Work and the Deep LifeApril 5th, 2020 · 23 comments
One of the key elements of my deep life philosophy is its emphasis on craft. This topic applies to both professional and leisure pursuits, but in this post, I want to focus on the former. (See Digital Minimalism for more on the latter.)
I became really interested in career development ideas around 2010, when I began the research for what eventually became my fourth book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Here’s what I discovered about the standard career thinking embraced by many college-educated young people in our country:
- It understands jobs to be like a contract: you do the work assigned, you get to keep the position.
- It believes career satisfaction results from finding the right job for your natural pre-existing interests. This mindset is summed up by the ubiquitous advice to “follow your passion.” If you don’t like your job, it’s because you chose the wrong field.
The deep life philosophy offers an alternative vision centered on valuable skills:
- It believes security comes from being able to do things that are valuable, and, more generally, being comfortable picking up new valuable skills quickly when circumstances require.
- It believes that satisfaction comes from some combination of autonomy, impact and/or a sense of mastery, which (as I argue in So Good) require valuable skills as a necessary precondition.
If you subscribe to standard career thinking, you focus on work ethic; implicitly believing that if you tell people enough times that you’re “busy” when they ask how you’re doing that this will somehow alchemize into indispensability. In times of plenty, you also expend a lot of energy pondering whether your current work is really your “passion,” and daydream about job shifts that might unlock a torrent of latent satisfaction. (Such thinking, naturally, is suppressed during times of economic strain.)
If you subscribe to deep career thinking, by contrast, you focus intensely on training high-value skills, like an athlete looking to maintain an edge. Skills not only provide you security (effort, relatively speaking, is abundant, while there’s always a demand for value-producing expertise), but they can be used as leverage to gain more autonomy, or increase your sense of impact, or provide that powerful feeling of fulfillment found only in mastery: all of which will make your work more satisfying.
Those who lead a deep life, however, also tend to seek ways to boost the meaning they derive from their work. Both dedicated teachers and career military professionals, for example, are known to cultivate well-justified structures of deep meaning around their craft. (I admire both these groups immensely.) While those engaged in purely intellectual pursuits, like professors and writers, often seek inspiring physical environments in which to work.
This is the deep approach to work: Master a useful craft, use this mastery to shape your working life in a way that’s both secure and satisfying, then look to build structures around your efforts that further amplify their meaning.
I only wish this was as easy to do as it was to explain…