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What is the work, really?

03 August 2021 | values

My practice this week was to work on essays every day. Straightforward and easy.

I couldn’t do it. Just could not bring myself to even begin. I let myself be sidetracked by all the daily activities of a house with people in it. With great willingness, it should be said, I let this sidetracking happen.

Here’s why. I was distracted by [a situation]. To keep it simple, let’s call it anxiety.

A sea, a storm, a boat

If that goal of daily writing can die like a bug at a zapper when [anxiety] arises, then maybe I’m not connected to the right idea of what my work is. Perhaps just “working on essays every day” isn’t the work. Maybe that goal sits too far from the essence of things.

When [anxiety] arises, essences seem critical: we do not have the bandwidth for non-essentials, for should-do. Which is a good measure for daily life, too: work that feels right in a stressful time probably counts as good work.

The thing under the thing

If our work feels like a trite or dismissible assignment when we feel [anxiety], then what is our real work? Rather, what more essential, fundamental work could we do instead? When things feel hard? What’s still true?

I am certain that I have real work to do, but I wonder if I’ve trained myself to anchor to the wrong concept.

Personally I have always thought of one of my key works as writing. We all have our key works. Our Thing.

But now I think that perhaps writing just witnesses or chronicles the real work. Written words become just a goal or a set of mileposts along the way, marking moments of the (I believe) actual work. Writing is a circumstantial tool, nothing more. A lovely, magical tool capable of great finesse and power, but still a tool only.

Sailing, and arriving

Practice has sustaining value: it is both the in-the-moment act of work, as well the engine that pulls all work forward. Outputs are the notes and reminders along the way of what happened at certain moments. Let us also not forget that our culture places tremendous value on outputs; it can feel strange to not be output-oriented.

As I’ve said before, both outputs and practices matter, but one is more elemental: practice. The outputs are not the goal; the practice is the goal. Don’t get fooled.

Writing is an output, writing is a tool. Cultivating insight is my practice. They go together, for me: writing helps me think, thinking (among other things) help with ideas and insights. I can think in other ways, too, though. If I lost my pen, I could still seek to cultivate insight in other ways.

Verbs. Not nouns.

My work is a practice but ideally my work is also my values.

It’s interesting to think of values as our work and not as some inert things that we look at in therapy or biannually with our managers or wherever you may look for your values. They don’t fit on a shelf like books that we admire but don’t read.

Our values are not abstractions, but our actual work.

Values are verbs. They are ways of describing life’s work. If our values aren’t verbs then they aren’t refined enough. They need translating.

So you already know one of my practices is to cultivate insight. One of my values is to cultivate insight.

On the other hand, a goal I have is to share my insights with others (through writing and coaching and friendship). But that’s a goal and not the real work. Because if those goals fell away or became impossible, I could still do the work of cultivating insight, which I deeply value.

Your values energize you, and can function as horizon lines for you when seas are stormy, somethig to keep your eye on throughout the tumult of, say, [anxiety].

If you find that your goals are hard to keep, then maybe you can try focusing instead on values. Why do you care about this [thing] as a goal? What qualities or essence does it have? Why do you care about it? From there, consider the multitude of ways you might practice those essences. See what happens: my hope is you’ll find yourself more naturally practicing the work you innately value, and that the goals will come of their accord.

A crowd from above, Sackville Street