“Your work is to discover your work
And then with all your heart
To give yourself to it.”
My high school art teacher was a worldly, well-heeled woman who hailed (ironically) from a North Carolina tobacco farm. She wore flashy Fifth Avenue fashions through the halls of our gritty public high school and brought us fine chocolates to sample, just for inspiration. Pinned to her bulletin board—crowded between faded reprints of Bosch, Botticelli, and Van Gogh—was a simple sign in hand-blocked letters: “It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it.” In all her flamboyance, Mrs. P. herself was a living example of this credo.
I remember asking her about this saying one day. I can still see her perfectly outlined, orangey-red lips forming the response: “I don’t care if you paint your toenails or a picture of the Taj Mahal,” she said. “Do it with style. Put yourself into it.”
Mrs. P. marked me forever by letting me know that what mattered most in my work was me. But in my warped little teenage brain, the writing on her wall also became seed of a certain neurosis, one that I still have trouble shaking. It goes like this: I should be able to summon my inner resources and be happy doing anything, anywhere. If I can’t, then I’m a failure.
Hmmm … so maybe that was a little harsh. And bad juju to carry into the working world.
Fast-forward ten years to my first job in San Francisco. At the publishing company where I’d been hired, I met a marketing assistant, Peyton, whose Aikido practice, culinary prowess, and event planning skills convinced me that she was far too interesting to be doing the dull work that she carried out every day. She was a creative virtuoso who could have done anything she put her mind to—so why was she so wholly content performing such inarguably mundane tasks every day?
We discussed this over West Berkeley’s best Indian food. Peyton smiled her wickedly intelligent smile, as if she knew the secret of the universe and was wildly amused that I kept missing it. “It doesn’t really matter what I do at this job. It matters what I bring to it.” She broadened her shoulders and thrust her chest forward. “Lately I’m trying to put my heart into every moment.”
Huh? Here was someone with as much reason as any of us to be disgruntled, and instead of breaking the oh-so oppressive bonds of full-time employment, she was engaging in some kind of spiritual growth exercise. Again, I decided that any discomfort I felt in my job was my own fault.
My coworker was taking Mrs. P.’s theory to the next level. With a work of art, we are fully autonomous and have utter control of my creative expression. The satisfaction of doing something our own way is part of the reward. A desk job, though—and it took this painting major years to admit it—is nothing like a work of art. There’s usually very limited autonomy, and self-expression is discouraged. I decided that Peyton, with her golden attitude, was my new hero—but I also secretly thought she would have made a better tango instructor.
Wanderlust magazine reports that 44% of the British workforce wants to quit their jobs and take an extended vacation. Around the globe, then, workers have begun to follow their hearts right out of their cubicles. But the gospel of Mrs. P. and the modus operandi of Peyton beg the question: Does it really even matter what we do all day?
This truly vexed me in the months before I left my recent marketing job. As easy as it was to look to the horizon—to fantasize about quitting and starting own my freelance business—I could also easily convince myself that it was wrong to consider quitting when there were still so many lessons to be learned from my work and from my colleagues.
Here’s where another, cruder bit of advice came into the picture and trumped everything—courtesy of my father’s army drill sergeant.
“There’s no need to practice being miserable.”
Wait … there isn’t? But doesn’t misery teach us to be tough and endure the shitty things in life?
Not if it’s consciously self-inflicted misery. In that case, it’s all a big, fake, masochistic setup. If we know we are not living up to our full potential under certain circumstances, and we have the power to transform those circumstances, then we have a calling to do just that.
I would guess that Mrs. P. still has those words tacked up on her bulletin board: “It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it.” After years of misinterpretation, I think they mean just what they say. And I don’t think we were meant to suffer for our art or our work. Life dishes out far too much unforeseen suffering for us to go around concocting our own.