Your Work or Your Job?

Howard Fuller was a guest speaker at a conference I arranged recently, and he said one particular thing that has been repeating in my mind. He asked the gathered people–and this is a paraphrase–if we were doing our life’s work or if we were doing our jobs. With this thought in mind, I happened across (again) Po Bronson’s book (and shorter article from Fast Company) aptly titled “What Should I Do with My Life?” That same week a friend was having a garage sale and he gave me the gift of Barbara Sher’s book “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was.” Another friend Emailed me, after he and I had discussed if it was sad whether or not people decided to do things based on public acceptance (we’ll get to that in a moment), an ad for a local training group’s classes on how to change careers successfully. Something seemed to be afoot.

One of the things that Po Bronson wrote centered on this paraphrased question: “Are you doing what’s next or what will sustain you?” Huh, I thought. I wasn’t sure anymore. In fact, when I combined that question with Fuller’s, I realized that I didn’t know if my job was about what was next or not, and I didn’t know if my job was about my work or not. Then there was the final whammy. Bronson also asked (and this is also paraphrased): “Are you doing what you have skills in or are doing what you have passions about?” Egad! is about all I could muster.


Everyone I know has complained to me about at least one aspect of his or her job. Most people I know do enjoy their jobs for the most part, though. I turned this same test on me then: Do I complain? Yes. Do I enjoy my job for the most part? Yes. Phew. I passed. Right?

That’s about when I realized there was more to all of this. It was one of those moments when things clicked, when I neared getting over what Sci-Fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls Presque Vu, or the feeling that you are about to realize something. Whether or not I complained and whether or not I enjoyed my job, something still nagged at me. So, I thought more about my day job. I’m the Director of Training for a national nonprofit, and I get to do a lot of stuff that I love to do: writing, stand up training, virtual trainings (via the phone), inventing new lesson plans, and more. Was this my work, though–or just my job?

This is where Sher’s book came in. She asked (paraphrased, of course), if what some of us do is the result of a Renaissance Person type of condition. Luckily, she thinks it’s a pretty cool thing and doesn’t just make someone like me out to be an oddball. In other words, it made all the student loans I took out on undergraduate and graduate degrees in Liberal Studies feel a little lighter, if you will.

As thinking tends to do, this all reminded me of something else. Specifically, it was something along the lines of what Howard Fuller had said at the same recent conference: when you get closer to work you should be doing, it gets harder, not easier. Now, that’s not fair, if you ask me. If I am doing all this work to discover what I should be doing, shouldn’t the end product be easy, simply based on the fact that it’s finally a match for me? Well, no, I have figured out. True work actually leads to the unmasking of opportunities and capacities that a person could not have imagined previously.


In my mind there was a great argument raging: I’m supposed to do my passion, but it’s just fine to be all Renaissancey, and everything’s only going to get harder once I figure this out–oh, and by the way, if I don’t change anything, for the most part, everything looks like it could all turn out just fine, even if I do continue with that eternal feeling of something being missing. I thought again: Egad!

To help, let’s go back to the discussion I had with a friend about whether or not it is alright to avoid things based on whether or not people will approve. It’s easy to say that avoidance behavior is limiting, but let’s explore how it works into this overall train of thought.

* First, there are some things people want to do that no one should ever do: murder, for example.
* Second, there are some careers that rely heavily on approval beyond ability: acting, singing, painting, and many other artistic pursuits. Now, I say beyond ability because there are many professions a person can take up that in themselves may have flair and inherent creativity, but when outputs are considered, most people are not going to care about the method so much as the utility. Consider database management, for example.
* Third, even if a person enjoys doing something, say singing Roger Quilter art songs, he or she may respect the songs so much that he or she decides that performing them for others would be simply wrong due to a lack of talent.

The thoughts on that could go on further, but let’s focus on how it all relates here. It is important to me–and this is where the summation of recent thoughts begins for me–because many of the things I would consider my work (or at least vehicles for my work) are methods that, if utilized, would be under intense public scrutiny. Where does this all lead, though? Ultimately to the following list:

  • My day job is sometimes just a job–but this is only when I let it be that. When I am able to wrangle it and shape it in a way that it’s about my work, then that irksome thought that something is missing or wrong often goes away. Also, we don’t get to do what we want all the time.
  • My work is both about vehicles and actual effect. By this, I first mean that part of my work, such as writing prose and music, are both important to me, and in doing them, I feel great. Second, the work is not complete unless the outcome is some heightened sense of awareness in other people–whether that’s to support gay rights or to be nice to your neighbor.
  • I don’t know what my work is exactly, but there’s a warm fuzzy feeling when I get close–and I may only get close for a long time.
  • I will never get to my work if I’m too safe. As Po Bronson wrote (paraphrased), a person cannot expect a dream to be budgeted for and fresh after a lifetime of focusing on another job–but that so many of us do that. For me, this has lately translated to “Opportunity is not a destination; it’s something we pass through.”
  • It’s not good to do just what’s next. I need to embrace what I want the future to be–or at least feel like–and follow those instincts.
  • One of my mantras of the year should continue. Whenever I have a decision to make, I ask myself if the opportunity at hand is important or just interesting. This has led to doing quite a number of important things that I was not exactly interested in at first but that have led me to many great events and people. This has also led to a lot of deletion of things that had masked themselves as important in my Renaissancey world when in fact they were just interesting.
  • Passions are important and should not be ignored, even if Renaissance Person -like. Other than incorporating them into my day job, I need to nurture my passions in my free time and be deliberate about how I invest my time in them. For example, I need to continue to send out query letters to publications. Another way to think about this is that I am the only one can monitor my investment in my passions.
  • The things I love doing–my passions–may rely on the approval of others, but I have to like what I do and market myself well–and some people may not like what I do. Also, it’s ok to do what I love and make it fit even it isn’t what ends up paying the bills. I have often limited success of carrying out my passions to be financial.

I’m sure there’s more here, but it’s amazing what thoughts can begin when I let myself sit back and listen to those around me. I might not agree with everything that I hear, but it will be an experience nonetheless. The argument in my mind about the great what-should-I-be-doing continues to an extent, but now it’s not so haphazard. There are some arbitrators up there now.

– Todd Wellman (c) 2007

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