What work would you be willing to do for free if you could afford to?
I started asking myself that question when I first read it in a newspaper column written by Chicago newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris. I was a teenager then, and I held onto that clipping for years. I wish I had a copy of that column now, but it is long gone or lost among the paraphernalia of my high school and college years. What I do have is the memory of one sentence that has stuck with me for many years.
“Your life’s true work is that which you would be willing to do for free if you could afford to.”
I latched onto that idea as an impressionistic adolescent. I knew, even then, that it was a powerful idea and related to the happiness I would or would not have as an adult. I believe that our work is a significant part of our lives and that the work we do matters.
I have worked since I was a young teen. From the age of 11 or 12, my sister and I ran a very successful babysitting service. Our clients included almost every family with young children in a subdivision full of children. I loved being in charge of my income and the freedom to choose jobs as they fit into my ever- growing schedule of school and extra-curricular activities.
I didn’t know it then, but that experience planted the seeds of the entrepreneurial journey I am on now.
I had lots of other jobs through the years. I worked at a drive-in, a grocery store and a tax preparation company. I once had a summer job at a battery factory where I worked on an assembly line with prisoners who were on daily work release. I worked for temp agencies and spent another summer as a file clerk. I poured beer at hockey games and worked with juvenile delinquents as a counselor.
Later, I also became a teacher, a reading specialist, and a college professor. Just when I had earned tenure and promotion- the ultimate in professional achievement in the college world, I quit my job. I loved my work and the people I worked with, but the little voice in my head would not stop telling me that there was something more, something even better that I was supposed to be doing.
After all these years, I still wanted to find or create the work I would be willing to do for free if I could afford to.
I wasn’t sure exactly what that was. One of the first things that career counselors suggest is to take an inventory of all of your skills. I did that, but I also looked back at all of my former jobs and made a list of all of the things I liked about each job, and all of the things I didn’t like.
For example, I wrote that I loved the independence of being in charge of my babysitting schedule. I loved helping young juvenile delinquents by sitting with them and talking about their lives. I loved working with students and watching them grow. I loved doing professional development work with teachers, speaking at conferences and starting a national organization for a program I believed in.
I didn’t love working for an angry boss. Another boss was a micromanager, which offended me on several levels. Left to my own devices, I am highly motivated, but I shriveled under his microscopic scrutiny. I liked working with people, but found routine, repetitious work mind numbing. I liked work that offered variety and I wasn’t afraid of change.
Each work experience was a lesson in what works for me and what doesn’t. Finding the work we are meant to do is a process of trying and rejecting, of sifting and winnowing.
Perhaps some people find their right work early in life and stay with it forever. Others fall into a job or profession and just stay. These are the people who count the days and hours until the weekend, or until retirement. I never dreamed of retiring. I wanted work that made me happy and fulfilled.
I understand that most people can’t just up and quit their job. What you can do, is shift your work within a job. Take on more of the projects you like. Volunteer for work that enlarges and enriches your experience. Inch your way into doing more of what you love to do and less of what you don’t love.
With each job shift, I learned about myself. When I quit my job to start over, I had a vague idea of the direction I would go. I knew I would work for myself, that I have a passion for personal development and that I loved writing.
I quickly got freelance work, and the sifting and winnowing began. I learned the kinds of things I liked to write and those I don’t like to write. I learned that I like to help people grow in their lives and careers but I don’t want to assess them. I learned that I love interacting with people all over the world and that time schedules and location aren’t that important – I can work anywhere and at any time and often do.
Slowly but surely, I am creating the work that I would be willing to do for free if I could afford to. I love getting up in the morning and getting to do my work. I am thrilled when I earn a paycheck from writing something I am proud of, but equally happy when I get an email saying that something I wrote helped someone. I am creating a new on-line mentoring program for beginning teachers and I love working on this project. It is work that matters.
Yes, I need to get paid, but then I ask myself, if I were a billionaire, would I still be content working on these projects? It is the ultimate test of doing work that lights you up and that fills you with contentment and satisfaction.
The answer is yes.
I hope you are up there listening, Mr. Harris. It took me awhile, but I’ve found it.
Yes, yes, yes.
If you are brave enough, ask yourself the question. Are you doing work that you would be willing to do for free if you could afford to? If the answer is no, I challenge you.
What are you going to do about it?
For the love of the work,