Monthly Archives: February 2016

Meaningful Work

Meaningful Work

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.

Yes, Unschooling is Progressive

Unschooling is Progressive

Yes, unschooling is progressive. I am not sure why this is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. But, these days, I seem to be spending more time than usual talking to people about how most life learners are engaged in the life of their communities – and that, in fact, it’s a large part of how they learn. I am amazed that, at least four decades into the modern home education experience, many (most?) people on the progressive left end of the political spectrum still think learning without school is isolationist and therefore socially regressive.

For instance, I have just finished an exchange with a guy who thought he had uncovered a major contradiction in my thinking and, therefore, in my work. Home-based education, he declared, is highly individualized and focused on the family, which isolates children from society. It’s self-centered by nature, he stated, turning out “graduates” who are lacking interest in society and the common good. That, he pointed out, is totally out of sync with my writing in Natural Life Magazine about social change, the New Economy, environmental issues, and so on. He actually said the “flaw” that he’d detected diminishes my credibility as someone interested in solving world problems…and kindly urged me to drop the “infatuation with homeschooling.”

Always ready to patiently explain and educate, I assured him that unschooling is progressive, after all. I first tried to help him understand the error of his stereotypical view of home education. I agreed that there are some homeschooling families that are insular in their outlook, and assured him that many others aren’t. Stereotyping people who live without school is just as ridiculous as making broad assumptions about people whose kids attend school.

In reality, there are large numbers of civic-minded life learning families for whom unschooling is progressive – adults and children alike who volunteer their time, speak up about important issues, and are active in other ways that will help their communities. These families model public service for their children, demonstrate to their neighbors that children have a voice, and provide a rich learning environment – in addition to creating social change.

I hoped that providing my critic with some examples would help him understand the linkages between learning without schooling and social change. In the September/October 2014 issue of Life Learning Magazine, we wrote about community engagement and unschooling. In the November/December issue, I wrote about place-based education, which allows students to use their local communities as resources for learning by doing. And in the January/February 2015 issue, we tied those two concepts together with a series of profiles of unschooling families that are active in their communities.

As is all too common on social media, the guy didn’t thank me for the information or even take the time to read those articles. Instead, propelled by his righteousness, he immediately went on to blame home-based education for what he called the “current and widespread degeneration of civic engagement.” That, of course, is rather much of an overstatement, but most homeschoolers are used to being told they should fix schools from the inside rather than bleeding off “the cream of the crop” from the system and therefore making it worse that it already is.

Realizing the futility of talking to a wall, I didn’t go on to point out to this person that public schools are not the models of democracy and human rights that he thinks they are. As I wrote in Challenging Assumptions in Education, children learn about democracy by living and participating in one – going to public meetings, educating their fellow citizens about issues, protesting when something happens they think is inappropriate, and so on. Being forced to attend school five days a week, where many aspects of life are out of their control, doesn’t help them learn how to function democratically. So I didn’t bother to suggest that removing the compulsory attendance requirement and top-down methods of operation would go a long way toward putting some reason behind those criticisms.

If he’d been willing to listen further, I’d have told this person that all the things I work on are side effects of the Industrial Revolution. That includes public schools, the separation of work and play, the compartmentalization of functions in society, environmental and public health damage, human rights issues, and the devaluation of home life and of the work of women and children. And the solutions to the problems created by those things are inevitably interconnected.

All I can hope for is that eventually this guy will notice how school-free children and young people are repopulating their communities on a daily basis – shopping, banking, volunteering in seniors’ homes and animal shelters, attending public meetings, going to the library, playing in the park, swimming at the community center. And maybe then he’ll realize that kids are citizens too, and that they are interested in and involved in community life, something that’s arguably easier for school-free kids that for their peers who are sitting in schools, insulated from real life.

Maybe then, he’ll realize that there is no flaw in my belief that the liberation of children and young people is an important part of the solution to the many problems his and my generations have created. Yes, unschooling is progressive…and much more.

When Activist Icons Undermine Their Causes

When activist icons undermine their causes.

Many problems arise when working on issues that aren’t solved quickly; one is that the issues can outlive those who have been publicly working on them for a long time. And sometimes, those veterans of the cause who become activist icons can undermine their own work if they hang around too long.

Feminism is one of those causes. We’ve come a long way baby…but we have a long way to go.

For instance, I’m disturbed by recent comments made by two prominent feminists of my generation speaking in favor of their preferred candidate in the nomination process for the U.S. presidential election (in which I have no say and will voice no opinion).

Here’s 81-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem the other day: “Women tend to get more radical…because they lose power as they age,” she told broadcaster Bill Maher while discussing why a large number of young women are supporting Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton, who is Steinem’s favorite. “They’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think, ‘where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’”

And here is 78-year-old Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, scolding those same young women who favor the man in the race and telling them, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

I think these comments are not only condescending, but dangerously sexist and ageist. They are undermining the work Steinem and Albright and their colleagues have accomplished for women’s rights. And they are dismissing the opinions of a generation of energetic, thoughtful young women who have finally found something/someone political to get excited about. Methinks these feminist activist icons didn’t need to do quite so much damage as they campaigned in favor of the woman president that would nicely cap off their feminist careers!

I know a bit about this.

One the issues I’ve worked on for most of my adult life – promoting learner-directed, school-free education – is another of those big elephants that is taking a few generations to turn around.

As I age (I’m 65), and as the ground shifts, my role in that turnaround is changing. I’m actually wondering if my role has run its course. I find myself thinking maybe it’s time to leave the next round to all those younger women (and a few men) who are so capably articulating the issues and supporting the cause…and each other. But for now, some people still listen to what bits of wisdom I have to share. So I stick around, although I’ve largely stepped out of the fray. Mostly, I observe from the sidelines. I marvel at how far we’ve come and how much things have changed, even if the problem still isn’t solved. I turn down speaking engagements and media requests. And I come to terms with the fact that things might not have unfolded completely in line with my personal, original vision.

So, to Steinem and Albright and probably others of my generation (including myself, for whom this is a good reminder), I say this:

Separate yourself and your ego from your work so that your present words and actions don’t undermine your legacy. Be on guard for the day that your opinion on the topic you’ve loved for so long has become so unhelpful or even irrelevant to the current situation that it has become harmful.

On one hand, I admire Steinem’s stance of not giving up the torch; of course, age does not necessarily diminish our ability to be effective.

On the other hand, when we babble counterproductive nonsense, we not only set back the cause we’re engaged in, we stop younger people from respecting us (and others) as elders, and from accepting the torches we’re passing to them.

If I get to that stage and am still hanging around the school-free scene, please just put me on an ice flow (if there are any left) and give it a shove – figuratively, if course. 😉