Choosing to do meaningful work
We have to consciously choose to use our freedom well. I’m aware of few authors who put this more pungently than Annie Dillard.
In her book The Writing Life she reflects on her work as a writer.
“Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence…It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.”
The freedom to create something new is the heart of exhilarating work, a fact, I would think, not lost on the Creator himself. To dream up a project, bring it to reality, and see its affect on others – this is meaningful work.
Yet there is an ugly opposite to this creative work as well. Dillard writes,
“The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever…Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.”
This quote struck me like a dull club. When I read this I thought about my relationship to email and to web surfing. There is no lack of triviality in our culture, and in our work there are mounds of tasks we could simply leave undone, and nobody would care.
I’m reminded of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. He advises executives to not make to-do lists, but instead not-to-do lists. Hacking away at the trivial will do more to improve effectiveness than adding to the stack of the important.
I’m also reminded of Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission. At a Willow Creek Leadership Summit Conference several years ago, he pleaded with pastors to call out to God to, “save us from all that is petty.” Where is this plea today, in a world afloat with digital triviality?
One of the great verses used in faith and work circles is in the prayer of Moses: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands – O establish the work of our hands!” (Ps. 90:17).
The context of the verse, however, is an extended reflection on the fleeting nature of human life. “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered,” (Ps. 90:6-7). In the scope of eternity, the prayer to “establish the work of our hands” is built upon a knowledge of the shocking brevity of life.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” So here’s the question: What makes work worth doing?
Discussion question: Do you intentionally choose which tasks you will and won’t do on any given day? What criteria do you use to make this decision? How would you define “work worth doing?”