Finding Good Work: Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear Molly and Jake,

I’ve been thinking about the two of you these days, as you, Molly, plan for life after graduating college in May, and as you, Jake, move through your freshman year.  In some ways you are already adults, setting off on futures that will span decades and decades past my own. So what advice might I offer you that might be of immediate use, and also stand the test of time?

I’d like to begin with work.  You can’t know this yet or fully grasp its meaning but, as adults, you will probably spend more time at work than in any other activity in your life.  So I am writing to urge you to seek out good work.  By that I mean both work that you find satisfying and work that benefits others.  It’s the kind of work your parents have chosen, as did Grandma and I—and I wish it for you as well.  I’ll try to define that in a moment.

First things first:  The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, noted that humans operate within a hierarchy of needs, beginning with food and shelter.  Only after addressing these “basics” can we seriously consider other impulses and desires – toward altruism or for self-fulfillment, for example.  So, of course, that pertains to you too. You’ll need to attend to life’s practical side, to earn a living and to help establish a secure and nurturing home for your family.  But each of you is fortunate to possess an abundance of talents that have been supported by good schools, interested parents, and broadening experiences; I’m confident that you will have the bandwidth, the opportunity and capacity, to move past these basic life requirements.

Your next step might be to winnow down the universe of possibilities.  Let’s begin with the kinds of work I hope you not choose.  I hope you don’t pursue jobs that primarily  promise of wealth or fame, two of our culture’s most powerful and pernicious lures.  You probably have the talent to go that route but it will leave you feeling empty.  You will never fulfill or prove yourself through money or even fame.  They won’t nourish you, nor will they help you think well of yourselves or generously of others.  And after a point, the more you have, the more you’ll convince yourself you need.  Like an addict needing yet another drink.

And success for it’s own sake, moving up and up in the work you do, will likely feel like another empty A for a course that you don’t really care about.

Now what?   Explore, explore, explore.  From my distant perch, high school has become a dull, lockstep, bloodless training ground for college and beyond.  You both negotiated it well on its own terms, but those aren’t the terms I would set for you.  Instead, I’d love you to cast a broad net – intentionally putting yourselves into new and challenging situations.  You both have those inclinations – for example, Molly, with your independent travels abroad, and Jake with your love of humor and your eclectic first-year fall semester course selections.

Sol Gittleman, the former Provost of Tufts University, wanting to embolden students, used to say that the college should prepare students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.  He asked them to push past the established boundaries of things.  Explore. I wish that for you.  And exploration also means that you should feel free to change jobs or professional paths if, after thoughtful consideration, you decide that the one you are in doesn’t work or if you discover a promising opportunity.

What else?  This may seem obvious, but first and foremost, choose work that really interests you.  Good work captures and holds your attention.  It isn’t boring.  For that to be so, it has to be challenging.  This may seem counter-intuitive but our minds drift when work is too easy.  Soon enough, we imagine ourselves doing other things, then wishing we were doing something else.  But work that calls on your ability to solve problems, work that stretches you, sometimes beyond what you think is your capacity, work that concentrates your mind—that’s good work.

With effort and luck, you will find deeply absorbing work.  In that case, there will be stretches of time when you are riveted.  The outside world will fade into the background.  Time will slow or quicken.  When you stop, it will seem as though you are awakening from a dream.  This kind of experience doesn’t happen all the time but enough so that you will look forward to beginning most mornings.

And here’s the strange, paradoxical, thing about this kind of work.  It both requires tremendous energy and it relaxes you.  When you are intensely engaged, most of your mental static goes missing.  You’re not asking, “is this the right thing to do?” “Can I do it?” “Am I good enough?”  Your self-doubt is parked elsewhere.  You’re in motion, in rhythm, acting.

It may sound like this kind of experience only happens for special people doing special work, like great artists and musicians.  But that’s not true.  It has more to do with finding the right fit between you and your work.  When you’re exploring, ask yourself what you find captivating.  I have felt this way while focused on practicing psychotherapy, doing carpentry, writing, building a management team.  When the fit Is right, I know that I’m doing good work.

Of course, fit also depends on style.  You’ll want to identify the best working conditions for you.  I, for one, need both solitude and community—sequentially.  One won’t do without the others.  I need time to develop my ideas and people to test them with.  I need people to stimulate my thinking and solitude to work out the implications of the thinking.  Others work best in groups or even crowds — never alone.  They get lost in crowds the way I lose myself when alone with my writing.  Some need lots of physical action.  Others need conversation.  It’s almost as important to match your personality to the style as to the subject of work.

Maybe the most important thing about work is that it lines up with who you are at a very basic level. As a child, for instance, my mother insisted that sympathy for those in need was not enough.  I would have to act on their behalf.  These qualities have always guided me.  When I stray, they wave me back into the fold.  When I work within the guidelines, I am at ease.   That’s what I want for you.

When I ask friends what they will miss most in retirement, they often say that it’s the community of people they work with.  People they have come to know and trust—and who trust them.  The ease of being together, the shared histories, the ability to get things done.  The sense of being known.  There are surely some individuals who don’t need a work community but almost everyone I know who has loved her work wonders if the community hadn’t grown as important as the work itself.  Maybe this is similar to what you have experienced in school or at camp.

And then?   This next step is difficult to imagine, to make concrete, for anyone who hasn’t managed a household budget, or been responsible for their own finances.  So you might tuck it away, and consider it later, but here goes:  Once you think you know what might interest you and satisfy you in the longer term, then inventory your needs and desires, thinking modestly on the material side of the ledger.  What material aspirations or possessions, or aspirations, can you feel good about foregoing so you can work—and play—at what you love to do?

If you can find your way to living with a modest material spirit, not enslaved by other people’s ideas of what you need, you will feel free.  Grandma and I have always lived according to this principle.  In our view, we have lived luxuriously, but have done so  spending far less than we earned, living in homes that don’t strain our resources, taking vacations that renew and enlighten without breaking the bank.  As a result, we have always felt rich and relaxed about our material well-being.

What’s more, it seems to me that when you stick to satisfying work, when you work hard and with integrity, you are generally rewarded by earning enough — even when you pay very little attention to your salary.

Now I want to get back to the beginning: Work is good, really good, when it benefits others.  Most of us say that being kind or generous or helpful to others is at the core of our values, and some of us have the privilege of focusing our work to realize these values. You can do good work as a doctor, a therapist, a social worker, a nonprofit leader, a political activist, a craftsperson, a writer, a storekeeper, and in so many other ways. I wish that for you.  Others express these same values within their families and communities, and through philanthropy and volunteer efforts for good causes.  However you do it, I hope you have the opportunity to spend many hours every week in this pursuit.  It will make for a fulfilling life, and I will be proud of you.