As I prepared for our recent podcast on New Work and we interviewed Bergman himself, I found that I have many sympathies with the project. Even without an analysis of the calamitous effect of the current job system on our economy, I can buy the fact that our job system is a structure with rules, implicit and explicit, that are optimized for some people (those with capital) and not for others. I can also buy the notion that we ought to change it and that we can change it. I’m also on board with the notion that work is an enlivening activity in our lives, maybe the enlivening activity. Bergmann was fond of contrasting the power of work to enliven our lives against the power of sex – saying that good work will even keep us from good sex – as an indication of the potential for work to capture us. Reflecting particularly on my early days of grad school, my wife would probably agree, though she wouldn’t agree that it is good for us.
The key here (and another common refrain), both in his work and, from what I’ve read, within the New Work movement, is that the work which will enliven and not deaden our souls, that with enrich us as workers, is work that we “really really want to do”. Bergmann admits during our podcast that it is hard for people to find what they “really really want to do.” So hard, in fact, that an important part of the New Work project is to have training/counseling centers to help people sort this out. I have no doubt that such counseling can help individuals renew their work and their understanding of self in the face of a semi-revised job system. However, I’m skeptical that finding “what we really really want to do” is the balm for our souls in this job system or any job system.
I am skeptical because I think it is a mis-interpretation of how our souls best get their motion and get steered. Certainly, it is a common refrain – “Find what you really really want to do, stick with it, and you will be satisfied”. The most common version is “find your passion and the rest will follow”. I ought to copyright that phrase and its cousins – I’d make a killing from the licensing fees each spring due to commencement speeches alone. Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 is a good case in point. Here’s a small cut:
You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.
I love the speech. It wonderful and moving, maybe even more so since his untimely death. It would have been thrilling to be there in person to hear him deliver it. His appeal to our passions as the proper motors of our souls cuts through like a howl in the wilderness. There may also be some bit of it that is true – true enough for it to be seductive. Still, I contend that passion is highly over-rated and mis-understood as a motivator, especially for anything that we would consider “work”. Passion, and its neighbor, obsession, are simply unreliable in this regard. It’s not that passion or obsession can’t play the role of motor for the soul. They can. The problem is that it’s most often a motor of duress, of fight or flight, that grabs hold, but, once satisfied, cuts one loose.
My favorite analogy for living is sailing (feel free to pick your own) in which our souls are boats on the sea. We have some control of that boat. We can pull in the sheets to adjust the sails. We can turn the tiller and adjust the rudder. We can direct ourselves upwind on a beat, heeled to the wind with the foam running over the leeward gunnel, or downwind with the sails all the way out being pushed along and surfing the waves. We can navigate to our destination, far off in the distance. Though we might need to tack many times, pointing ourselves away from that destination, with thought and determination, we will finally arrive there. Additionally, we don’t have control of our environment. We don’t control the waves. We don’t control the currents. We don’t control the broken lines or failed winches. We don’t control the storms.
One of the most important things about sailing is understanding that you have no steerage without motion of the boat. The rudder simply does not work to move your boat unless water is moving over it. Sitting dead in the water, you can turn that tiller all day long and you’ll never change direction. Just as in sailing, the key for our souls is to keep in motion, to find the wind that keeps water flowing over the rudder. Passion doesn’t do this reliably. Passion isn’t a motor that can be tuned or a disposition that can be cultivated. As Jobs says, passion must be found and then kept. I’d add the corollary – when it leaves, you’re dead in the water. Passion and obsession are like coal. Once found, they are mined and then burned and what is left is dust and smoke.
Phillip Lopate has a new book on the craft of literary nonfiction in which he addresses the question of obsession and the supposed need for it as a writer. His observations apply here as well. He notes a student who had confessed that she’d been told to write about her obsessions, but that she was concerned that she didn’t have any, and feared that it indicated her shallowness. Lopate concedes that obsession (and obsessives) exist, but considers it over-rated and much more rare than is typically indicated. (I would add that obsessives are most likely to point out that obsessions are a great motivator.) He sums up:
Maybe obsession is a tool better suited for fiction; we nonfiction writers don’t need it. Then what is needed to generate nonfiction? I would say curiosity. It may sound more tepid than obsession or passion, but it is vastly more dependable in the long run. You follow out a strand of curiosity and pretty soon you’ve got an interesting digression, a whole chapter, and book proposal, a book. The solution to entrapment in the narcissistic hothouse of self is not to relinquish autobiographical writing, but to expand the self by bringing one’s own curiosity to interface with more and more history and the present world.
Our lives, in a very similar way, are nonfiction. We worry too much about finding what we “really really want,” finding our obsessions.
So, back to the beginning. Regardless of the practical matters for building a better job system, I am skeptical that the solution for our souls is to find work that we “really really want to do”. Rather, we need to cultivate the parts of our being, the parts of our intellect and inclinations, that give motion to our souls. I agree with Lopate here – curiosity is a much more reliable source of motion. It may be less sexy, but it will keep water running over the rudder and you’ll be able to maintain steerage.