Redefining Work and Identity
from The Jobs Letter No.143 / 26, April 2001
OUR GREATEST OPPORTUNITY for personal discovery and growth, according to
David Whyte, is the thing we most often want to get away from: our work. It's where people spend
the majority of their time, and it's where many spend much of it wishing they were somewhere
else, doing something else. And it's where people often spend their time not being present, not
being themselves. Whyte: "As human beings we are one part of creation that can refuse to be itself.
Our bodies can be present in our work, but our hearts, minds and imaginations can be placed firmly
in neutral or engaged elsewhere..."
Yorkshire-born poet David Whyte is the best-selling author of
The Heart Aroused (pub. 1994) and is one of the few poets to have taken his perspectives on work and creativity into the field
of organisational development, where he consults with many leading Fortune 500 companies.
Whyte points out that we more often think of family, relationships, friends, religion, or
spiritual practices as the domains in which our soul life is defined and refined places where our
personal identities are nurtured and shaped. This book explores and reclaims our working lives as
an opportunity for fully inhabiting our individuality and maximizing our creativity.
The author argues that one of the often missed opportunities of our lives is to have what
William Blake called "a firm persuasion" in our work to feel that what we do is right for ourselves
and good for the world at exactly the same time. With a unique blend of poetry, gifted
storytelling, and personal experience, this book redefines work as a pilgrimage towards finding such "a
"This may be the most consoling piece of writing ever published on the subject of
work." Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce
- All of our great artistic and religious traditions take equally great pains to inform us that
we must never mistake a good career for good work. Life is a creative, intimate and
unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our
life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation. In Blake's sense, a
firm persuasion, was a form of
self-knowledge; it was understood as a result, an outcome, a bounty that
came from paying close attention to an astonishing world and the way each of us is made
differently and uniquely for that world.
Blake saw the great powers of life working on us like a kind of permanent gravity field,
the currents of life acting and pulling upon us according to our particular heft and spiritual
weight, our makeup and our nature. These currents surround us and inform us whether we are in
the kitchen or in the office, in the woods alone, or crowded in a downtown elevator. To have a
firm persuasion, according to Blake, we must come to know these currents that surround us in
an intimate way and build a kind of faith from the directional movement that results from a
close conversation with these elements. Almost like a sail conversing with the wind, every sail
will respond differently to the elements according to its shape and the vessel it propels. And
the response of the sail, with a steady hand at the tiller, creates movement and direction.
- We are called Homo sapiens, which in Greek means wise human being, but perhaps,
more true to our nature, we should be called Homo
forgettens, because the capacity of human beings
to forget what they are about in their work irrespective of whether they are successful is one of
our great and abiding features. We can spend a third of our lives preparing ourselves for our
work, and find our selves forgetting the original inspiration behind all that preparation the moment
we take a seat at our new desk.
Somehow, whatever creative powers we have in our work are intimately connected to our
ability to remember who we are amidst the traumas and losses of existence. All of our great
literary traditions emphasize again and again the central importance of this dynamic: that there are
tremendous forces at work upon us, trying to make us like everyone else, and therefore we
must remember something intensely personal about the way we were made for this world in order
to keep our integrity.
- The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of
existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not travelling at the
same velocity as we are. We see only those moving in the same whirling orbit and only those
moving with the same urgency.
Soon we begin to suffer a form of amnesia, caused by the blurred vision of velocity itself,
where those things germane to our humanity are dropped from our minds one by one. We start to
lose sight of any colleagues who are moving at a slower pace, and we start to lose sight of the
bigger, slower cycles that underlie our work. We especially lose sight of the big, unfolding wave
form passing through our lives that is indicative of our central character.
On the personal side, as slaves to speed, we start to lose sight of family members,
especially children, or those who are ill or infirm, who are not flying through the world as quickly
and determinedly as we are. Just as seriously, we begin to leave behind the parts of our own
selves that limp a little, the vulnerabilities that actually give us colour and character. We forget that
our sanity is dependent on a relationship with longer, more patient cycles extending beyond
the urgencies and madness of the office.
- We break relationships when they are too small for us, when the home we have made
in them cramps our particular style and holds us in a way that begins to deform our character.
We are reimagining our houses of belonging now, and one of the first to be reimagined is the
world of work. We are attempting to make work more lifelike, more in the image of what we
instinctively want for ourselves.
Every organization attempting to wake up to this newly youthful world is now asking for
qualities from its people that are touchstones of their humanity. It is difficult to be creative and
enthusiastic about anything for which we do not feel affection. If the aims of the company are
entirely fiscal, then they will engage those whose affections are toward the almighty dollar. If they have
a range of qualities or a sense of creative engagement to be found through their doors, they may
get in return something more worthwhile from their people.
It seems to me that this contract of creativity and engagement is essential now. Companies
need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the
sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people
to bring these hidden, heartfelt qualities into the workplace. A way that doesn't make them
feel manipulated or the subject of some five-year plan. They must ask for a real
Crossing the Unknown Sea
Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity
by David Whyte
(published by Riverhead Books 2001)
available from amazon.com
More information on David Whyte is available on
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