Friday, April 2, 2021

24. Your Work Vs. Your Job

In her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Dolly Parton recounts her childhood memories of forcing pigs and chickens on her family farm to listen to her sing.  They weren’t the most captive audience, she recalls, but she had a song in her heart, a voice in her soul, and she had to find a way to express them somehow.

When I was five-years-old I set up a therapy stand in my parents’ living room.  Like Lucy of the Peanuts comics, I offered advice to any friends or family who came through the door, whether they wanted it or not.  The presenting problems didn’t carry much gravitas and pretty much encompassed the range of, “My husband won’t pick up his socks from the floor.” But I nonetheless had a natural urge to listen to people’s problems and had to find a way to try to help them feel better.  

One of the (many) things Dolly and I have in common is that we had an instinct to express something even before we had a practice or an audience to support it.  These were things we felt born to do, if not instilled by a Higher Power, and sought to sustain it as much as possible throughout our lives.

I have come to understand this natural calling as our “Work” (with a capital "W").  It is that thing that makes you feel alive, the reason you get out of bed, the thing you’d love to do even if no one paid you, the thing you need to do even if no one is watching.  It is the activity we nurture because it feels good and is often our source of comfort when we are struggling with pain or obstacles.   

This may or may not have anything to do with your “job” (lowercase "j"), ie, the thing you do for money.  Jobs are there to serve as a means to an end, a transaction of labor for financial gain, hopefully something that you can stand doing and brings your some sense of meaning.  When we’re truly fortunate in this world we are able to have a clear intersection between our Work and our job.  We are ideally able to contribute our instilled talents and energy to the activities we do for money.  When there’s not a clear overlapping between the two, it can often lead to emotional strain. 
I have often been inspired by the story of Brian Jones, the entrepreneur who began selling Leg Lamps from the movie A Christmas Story.  Mr. Jones worked his entire life toward flying planes in the navy.   He became the valedictorian of his high school in Southern California, went to the Naval Academy, majored in aerospace engineering, went to flight school in Pensacola. Where he flunked the eye exam.  As a consolation present, he received a replica of the Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story from his parents. When he realized how good it made him feel, and that no one else was making or selling Leg Lamps, he refocused his joy into this Work and started making and selling them himself.  His dream of flying planes never came true, but his love of Leg Lamps delightfully shines in thousands of homes today. 

One of the many questions I have enjoyed pursuing with clients through the years is, “What is your Work? What is your Leg Lamp? What is that thing you would do tomorrow if you won the lottery today?”  For many of my clients this answer is not clear.  They had put aside their childhood dreams and hopes at an early age in favor of being logical, pragmatic, and getting an education to make money doing the job they “should” be doing.   In the process they often sacrificed joy, mental health, and even turn to alcohol or drugs for escape.  

But more often than not, that childhood inspiration still flickers beneath the surface.  It might be buried under the societal expectations of capitalism and productivity, it might be gurgling underneath the drugs and the drinks, but underneath all that there is a still an artist, a creator, a brave child, a passionate spirit who is burning to be released and fully expressed.  

Does this mean it’s a good idea for people to quit their jobs and just have fun?  I’d say that in general making reactive life decisions are not the healthiest.  But even when our jobs do not directly correlate with our Work, there are still ways of finding meaning in day to day labor.  

I have worn a lot of different hats in my career.  From therapist, to dishwasher, to food server, to soap opera interviewer, to HIV prevention educator, I have enjoyed many different work settings in many different places.  What they’ve all had in common is my fundamental joy in helping people feel better.  All these jobs felt like Work that contributed to service, to improving the experiences of others.  Even when I was scrubbing pots and pans at Denny’s I believed that my job had value since it contributed to people being able to sit down and eat with a friend or family member.  Having clean dishes and glasses enabled the restaurant to provide a fun environment, perhaps one that helped people relax and feel better for a short while.  My labor directly contributed to that, and I felt satisfaction in doing it.  

During COVID19  I was especially grateful for the jobs that made my Work possible.  In order to see clients online there had to be an Internet connection that allowed me to see my clients.  I don’t really know how the Internet works but I imagine hundreds of people had to show up somewhere in order for me to be able turn on my computer, press buttons, and successfully navigate a screen that allowed to me to see and hear my clients clearly.  I am grateful for whomever made that possible, as well as the essential grocery workers who risked their lives so everyone could have enough ice cream and toilet paper; the food workers who showed up and made it possible for us to have good tasting meals and drinks; the MTA workers who showed up so I could still get around town.  I know many of these individuals did not feel their jobs were imminently satisfying, but their Work greatly contributed to my wellness as well as the serenity and calm of millions of others.  

Nurturing your Work can be a necessary and healthy activity throughout the lifespan.  Doing that thing you love, even when it's not recognized or rewarded, is what gives us purpose and meaning.  If this isn't something that you intuitively experience for yourself, and are still struggling to connecting to, try asking yourself:  

--- What would I do with my time if I won the lottery and didn't need a job?
--- What subject can I talk about with great passion with others?
--- What activity makes me feel truly alive?
--- If I knew I only had a year to live, what would I want to spend that last year doing? 

One thing I know for sure:  The days of working a job and retiring at age 65 are over.  Most of us will likely be doing different kinds of Work in different kinds of jobs throughout our lifespan.  Doesn't it make sense to zero in on what truly gives us joy, on the part of our soul that passionately wants to be expressed, on the part of our spirit that needs to be activated?  Let's age up with purpose, passion, and meaningful satisfaction!

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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