True Work

True Work

Time magazine’s cover story this week reports that Americans have pushed the reset button on their easy spending, self indulgent ways. We are in the midst, it reports, of a profound national rejection of those bad habits and a recommitment to the good ones that brought us to our prosperity in the first place. Our goal is to reestablish ourselves as the generous, thrifty and conscientious people we truly are. We may be the world’s only super power, but that doesn’t make us the world’s leader. Others aren’t awed by our might, but by our sight—our ability to see and therefore achieve the best of the human spirit.

The same kind of reformation must also occur in our work. In fact, a new kind of work is central to our success in reconstituting ourselves as a nation. We spend one-third or more of our lives at work, so getting that right underpins everything else that we do. But, what does it mean to push the reset button on our careers? How do we re-imagine our work so that it is better connected to the American Dream?

First, I think we have to understand what it is we are rejecting. If we want to reset our work, we have to know what we’re moving from in order to understand what we should be moving to. And the best summary of what we must give up is the notion of “a work-life balance.”

Just as subprime mortgages did for homeownership, this once revered idea has, in reality, led us down the primrose path. How’s that? Stop and think about what’s implied in this term. It tells us that we must strive to balance our work with the good things in our life. In other words, work is an onerous experience that acts as a drag on our happiness. The only way to endure it, therefore, it is to counteract it with something better.

That view of work is rooted in the 20th Century, and it’s out-of-step and out-of-place in the 21st Century. It’s at cross-purposes with a nation that now wants to reclaim a greater purpose in life than keeping up with the Jones. And it’s harmful to a people seeking to rediscover their sight—their ability to see and therefore achieve the best of the human spirit … on the job as well as off.

Work is not inherently onerous nor is its only reward a paycheck for conspicuous consumption. The research of a growing number of social scientists makes clear that work is the one venue where we can test ourselves with meaningful challenges and accomplish outcomes that reward us with an extraordinary cognitive gift—happiness. Said another way, work isn’t the tax we pay, it is the personal frontier we explore to realize the American Dream of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I call this revival of our daily labor “true work.” It is work that emancipates us to express and experience the talented person each and all of us truly are. Sadly, most of us never bother to introduce ourselves to that extraordinary individual or to take them to work with us. Those habits—the bad habits of a bygone era—are the ones that we must now reset

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