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The Meaning of Work


When I tell people that I un-retired and went back to work, they roll their eyes. I know they are doing everything they can not to say, “What in the heck are you thinking, you big idiot?” But most of those people are not retired themselves. To them, giving up the freedom of open time for the tyranny of a busy schedule is a little like turning down a steak dinner when you haven't eaten in days.

But it’s not that simple, and I think this will become clear to most folks when they retire, too. It turns out there is much more to working than busy days and burnout. I’ve said this before, but many people in my generation gleaned a good deal of the meaning of our lives from the work we performed. It’s where we developed skills, learned what we really liked and didn’t like, met lifetime friends and received validation. I probably wouldn’t have been able to identify the significance of that validation until I was in my retired life. Suddenly, not much that I did resulted in someone telling me I was awesome.

Work is how I have learned some of my most important lessons about myself.

When I first retired, I refinished the cabinets in a small bathroom in our house. It was so much harder a job than I ever imagined that I complained about it daily when Jodi got home from work. She was sweet and encouraging, but home repair was clearly not going to become the area of my life where I would find meaning. Similarly, when I cleaned the filthy track on the sliding glass door a few weeks later, rather than telling me what an amazing person I was, Jodi smiled sweetly. But she also looked nervous, since we both knew my life meaning was not waiting for me in household chores.

I did go back to work in interim jobs a few times after that, but it wasn’t until I returned last summer that all the pieces fell together perfectly. For whatever reason, it happens that I’m lucky to work now with a large group of people who seem happy to encourage me and tell me I’m doing a good job. Being appreciated definitely gives me purpose. We all need to feel that we are contributing to the greater good, regardless of what we’re doing.

But, we often forget to pat each other on the back because we get busy and we don’t stop to think about how much it means. Still, I know that if I communicate sincere support and encouragement to the people in my life, it can change their day and even their feelings about themselves. It has certainly done that for me. I’m not talking about false compliments, but rather getting outside of our own schedules and to-do lists long enough to just say, “You are doing a great job. Thanks so much.”

Getting positive feedback from other people at my current job doesn’t mean I’m going to work forever and never retire. But, it's reminded me of the significance of external validation. It’s meaningful to me to be acknowledged for the things I do. In my original plan to be retired and work on my writing and other projects, I didn’t make a place for that to exist. I will definitely need to figure that out before my next retirement. I don’t need constant applause, but I do need the encouragement that comes from another human telling me they like what I did.

For me, work is how I have learned some of my most important lessons about myself. Not working left a bit of a blank slate, but I know now that I need human interaction and supportive feedback in whatever I’m doing. And I’m realizing more and more that if I need it, I know other people do, too. We help each other grow, whether we realize it or not.