"If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work then we will be designing a human nature that values work," wrote psychologist Barry Swartz. On the flip side of that coin, John Steinbeck lamnts, "Given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all." So who's right? Human nature and, dare I say that of many frogs...including yours truly..know that our nature is to be a bit moody; and the truth about working will lie somewhere in the middle of these two statements. Work has a proundly different meaning for the artist than it does for the laborer, of course, but even those of us who are lucky enough to earn a living doing what we love to do have the occaisional spell of apathy that makes getting out of bed in the morning sometimes nearly impossible. What then can we do on those days to motivate us to get up and get going? The source of my inspiration this morning may well surprise you.
If we look back two thousand years ago, people worked because it was necessary to existence. no work, no food and no shelter. Certainly no thought was ever given to the notion that work should provide meaning and purpose to the person doing it. Or did it? Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome (161-180 A.D.) wrote what today would amount to a blog, on such topics as 'how to begin each day with optimal sanity and the key to living life fully.' Yep. He was writing about these very topics some two millenia ago. Aurelius wrote, "At dawn, when you have trouble getting yourself out of bed, tell yourself 'As a human being, I have to go to work. What do I have to complain of, if I'm doing what I was born for - the things I was brought into this world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?'" That's some pretty forward thing for an ol' Roman guy! But wait, it gets better. On quieting the mind's natural protest to getting up in the morning, Emperor Aurelius wrote, "So you were born to feel 'nice'? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don't you see the plants, the birds, and the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, the best they can? And you're not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren't you running to do what your nature demands?" He goes on to say that our nature is to live a life of service - to help others and to contribute to the world. Any resistence to this inherent purpose is, he adds, a negation of our nature and a failure of self-love. Now I don't know about you, but I was shocked to see that this concept was alive back in the days of the early Romans! Who knew? Is it any wonder they called Marcus Aurlelius one of the Five Good Emperors?
Aurelius also wrote, "You don't love yourself enough (if you stay in bed in the mornings). if you did, you'd love your nature, too, and what it demands of you." And many centuries before psychologists identified the experience of "flow" in creative work, Mr. Marcus was writing, "When they're possessed by what they do, they'd rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts." In another almost meditative essay, Aurelius wrote, "When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic - what defines a human being - is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it's the characteristic activity that's the more natural one - more innate and more satisfying."
With so many experts today reminding us to find work that not only pays the bills but also nourishes us and benefits the world, I find it rather satisfying to know that this concept isn't new or one that's all psycho-babble. Work isn't meant to be a drag. If you've ever known anyone who truly loves what they do, then you know how fortunate they are. For many of us, we go to work each day and spend our time being miserable; counting the hours until the next weekend, or holiday break. In ths new year, rather than ask your boss for a raise which, you hope, will better compensate you for a job you're less than happy doing, why not promise yourself that 2017 will be the year you find your bliss...and then actually do something about it.
I am reminded of another Ancient who also had wise words on the subject of work. Confucius tells us, "Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life." And boy Howdy...it was true then. And it's true now. Go on! Get up. Your morning is beckening you. What will you do today?