“It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.”
I wish I was the first person to write those words in that order, but the honor goes to William Faulkner who, apparently, was a smart guy who knew something about real work.
This month, I celebrated my one-year anniversary of post-education employment. By “celebrated” I mean I told the dentist that I’d been at my job for a year now and then he gave me some free floss.
But having been in my position for a year, I’ve been thinking about words like work and discipline and The Christian Life, and trying to figure out some of what they mean.
Here are a few of the things I’ve thought:
Work is central to life: Faulkner may be a bit dreary—and he may be wrong, because I know folks who’ve played Halo 4 for at least eight hours-—but he’s definitely got a point. The fact that work is something we spend so much of our time doing, either because our contracts require it or because it provides money and sanity, confirms that work is something we’re made for. Work is a basic human function, possibly the most basic (except maybe worship). God worked to create the world, and there will be work—good work—to do in heaven.
Whether we’re paid in cash, hugs, trophies, or GPA, we’re all constantly working. Because that’s the case, we need to broaden our definition of work and we need to appreciate it more. So many of us view work as drudgery, and sometimes it is, but it doesn’t have to be. If we’re going to spend fifty percent of our waking hours working in an office and forty percent working at home and ten percent working at church and the PTA and soccer practice (whatever your personal permutation may be), we’d be wise to make the most of it.
Genesis is on the money: Work may be central to life, but it isn’t always fun. And it’s not supposed to be. Because the world is a messed up place, life includes pain and toil and sweat. It’s not always easy, but that can make the rewards even better.
I won’t get into the specifics of my work because I hear it’s unprofessional and going to get you canned to blog about one’s place of business (which, if you’re reading this, my superiors, I like very much, and how did you get here?), but I will say that I’ve really begun to understand the joy of work from Genesis 2 and the curse of work from the next chapter. You love it, and at the same time you hate it. You want to make it to the top, and yet you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. The challenge is exciting and horrifying. The rewards—in this case, the Benjamin stacks—are a gift, while at the same time sucking you into a cycle of dependence.
College should be more about work: Education serves a lot of important purposes: teaching facts and thinking, providing social services, honing gifts, socializing. Another thing it does—and I’ve come to think it should do much more—is prepare young people for work.
Obviously there are differences between professional schools and liberal arts schools, and that’s fine, but students need to be more aware of 1) what they’re getting with each and 2) what they’ll need after their schooling is done. Make no mistake, I loved school, especially Calvin. It’s where I found my best friends, where I became an adult and where I learned most about the world and myself. But I’ll tell you straight up, a lot of schools, even grad schools, don’t do much for you professionally.
1. My schooling is incredibly important to me personally, but professionally, I think my degrees have proven most valuable as entry keys, as networks rather than knowledge. Without that BA and MA, I probably wouldn’t have the job or opportunities I have, but I use only a tiny fraction of the knowledge I’ve been equipped with. Ask yourself if the degree itself is worth the costs.
2. Learning a discipline is quite different than working in it. This is truer in some disciplines than others, but to some degree it’s true in all. I know plenty of people who studied something they were interested in for four years, and then when they entered the field for work, they discovered they didn’t like it. Solutions: maybe more internships, more speakers from the field, more practical training?
3. It’s become popular lately, especially from Times columnists like Friedman and Brooks, to talk about “adding value.” I think this is smart. As I’ve come to understand it, managers and HR departments don’t care very much about what school you went to, where you’ve traveled, what obstacles you’ve overcome, or even all the things you know. They care about what you can do for them. What experience do you have adding value in the past, and how can you add value to your place of work in the future?
Do something you don’t like: This one’s tricky. I’ve come to think it’s healthy to, at least for a while, do work you don’t love. If you find The Perfect Job straight out of school, stay with it, but if not, don’t count it a waste. A bad job is like a bad relationship. Afterward, you’ll know more about what you want and how to achieve it. You’ll know more about yourself. Hopefully, you’ll learn patience and contentment and endurance and gratitude. And, in the wise words of Ashton Kutcher and fathers everywhere, don’t leave your current job until you’ve landed your next one.
Do something you like: Having been in the professional world for a year, I see how true it is. After you’ve paid your dues, you should do something that gives you some joy. Don’t work just for the paycheck unless you absolutely must. Use your gifts to benefit the world. Fill a need that matters to you. Create your own job.
You’re going to be working in one capacity or another for most of your life. There will be good days and bad days, but most days that’s up to you.
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.