Vision and Perspective
Many of us say we go to work because “we owe, we owe,” but little is said in consideration of what was once a very popular notion, so popular that it was taken as fact in the daily work life of generations. That notion is that work makes the man, that a man or woman is nothing without his work, his calling. Calling or vocation, in this sense and at that time, had less to do with a religious commitment than a career. Thomas Carlyle was among the more well-known articulators of this notion.
Work with its ‘perennial nobleness; and even sacredness,’ argued Carlyle, could provide man’s salvation. ‘Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works: in Idleness alone is there perpetual despair.’….’Labor is life. From the innermost heart of the worker rises his God-given force, the sacred celestial life essence breathed into him by Almighty God.’ (Donkin, Richard (2001). Blood, Sweat, and Tears: The Evolution of Work. New York: Texere, p 112)
While work retained some of the significance of a calling, the individual’s vision of his contribution could sustain him in the face of a challenging work reality. But,
…when work lost its religious imperative, as the Renaissance merged into modern times, work also lost its power to ennoble. . . .People who work mindlessly have their lives created for them from the opinions of others and become as automatic in response as the machines they tend. (Braude, Lee (1989). Work and the Self. In A. R. Gini and T. J. Sullivan (Eds.), It Comes with the Territory (pp. 212-219). New York: Random House, Inc., p. 213)
In this view, the worker easily becomes a mere “wage slave” focused on no more than the check at the end of the pay period.
Yet, even those of us who have found a career that we can refer to as our calling are not free of the kinds of personal travails in the workplace that eat at the very muscle of our hearts. There comes a point when the work we love can become the work we love to hate and can drive us to the therapist and the self-help shelves of the bookstore. In considering the impact of work on the formation of the self, Lee Braude includes an overview of studies on both blue collar and white collar workers and notes the subtle and significant difference that the notion of “profession” brings to the worker’s experience.
In any case, the saliency of work for the professional in contrast to the industrial worker suggests that more aspects of a professional’s life are structured by his training, his ideological commitments, and his service orientation, thus rendering his life course more ‘vulnerable’ to the demands of work. Work thus tends to have greater meaning or ‘centrality’ for the professional. (Braude, 1989, pp. 216-217)
It seems that the more progressive elements of our society may be returning to this notion of vocation as it restructures its relationship to work. In The Cultural Creatives, which has been seen as a groundbreaking sociological study and call to action, the authors discuss the notion of vocation with regard to the kinds of businesses these progressives seem to form.
. . . .a vocation, an old concept that secular Modernism discarded a century ago. A vocation says that you follow a higher calling in your profession and simultaneously operate very much in the world. It’s both self-interested and altruistic, and the two cannot be disentangled. In the nineteenth century and still in many small towns today, the lawyers, dentists, doctors, and architects were completely embedded in their communities and had to do mutual back-scratching and business with everyone. Now in an urban setting, the same behavior is often condemned by professional associations as self-dealing or a conflict of interest. (Ray, Paul, Ph.D. and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D. (2000). The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing The World. New York: Three Rivers Press, p. 335)
The Cultural Creatives studied by Ray and Anderson are returning to a notion of vocation in alignment with their vision of how a career can serve the culture. In Bernt Capra’s film Mindwalk a physicist, a poet, and a politician spend the day wandering around a mediaeval French castle discussing Life, the Universe, and Everything. Repeatedly the poet and the politician are juxtaposed, the poet identifying loss of perspective as the greatest danger in modern society and the politician identifying lack of vision as the key to social malaise. My experience shows me that both affect the American work life experience today, especially among white-collar workers.
Various Marxist philosophers writing on work have set forth their perspective that the worker is necessarily a victim of an unjust, machine-like socio-economic system. (Hodson and Sullivan, 2002, pp. 90-92) It is clear to me that thought itself is an aspect of this system and Marxism appeals to the thoughts of its followers as the first step in re-creating the reality the individual inhabits. Recently the Bush administration has made clear, winning hearts and minds is the key to social change. Similarly, if we would effect change in the workplace, winning hearts and minds to a new vision of the human experience in the workplace is necessary. This cannot be done unless we school ourselves to pay attention to the personal challenges in the workplace and meet those challenges with the tools that help us become who we as individuals need to be to take action from a perspective based on a vision of a more humane, as well as productive, work environment.
The key to this approach lies in the individual’s ability to maintain both vision and perspective in the face of oppositional external realities, in other words, to maintain the boundary between the self and the community in such a way that the self is undestroyed and even nurtured in the context of a hostile human environment. This requires intelligence and discipline, both of which can be impaired in environments where overwork under stressful conditions is the way business is conducted. Intelligence is disabled by fatigue and stress. It behooves the individual to learn the skills to engage stressful situations in stress-defusing ways and to set a boundary at his or her personal tolerance level for fatigue. There are a variety of resources available to support the individual in this kind of growth, though they can take some searching to find.
For example, Mark Silver (www.heartofbusiness.com), a business coach trained as a Sufi healer, works with self-employed professionals on what he identifies as heart-centered business problems. In his practice he recognizes that the symbiotic relationship between the professional and her work is associated both with business performance and personal peace of mind. His workbooks The Heart of Business and A Solution to Overwhelm both focus on schooling the individual to attend to her own needs for attention, support, and acceptance before seeking to perform her work and instead of transferring her expectations for the fulfillment of these needs to her work.
Similarly, Marshall Rosenbaum (www.cnvc.org) has created a very successful consultancy and educational foundation focused on a technique he created, Nonviolent Communication, or NVC. Marshall’s practice ranges from training individuals to represent themselves interpersonally in more satisfying ways to engaging with violent conflicts in war-torn countries such as Rwanda and Bosnia to help individuals recover from the experience of war and to help groups come together in the aftermath of violence. NVC is used by conflict resolution professionals and by businesspeople to resolve conflicts and develop mutually satisfying customer relationships.