I have been writing a monthly column for Northern Express and I am going to start posting some here.
Last month I was asked to join about fifty other professionals at Traverse City Central High for mock interviews. Every sophomore was required to sit across the table with one of us and have a real job interview. We saw a group of students who represented their generation well. They were poised and prepared. Their answers were thoughtful. The whole experience spoke well for what is to come. There was one trend however, that left me concerned. A significant percentage of the students I spoke with confidently stated that they were looking for “meaningful work.”
This month and next students will graduate from high school and college. They will go on to more education, they will take internships, or they will begin careers. If I could speak at all those commencement ceremonies this would be my thesis: Do not look for meaningful work; understand how whatever you do is important.
Philo Farnsworth is the inventor of the modern concept of television. While Farnsworth was working on his projects, his sister Agnes took care of their family home. How would it have changed our world if Farnsworth had to reduce the time he spent on his research so he could cook meals and do laundry. Philo Farnsworth changed the world, but Agnes Farnsworth made his work possible.
When I hear a young person talk about looking for “work that can make a difference” I hear “I don’t understand the value of work in general.” And I know that person will not ever be satisfied in my employ. Work is by definition purposeful. If a job had no value no one would pay to have it done. Graduates, it is your job to see the importance in every task you undertake.
I am a photographer. I do not photograph enslaved children in Africa and my work has meaning. When I make a landscape photograph I am creating a historical document. Regardless of how that place may change over the years I am preserving what once was. When I make a photo illustration for an editorial feature I am helping give the writer’s words life. When I make a senior portrait I am showing the subject how others can see them. I am presenting their best self and preserving it for the future. I am creating a keepsake of someone’s first girlfriend that he will hold long after he is married to someone else. I am giving parents something to remember that fleeting second in their child’s life that always seems to race away too quickly. Even the most mundane of product photographs is an essential tool for the manufacturer. When I help them sell their products I contribute to their success. I am a part of the reason every one of their employees will get a paycheck at the end of the month.
I celebrate all work. On a day-to-day basis, Joe from Williams Pumping, who keeps my septic system working, allows me a civilized life. Leon at the Muffler Shop keeps my cars running safely. Countless times each week he replaces brakes and checks bearings. He is saving lives so the EMS crew doesn’t have to show up at an accident scene. NBC will never make a show called Chicago Auto Mechanic because Leon’s work is quiet and preventative. It is nonetheless essential.
Farmers can grow all the food. Bakers can make our daily bread. But we go Family Fare or Oryana to get it. Grocery stores feed us too. They allow us to stop once and get everything we need. Deb at the Meijer cash register keeps our transactions quick and accurate. We all owe precious hours of our lives to cashiers who get us in and out of the store as quickly as possible. A good cashier allows me to spend more time with my family. For me, nothing has more meaning.
Family is work too. Heather is there after school to take her young children for a bike ride on the first nice day of spring. She clips coupons to assure that every penny in her family budget is spent carefully. Her kids won’t know that she prays for them every night. They won’t realize the she keeps the house organized so they can have an orderly life. They won’t notice that their mom helps out with all the school fundraisers. Heather’s kids will just grow up happy. And that is meaningful work.
Graduates, you will be flooded with Internet memes telling you about social responsibility and passion. It’s a load of crap. If you find something you are good at, and you do it well, you are doing meaningful work. When you are unhappy with your work go look in the mirror. Ask yourself, what am I overlooking about this job. How am I failing to see the critical importance in what I do? It doesn’t take an article in a magazine or a television drama to make work count. It takes you. Meaningful is in your heart.