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The Power of Work


I have a quote on the wall above my desk that reads, “Meaningful work is a good distraction.” As I retire for the second time at the end of this week, I can’t stress enough the truth of those words. And I mean “distraction” in the very best—and perhaps loosest—sense of the word. When I started teaching as an adjunct at a state university 41 years ago this September, the idea of meaningful work distracted me from the fear brewing in my head that maybe I would never figure out what I was going to do with my life. Since then, this work has continued to keep that feeling at bay and has soothed me as a human in more ways than I can count.


There are few careers as meaningful as teaching. From the beginning of every class, when you realize how nervous the students are, to the end, when so many of them are now carrying a bit more of their own worth, it is a job filled with the possibility of growth and change. That sounds like a romanticized version of a job that is also filled to the brim with long evenings and weekends spent grading papers, but there is nothing like the moment when you can almost see the light come on in a student’s head. Even when I eventually went into administration, and replaced the tedium of paper grading with the frustrations of scheduling classes, hearing student complaints and going to 8 million meetings a week, it was significant work to me. By then, I knew the true power of college. I knew what it had done for me, and I saw every day what it did for the students who came to believe it was a place they belonged.

I will see it as the continuation of me developing my contribution to the world around me.

Education is by no means the only work that has meaning; clearly, it is just the field I know. But whatever we do, there is so much that comes from work we enjoy. One huge source of the value of work comes from the people with whom we do it. Many of our co-workers spend more time with us than our family members do. They are the people who often see us at our best and at our worst. They share the times when something isn’t quite working, and those in which we develop an idea that actually helps. Most of my closest friends (and my spouse) are people I met at work.

As I’ve written here frequently, the first time I retired, I had a plan that felt like it was well-considered. What it didn’t include was other people—because no one I knew was retired yet. I also didn't fully realize yet that doing something meaningful and creative with other people needs to be a part of my life no matter what I'm doing. This time, I’m a little smarter about it. I will do some consulting and some projects with friends—and I will see it as the continuation of me developing my contribution to the world around me.


I also know that it’s likely I’ll go back to work again at some point—probably not permanently, but I’m not ruling anything out. If someone offers me something that sounds interesting, why would I say no? I do want more open time—an element of life that I think we need more of whether we’re working or not—but I don’t want my whole life to be that. I want to be interested and interesting. I want to connect with other people and I want to be creative. Sometimes that looks like work, and sometimes it just looks like having coffee with a friend.


It’s funny to me that we don’t learn the true value of these basic parts of our lives until we’re so far along in them. Then we find ourselves looking back with deep appreciation for all of the opportunities we’ve had to talk, listen, grow, change and encourage all of that in other people. For so many of us, our greatest contribution is helping to create spaces for other people to find their way, and to make it safe and interesting for them to do it. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have found a path that opened so many more for me. And along the way, while this path frequently allowed me to escape some of my own anxieties, it also let me help other people to find their direction and many paths of their own.