Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Work

To me, the vocabulary of physics has a gravitational tang. Even when physics terms make their way into other linguistic spheres, they carry with them a sense of weight and inevitability that makes for heaviness on the tongue. I'm talking force, torque, inertia, mass: musty, lumpen words that smack of tenth grade.

Then there's work. Work, to put it mildly, weighs on me. It has its own unit of measurement, the erg, though I've also quantified it in hours, days, and pain. Currently, I go to work Monday through Friday, and I spend a good chunk of time outside of working hours thinking about work and its place in my life.

The psychologist Howard Gardner thinks about work, too. Specifically about good work, and what makes a job worthwhile. According to Mr. Gardner, the criterion for "good work" is threefold: it must combine excellent performance with an expression of one's ethics and a sense of engagement. Minus any of these ingredients, a job may be remunerative or even rewarding, but it is not good work.

Do you do good work? Because I don't. I've waffled rather spectacularly with regard to career over the last ten years, and I think a large part of my indecision has been difficulty balancing these three components. Currently, I work as a therapist in the inner city schools. This job does an excellent job of expressing my ethics, but that's about as far as it goes: I am only intermittently engaged by the work that I do, and it's a job that meshes poorly with my natural talents and abilities. I am mediocre at my job, and that depresses me.

In contrast, there are jobs I've dabbled in that are suitably engaging and that play better to my strengths, but which fail at some level to express my ethics. I wish I felt that making music or scribbling the odd poem was enough of a contribution to the world, but I don't. I don't condemn people who choose to be musicians or writers -in fact, I'm pretty damn jealous- but for myself, I feel like it's not an ethical option.

How to achieve the triple crown? Search me. For now, I'll just lie back and think of ergs.