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Worthwhile Work

In the last days of my temporary return to work, I’m teetering between a regimented life of routine that is jam-packed with external expectations, and a carefree existence in which I can do whatever I want whenever I want to do it. Of course neither of those descriptions is wholly accurate, but however you view things it’s basically the difference between work and play. I’m not alone in my long-held simplistic belief that work is hard and relaxing is easy. If something requires a lot of energy, time, planning, and execution, it’s work.

“It was a lot of work,” I said to people who asked how our recent move went. “I really have to work on that,” I will say to Jodi when I am promising to not interrupt her so often. “It’s going to take some work,” I thought when I decided to go back to therapy recently. Like many of us, I group together activities that require my most mature and responsible skills and I call them work. I use the same word to describe how I make a living. Unless we’re extremely lucky—or we’re at the very beginning of an exciting career—what we do at our job often feels difficult and dreary compared to everything else. For me, as a result, the idea of “doing the work” that I really need to do in other areas of my life often seems foreboding.

The real work—the things that are hard, but meaningful and worth every moment of effort—is the core of life for me.

Author Steven Pressfield wrote an entire book on this subject called Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way. When it comes to completing the difficult tasks we’ve set in front of ourselves, whether it’s a diet, a book we want to write, or a design we want to create, resistance is our worst enemy, he says. Resistance comes in the form of everything from procrastination to self-doubt to addiction to perfectionism. I’m thinking a lot about this right now because I sometimes believe I have created the most sophisticated method of resisting the work of writing. Since I’ve been reading books like Pressfield’s for years, I am pretty aware of the times I create defenses against actually sitting down and doing my writing work. I sign up for writing classes, read books about writing, and talk about writing with my friends. How much closer can I get?

My point, of course, is that I’ve associated writing with something hard—with work, with struggle, with difficulty, and it is all of those things on some level. But so is preparing an amazing meal, or even taking a long road trip to see the way the sky touches the green of that distant field.

I think if it wakes me up, if it requires me to look inside myself, and if it asks me to dig a little deeper, that is definitely work, but it’s not the same as cleaning out my garage or going to a job that no longer inspires me. It’s work because it requires me to go further than I want to sometimes, but the pay-off is completely different. This all makes me so aware of our uncreative and limiting approach to language. As we learned long ago, using the word “love” to describe how we feel about hamburgers, the Giants, and our significant other is inadequate. The same is true with work.

For most of us, work—like what we do at our jobs—is hard and mandatory and something we wish we could get out of earlier in our lives. The real work—the things that are hard, but meaningful and worth every moment of effort—is the core of life for me. A complex conversation with Jodi, a tough decision about saving money, a commitment to more exercise and writing are all so worth it. And yet I have limited myself by putting a wall between me and the work of my real life.

My idea is to separate these things in my head, at least, to put them in their own category: activities that require my full energy and attention, and usually more brainpower and creativity. They deserve better than simply calling them “hard work.” They require the best of me and the payoff is so much greater than a paycheck at the end of the month. As I return to retirement, I’m interested in parsing things out with a bit more delicacy so that I can give this "work" the room and time and credit it deserves.

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