Yesterday, most of us–or those of us who work Monday through Friday–began our workweek.  My own day commenced with the task of digging my car out of six inches of snow and a two-foot barrier of what was plowed from the street of my complex and left in front of my helpless vehicle.

I found the task a fitting one to set the spirit of my week.  As a teacher for over twenty-five years, and now as a principal, I have struggled with a kind of dichotomy related to any kind of work: some work consumes us; some work sustains us.  All jobs and all professions possess work of both kinds. In making our livings and in making our way through life, we naturally prefer sustaining work.

In working with teachers, paraprofessionals, and even students, I deliberately make the distinction between these two kinds of work.  I also work hard to promote the goal of minimizing consuming work. When we cannot eliminate it; I work to mitigate it.

As I discuss this with people, I use the example of holiday lighting displays.  People do not devote hours to setting them up on Thanksgiving Day because the work is easy.  They spend time and money on elaborate arrangements because they derive satisfaction and fulfillment from what they are putting together.  This kind of work sustains them.

On the other end of the winter holidays, many families put off taking their decorations down and putting them away.  The work is certainly no harder than it was to put everything up. Still, some of these enormous displays stay out until February because the task of putting everything into storage is a consuming task for people.

And this raises the question of how to transform consuming work into sustaining work.  For years, I have drawn inspiration from an aphorism of disputed attribution: “The reward for a thing well done is having done it.”  While it appears in an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he seems to have echoed a sentiment developed earlier by Michel de Montaigne, who had himself paraphrased Seneca.  Of course, we see from this that the ethos of work as a transformative activity has existed for a long time.

Indeed, in the Hindu tradition, karma yoga is a path in which work takes on a deep spiritual significance.  Doing work for its own sake–irrespective of remuneration, and usually without a specific intention apart from doing a good job–can sustain us through drudgery.  Interestingly, it can set a powerful example for others, which, if followed, could truly transform the world.

I needed that hour yesterday morning–shoveling all the way down to the pavement, keeping a neat edge to where I piled the snow up, carrying each shovelful of snow from the front of my car over to the curb, and clearing a short path from the sidewalk across the strip of grass that led to my parking space.  I knew most of it would melt by day’s end anyway. Still, I felt that in doing the work beyond the minimum standard, I would reinforce the approach I should take with all work–household or professional.

To be sure, there is much to my professional work that I find fulfilling on its own.  But when I encounter challenges that threaten to discourage me, I find a true consolation in knowing that my most diligent, most conscientious work is all anyone can expect of me.  With fears and doubts aside, I then have a clearer view of the deeper meaning of everything I attempt.

8 thoughts on “Work

  1. Paul – What a noble way to approach any task. I do purport to the notion that any moment/task can be sacred or extraordinary if viewed through a lens that chooses to see it that way. Thank you.

    1. I think the word “noble” is a helpful part of the discussion in that we often miss the nobility of of who we are and how all we do should ennoble us. It took me a very long time to begin to think in this manner, and I required the encouragement of people who were much farther along the path than I. With all of the world’s distractions, it is so easy to overlook the things that truly offer us meaning and purpose. Thanks for relating to my post.

  2. How to transform consuming work to sustaining work! This statement popped out at me! Of course, I thought to myself! This is what we need to transform our classrooms. Change the mindsets from consuming to sustaining and help our little people understand that their reward isn’t their grade, it’s the fact that they did it!!! And next time they can do it a little better! Practice makes better!

    1. While I do indeed promote the concept of intrinsic rewards to students, I can’t blame them for finding it a bit abstract. Still, I reinforce it whenever I can. In response to, “What will I get if I do this?” I often answer, “Two very special prizes: my admiration and my respect.” You can imagine the groans.
      Joking aside, however, wider reinforcement makes it more likely that children will eventually grasp this idea. Much like you, I do not underestimate these kids.

  3. This left me with much to think about. I never really thought about consuming and sustaining work, although I know which tasks I consider to be consuming! I admire your work ethic. It is one I strive to myself.

  4. I really appreciated this essay and the differentiation you made between consuming and sustaining work. I’m something of a workaholic and definitely the daughter of a man who found it nearly impossible to stop working. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

  5. As others have already commented – you’ve got me thinking about sustaining and consuming work – it makes me think that when we are engaged in work, whatever the kind, it sustains and maybe even excites us – while consuming work can be categorized as sometimes compliant and draining. They both exist in our every day lives at home and work – it’s now going to be fun to reflect on my days with this lens! Great slice! Thanks for sharing!

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