At a time of high unemployment and world-wide financial instability, the idea of meaningful work may seem frivolous. On the other hand, increasing job instability, contract employment, and self-employment are trends that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. So perhaps meaningful work can be an opportunity to make ourselves happy and prosperous, while contributing to larger change.
Secure, highly paid jobs are becoming the exception rather than the norm. As I wrote in an article for Life Learning Magazine in 2010, those jobs, for the most part, belonged to a pre-climate change era of expanding profitability, corporate greed and fraud, stable markets, cheap goods, and abundant natural resources. In a new era when currency systems and markets are volatile, climatic conditions are uncertain, and environmental costs will be accounted for in the costing of goods and services, smaller scale, sufficiency-based economics flourishes.
Since we are having to reinvent production and consumption systems to be more ecologically sustainable and convivial, why not explore the idea of meaningful work? What I am referring to is the sort of life-affirming and non-exploitative work that is sometimes referred to as “ethical livelihood.” You may also have heard to term “Right Livelihood” – a traditional Buddhist teaching and one aspect of the eight-fold path taught by the Buddha.
I first came across Right Livelihood in the mid-1970s when my husband Rolf and I were starting the business that publishes our magazines, beginning with Natural Life Magazine in 1976. I read about it in the book Seven Laws of Money by Michael Phillips and Salli Raspberry. (A decade before the book was published, Phillips was a young vice president of the Bank of California and responsible for creating the modern universal multi-bank credit card Master Charge, now MasterCard.) His explanation of meaningful work provided us with some good start-up advice, albeit not of the conventional sort.
The first Law of Money according to Phillips was: “Money will come when you are doing the right thing…Worry about your ability to do it and competence to do it, but certainly do not worry about the money.” In our society, where money worries are the cause of everything from suicides to divorce and fraud-fueled jail time, that principle is hard for many people to accept. It could mean something as simple as offering the right product, or as complicated as trusting that your right effort will somehow be noticed and rewarded, or putting ethics and service to others before profit. But that is the basis on which we built our business.
We bootstrapped our start-up, trusting that it was the right thing to do, and it’s been a good life. We regularly receive positive feedback from those who feel their lives have been enriched by our forty years of work, and we can sleep at night knowing that we operate ethically and honestly.
In addition, I still enjoy what I do, which is key to meaningful work…and to mental and physical health. The joy of finding our Right Livelihood it is that what others may see as duty or sacrifice is seen as pleasurable, and even the most difficult and demanding aspects of our work will not sway us from our course. Commitment seems to come more easily when your work is your Right Livelihood, whether you run a business or hold a job.
I feel grateful that my work has allowed me to live authentically, doing what I’m most passionate about. As I used to tell my students when I taught micro-business start-up courses, life and work are intertwined. So why not try to choose work that reflects the whole of your person? When our work misses that connection, we can become easily disenchanted with it, and with ourselves. And that’s not good for our personal productivity or the broader economy within which we work.
“He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him.” ~Henry David Thoreau
But there is more to Right Livelihood. For those who practice Buddhism, Right Livelihood is part of their spiritual practice. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others …Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”
No matter how we make a living, we can make many choices and changes in our workplaces, and there are many instances where we can not only engage in meaningful work but be of service to fellow workers and to the world. We can be honest and conscientious. We can perform our work mindfully and have compassion for our fellow workers. And perhaps we are (or may be later) in a position to make or influence ethical purchasing choices.
Those changes that an individual can make in his/her workplace are the theme of the book Work as a Spiritual Practice, by Buddhist writer and teacher Lewis Richmond, who uses the term “conscious livelihood” to illuminate the principles of Right Livelihood. But Richmond has more recently noted that conscious livelihood should not be limited to individual awareness and action. He believes that society at large also has a responsibility to be conscious of the consequences of its economic and employment policies. That means we all need to be responsible for thinking about how we deal with issues of unemployment and under-employment, of workplace exploitation, and of how corporate decisions influence the health of Nature and our climate. All of those and more are factors in making meaningful work a part of our economies and our lives, while thriving in the newly decentralized, creative workplace that writers like Seth Godin (Linchpin) and Richard Florida (The Great Reset) tell us is our future.