Follow Your Real Work Inside and Outside of Institutions

walking pathAs a writer, my work is to “follow the thread” of a piece. As an editor, it’s essentially the same—to find the central thread of thinking/meaning in a piece, help the writer stay with it, and if necessary, make it more coherent and interesting. I love my work because it’s mostly about listening. No matter what shape a piece is in when I sit down with it, my job is to listen for voice and try to cut away the rest.If we take this idea and apply it to what we ordinarily think of as “career development,” I’m more and more curious these days about how we can follow the line of what work it is we each really want to be doing in the world and align ourselves, our projects, our time, and our resources along with the answer to this question. Given the state of the world and our institutions, what work (paid or unpaid) do we really want to be doing? As individuals and women leaders, what work are we uniquely well-suited to do? What contribution can we make and do we want to make? I’m reminded of a line from Margaret Wheatley, “The leaders we need are already here.” It’s a lot easier to answer these questions if we work from this principle, if we remind ourselves that in fact we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for, both in our own lives and in the grand scheme of things.Of course we don’t all have the privilege of choosing our dream job or creating our own work. Career development doesn’t quite work this way anyway. To some degree, even if we are entrepreneurs, we all scrabble together our careers out of a combination of things over time: ideas, connections, opportunities, projects, and openings around work in the world that simply needs to get done. We all try to find that sweet spot between what work it is we are skilled at doing, what work is available to us, and what work it is we really enjoy doing. But inside or outside of institutions, we do have a choice about whether or not we “follow the thread” of what truly interests and energizes us.In her book Composing a Life, the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson writes:“The model of an ordinary successful life that is held up for young people is one of early decision and commitment, often to an educational preparation that launches a single rising trajectory. Ambition [should be] focused, and young people worry about whether they are defining their goals and making the right decisions early enough to get on the right track… Graduation is supposed to be followed by the first real job, representing a step on an ascending ladder… These assumptions have not been valid for many of history’s most creative people, and they are increasingly inappropriate today.”In this next wave of the women’s movement, if movement building is a creative act (and I believe it is!), and if as individuals we seek to do work that is aligned with our deepest values about the world we wish to create… at any stage of our lifespan we would do well to ask ourselves, what line of work am I following? What line of work am I creating for myself and others? How can I contribute? Where might I stretch or take a risk? What work do I need to do to support myself? Who and what do I want to surround myself with in order to stay focused? What else is just noise?