for families. Healing for communities. Healing for the environment.
Similarly, I think we can all agree that it is good to protect and defend the vulnerable. Restore what’s broken; correct injustices; provide care, encouragement, and compassion…these are good ways to spend a day.
Obviously, there are dedicated professional roles for this type of work: healthcare professionals, caregivers, ministers, environmentalists, social workers, advocates, and civil servants. Thank you, to those who choose these professions!
To the professionals in other fields: shouldn’t all of us be concerned with the work of healing and protecting? Can we at least agree that we shouldn’t conflict with it? If we look around though, we see business decisions being made every day — directly or indirectly — that marginalize, exploit, injure, and abuse. We justify it by saying they are “leveraging opportunities.” We say, “it’s just business” while we trample and destroy.
Businesses, let’s do better. Let’s adopt the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.” Let’s never be so busy ‘winning’ that we are willing to turn a blind eye to injuries we inflict on people or the planet.
Teach and Learn
E.F. Schumacher wrote, “More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.”
As a mother, one of the great joys of my life is watching my daughter learn. Like most kids, she is eternally curious. She questions everything.
I am reminded of the “noseblind” commercials from Febreeze. My blessed daughter reminds me daily of things that I have gone blind to because I’ve accepted that’s just the way they are. Or maybe, alarmingly, I have insulated myself enough that I am numb to them. “Why is that man sleeping under the bridge? Why can’t we bring him home with us? Couldn’t he sleep on the couch? Why can’t she marry her girlfriend? How can she have a baby when she’s in high school? Why can’t she go back home with her parents? Why do we have to wear clothes? Why can’t I have a pet wolf?”
“An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.” – Maria Montessori
A great way to spend a career would be to seek out truths and help others understand more deeply. Coaches, scientists, researchers, preachers, gurus, and teachers, of course all do this as a part of their daily grind.
How should the rest of us think about teaching and learning? Business leaders are fond of saying they love to learn. Don’t we love to “push the envelope”? We’re always innovating. We go to school until we’ve reached middle age and have 27 initials after our names. Are we becoming more wise in the process?
Most of my life, I’ve thought of learning as a necessary step to prepare for a job. I’ve only just started to prioritize learning, not just to acquire knowledge, but to enrich the soul.
One great joy of being human is that there is always something more to learn. A bit of biblical text that is frequently overlooked and underappreciated says, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” 1 Cor 8:2
Einstein agreed: “Wisdom is not a product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
Cultivate and Create
In the beginning “the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Genesis 1:15. We were made to create and cultivate.
Humans are endowed with the incredible ability to conceive ideas and to make them so with our hands and our minds. The creative work of a human is a miraculous gift.
Professionally, these are the manufacturers, artists, musicians, farmers, craftspeople, culinarians, developers, inventors. Many makers use their gifts to make good things. They respect their materials, and cultivate or shape them into things that can nourish the body and soul, assist or enrich life.
Let’s not let greed kill value. Too often, we misuse our skills by cutting corners and reducing quality so that we can increase production and consumption. Anyone who’s bought a washing machine in the last ten years knows this to be true. A 30-year old washing machine is still going strong. Washing machines today apparently have an innovative self-destruct feature that deploys 13 days after the warranty period ends.
When we make things that are disposable, we consume but are left empty. When we make good things well, we satisfy the soul.
Support and Sustain
The work of supporting and sustaining can be good and important work. Businesses in a support role help get things/people/ideas to and fro. They facilitate. They communicate. They provide tools, resources, and infrastructure. They empower the workers and the process. They invest and provide funding.
I have spent most of my career in marketing. In my mind, this fits generally into the “support/sustain” bucket. The work of a marketer is to create awareness and communicate value to hep businesses earn customers. I can choose to put my efforts into organizations that prioritize healing, wisdom or creativity. If I’m doing my job well, I can create messages that promote healing instead of injury. I can help educate instead of manipulate. Maybe I could even do something creative. Not a bad way to spend a day, I suppose.
Choose How You Invest
Let’s say that my employer takes that revenue and uses it to work toward healing, wisdom or creativity. The business provides good and fair-paying jobs so that others can join this healing and restoring work.
Now, what if my employer does not do these things? What if employees are treated unfairly? What if injustices in the supply chain are tolerated? What if half-truths are told in order to manipulate others?
I have made a choice to invest in my employer. In the first case, I am a good steward of my resources. In the second case, I am not.
The conclusion I come to is that if we value revenue more than people, we impoverish not only our society, but our own souls as well. If we value people and put our efforts toward healing, wisdom and creativity, we enrich our society and we flourish in the ways that matter.