Respecting the work

Work is necessary in order to be complete. We tend to think of work only in terms of reward – an income – that allows us to fulfill other of life’s necessities and, if we can, enjoy our lives more fully with some of its luxuries. But work itself is a necessity and for that necessity to be truly met how we work is important.

The Snow Leopard by Peter MatthiessenA long time ago I read The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. It masquerades as a nature/travel book but it’s really an account of a spiritual journey into the Himalayas with the faint hope of seeing the rarely seen snow leopard. One part of the book has always remained with me.

On their trek they have a Sherpa to help and guide them. In their group there is a British couple that continually treat the Sherpa with disrespect – with a kind of upper-crust disdain as if to say, “You don’t exist except to serve us.”

Yet the Sherpa continues along doing his work as if indifferent to his treatment. Finally, one day, Matthiessen asks him, “How can you be so indifferent? How can you respect these people?”

The Sherpa says, “I don’t. I respect the work.”

That made me think. The Sherpa separates the employment from the employer. I think regardless of the employer, regardless of the work, how he performs it says something about him. The employer and employment may be lousy but if he has agreed to do the work then how he performs it reflects on his character.

If the conditions of the employment are awful, he can look for other work, resign from the employment. To continue to do the work but do it poorly may make things difficult for the people or company employing him but they also undermine him.

Imagine an athlete, let’s say a hockey player. He has loads of talent. He’s in the upper echelon of players. His team, however, reaches a point that it has no chance of making the playoffs. As a whole, the team has performed as well as they might. What does he do? Does he continue to play at the top of his game, trying to help the team improve? Or does he slack off because there is no chance of winning and, “What’s the point? This team sucks. I want to get traded.”

He could probably get a trade in the real world. And in the real world I’m sure lots of teams would want him. But I think that would be a mistake. His performance on the team that is out of the playoffs says he only plays well under certain conditions. It says his interest in “the work” is only to the extent that he is rewarded for it with money and accolades. If you take those away, he’s a slug. He plays for himself, no one else. He certainly doesn’t play for the team.

He doesn’t respect the work and by extension he doesn’t really respect himself. It isn’t surprising that some of the best workers are those who have been out of work for a while. Take it away, and you quickly realize how important it is in defining who you are and the degree to which you have a sense of self-respect.

We tend to focus on jobs, as we should, but how we perform them, think about them and feel about them is just as important. More often than not, it defines who we are.

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