In my observation, we live in a time and cultural landscape where worth and work are intricately associated with one another. “What will you be when you grow up?” In other words, how will your very existence be attached to your work?
Anyone who has followed my writings or knows me personally knows that this is not a new tension for me. I have wrestled and will continue to wrestle with the tension of this challenge. It’s perhaps a productive and purposeful tension, but still, a tension nonetheless.
I grow increasingly concerned about the long-term effects of the word "human" meshed with the word "capital." (Thankfully that’s starting to change).
I’m concerned about what this means when we have whole generations of people who are expected to maintain the lifestyle of their parents but in an entirely different economy. Or people who feel the deep personal obligation to finish the dreams that their parents and grandparents started, only to realize, it’s not the dream they would have for themselves.
I’m concerned about what happens to the recent graduate who has been given a breadcrumb trail of achievement to follow but feels deeply lonely or scared about what happens next.
I’m concerned about all the people being laid off, who are simply devastated by the loss of community, friendship, and the sense of self-worth they used to get every day from a job well done.
I’m concerned about all the people who just want to go to work, to a place that values their strengths. They want to work hard, do a good job, and go home. But, application after application leaves them feeling demoralized and like a vapor or shadow of the capable person they used to be.
I’m concerned about the ways applicant tracking systems create a feeling of being in a black hole, or how hiring practices can tend to favor industry specialists over generalists and career changers with transferable skills.
I’m concerned about the number of people who still feel that they must work hours that are not humanly possible, and break their bodies in the name of “putting in their time.” I’m concerned about what this does to families, to children, to elders, and to communities.
I’m concerned that my daughter’s math scores will be weighed more heavily than her art in many circumstances.
I am concerned. And yet, I am not without hope.
Over the holiday break, I was mulling over my concerns, as I often do, twirling them around like pasta in my head. Sometimes I feel a bit like a proverbial David and Goliath, meaning, I can feel my work is so small, a tiny pebble, against the giants of the prevailing workplace cultures who possess great amounts of prestige, power, and resources. So, shhh, don’t tell anyone my secret, but… even career coaches can get discouraged.
Over the break, I randomly watched the Netflix documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about Fred Rogers. As I watched, I was amazed as my children (who never pay attention to shows I watch) came around the TV intently.
I was enthralled with the documentary about his life, and specifically how he really doubted his impact. In one letter he stated to himself, “Am I kidding myself that I’m able to write a script again?... If I don’t get down to it, I’ll never really know. Why don’t I trust myself? AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, IT'S JUST AS BAD AS EVER!... Get to it Fred, get to it! But don’t let anyone ever tell anyone else, that it was easy. It wasn’t.”
I couldn’t believe how much Fred Rogers wondered if what he was doing made any difference! The documentary even opens with him discussing what he believes is his overall calling or task in life, and he interrupts himself and says,
“Maybe this is just too philosophical, maybe I’m trying to combine, uh, things that can’t be combined. But it makes sense to me.” - Fred Rogers
I felt like someone had taken the words right out of my mind.
Maybe what I’m trying to do, is too philosophical. But it makes sense to me.
People want to find jobs and make resume updates.
But I really want to see us shapeshift the relationship we have with work, and with ourselves.
People want to interview well.
But I want to make sure folks are clear on their inherent value before they try to convince someone else of it.
People want to build their personal brand.
But I want to make sure they know they aren’t a commodity.
Folks want to find their dream job.
And I instead, want them to develop dreams that are bigger than a job.
People want to achieve success.
And I want them to dig deep and examine what success ACTUALLY means to them.
Workplaces want their cultures to improve. And I want them to be honest about the kind of hard work and difficult decisions that will take.
While I definitely want to celebrate the successes of great workplaces where employees are having excellent experiences, I can’t help but be aware of the ways people are torn down.
“I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are, I think that’s the greatest evil.” - Fred Rogers
I think we have far too many people who are feeling discarded, unworthy, and useless as it relates to the world of work. And I believe we all have a call and obligation in creating a better world for all of us to work in. I’m always struck that in many creation stories, across different religions and cultures, the role of work is not bad. It’s the conditions and relationships that create the problems. We were always “meant” to work.
But we were meant to be better for one another in that work. I believe we all are part of creating that reality.
As I finished watching the Fred Rogers documentary, I noticed that one key theme that stood out was his willingness to look silly.
I’ve often felt a little silly, in my almost child-like belief that everyone has a gift, everyone has a story, and everyone is valuable. It doesn’t take too long in many workplaces to realize, that’s not how one “gets ahead!” In fact, it’s almost the opposite. You have to develop political savvy quickly to keep afloat.
But maybe I’m so committed to this belief because this is part of my life’s work. Perhaps like Fred said, part of my own call is to be able to “combine two things together that don’t seemingly go together.”
I’d like to believe that it’s possible to combine the philosophical and the practical; the need to 'bring home the bacon', and also the need to give your soul breathing room. Perhaps my work will always exist in the good tension between these two realities.
Finally, as I closed out the holiday break, I was sending my spouse a text. And I said, "Well, I’m not discouraged anymore. But I’m also not necessarily encouraged. I guess that means I’m left with being 'couraged.'" Perfect. I’ll take it. To me, that sounds like being endowed, steadied, or grounded with courage as you take on your next task.
I hope you’ll be “couraged” with me also as you enter 2023, to do what you can from your corner of the world. I hope you'll be "couraged" to live more fully, more beautifully, and more whole as it relates to your work, your purpose, and what it is that you’re creating in this world every day.
Peace to you in 2023