I feel like the title of this post appears to be one of those painfully obvious ideas. Of course work matters. We need our jobs to fund our lives, provide security, health insurance (for most of us) and to also give us a sense of purpose. Do we really need someone to tell us that work matters? I did. For far too long I had a vague sense that my job was important but only in the last year have I realized why.
Last spring I wrote a series of posts about a major career setback that I was going through. I re-read through the posts in preparation for the Work Symposium and they took me back to some dark days. Ironically, they don’t capture anything close to the pain I was going through at the time but they are an interesting snapshot of a time in my life that I hope never repeats itself.
In February of last year I was nearly fired from my job. What I was too embarrassed to share at the time was that I had become a terrible employee. My work product was terrible. I was cocky about my value to the company and became an entitled jerk. I demanded a raise I didn’t deserve and responsibilities I couldn’t handle. When those rewards didn’t come I became bitter and started spending large chunks of my day socializing around the proverbial water cooler or worse. I spent hours writing blog posts on company time. I was stealing my pay from the company and to be honest, my dismissal would have been completely justified.
I was lucky though. I was spared the ax and instead they sent me into exile. I was sent back to the job I had left several years prior. I was hurt, resentful and went into a depression that took months to pull myself out of. Re-reading the posts from last year, I can see I was slowly starting to develop the idea of why my career setback was affecting me so deeply but I still had a lot of learning to do on the subject. I didn’t understand yet why my work really mattered.
My father was a welder by trade and if his coworkers that I met at his funeral are to be believed, he was a damn good one. Even though he didn’t want us to follow him into the construction industry I always knew he took pride in his work. I could see it when I watched him working on a project in his shop. For that reason there is a Toni Morrison quote that I have always loved (and have shared on this site before).
“I remember a very important lesson that my father gave me when I was 12 or 13. He said, ‘You know, today I welded a perfect seam and I signed my name to it.’ And I said, ‘But, Daddy, no one’s going to see it!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I know it’s there.”
I was helped immensely in my career setback by reading a couple of books by Jon Acuff called Quitter and Start. Both books are primarily dedicated to figuring out what your dream job looks like and making slow and careful steps towards that goal. This is valuable and why I have been focusing on my fledgling writing career in my spare time. What affected me even more deeply though was Acuff’s advice to ‘fall in like with a job we don’t love’. It was a concept I hadn’t ever come across but one that was important in my career recovery.
Work matters because we are creatures who need purpose. Humans in general but men specifically seem to have a great deal of their personal identity tied up in our work, even if it is not our dream job. When I was working as an archaeologist my heart filled with pride every time I told someone what I did for a living and they responded with genuine admiration. When I left that job for a career in Corporate America that pride went away. It was a financial decision but not a happy one. I would tell people what I did for a living and then immediately tell them I was planning on doing something else eventually. It wasn’t exactly a lie but it was a dishonest way to view my work because the truth was that for most of my time with my company I was a pretty great employee. The problem was that ‘program analyst’ didn’t sound nearly as sexy as ‘archaeologist’ especially when I spent so long working on my bachelor degrees so I could do the latter.
At some point in the middle of my year of penance a switch flipped in my head and I began to take real pride in the work I was doing for the first time in years. I realized how lucky I had been to be given a chance to redeem myself instead of a pink slip. I began to climb out of the hole I had dug for myself by working my ass off. During the long road back I gave my company some of the best work of my professional life. That work paid off with a promotion to management and into a position I am enjoying immensely. It was a lesson in humility I am determined not to forget.
In one of the posts I wrote last spring I told the story of stopping at a service station to get some new tires for my truck. I was in the middle of a period of intense self-pity and as I sat there watching the mechanic I was struck by how happy he seemed. He was whistling to himself while moving around the garage. I watched him dribble two tires across the floor, exhibiting a bit of skill that clearly came from practice and also probably trying to make his work day a little more fun. I don’t know how he really felt about his job but it struck me that I hadn’t been that happy at work in years. I was ashamed.
The key lesson I took from my year in the wilderness is that our work matters because humans are not intended for a life of leisure. We need to go home every day and feel like we were productive. The problem is that too many people are engaged in lives of subsistence. They start watching the clock the moment they punch in and when they punch out they want to forget about it. Work is something they find no delight in. I wish I had a simple answer for how to overcome this but the only thing I can think of is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the concept of quality. The book contends that our work ‘may be be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude’. In my experience this mental shift was the key to finding pleasure in my work again and perhaps more importantly, a pride that pushed me towards success.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.