To be human is to be on a quest, stretching towards a vision of how the world ought to be and how we can be a part of it. We put our head down and work for it, day in and day out, sometimes for years, before we wake up and realise that we are not satisfied and the way we are going about it is causing too much collateral damage to the environment, to others and to ourselves. It is time to refocus on what really matters, and breathe fresh air into our deep longing for more.
The stirrings for good work often come in quiet, subtle ways. Perhaps in a feeling of dissatisfaction or disappointment. Or a deep longing for something more, for something beyond the routines that may have served us well in the past but no longer satisfy. We are intentional, purposeful beings, aiming for something beyond ourselves that fulfils our dreams and aspirations and gives meaning to our lives. Often the goals that occupy our waking hours are set by others and although we may be rewarded (financially or in other ways) they leave us feeling empty. The ends towards which the social and cultural environment channels our desires and seeks to satisfy our longing, leave us hungry for more. The GoodWork programme nurtures a vision of human flourishing that includes what good relationships look and feel like, how we can live in harmony with nature, how we might be part of a just economy, and what counts as good work.
In Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver, the American award winning novelist, writes: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
Our desire to do good work needs to address the disconnect between ourselves and reality. We have a tendency to shape the world to our needs rather than to embrace it on its own terms. Good work requires us to awaken all our senses, to discover and celebrate our world, to embrace and value what is good, beautiful and true in the ordinary things of life.
This ancient story comes from Ireland. Fionn MacCumhail asked his followers – “What is the finest music in the world?” They offered a number of answers – a cuckoo calling from the hedge, the crash of waves on the beach, the giggle of young child. “All these make good music”, Fionn agreed. “So what is the finest music?” they asked. “The music of what happens.” replied Fionn.
Good work has its roots in the soil of life, in what happens moment by moment, and the quality of attention we bring to it. A core discipline of good work is to come to our senses, to value the multi-sensual means by which we experience the world. No moment is too small. I peel an orange and the aroma awakens me, anticipating the taste of the fruit in my mouth. I shake someone’s hand and the exchange is an invitation to relationship. No two handshakes are the same and my ability to discern the subtle signals of touch and movement will determine what happens next.
Our eyes can see and our ears can hear but only our heart (the centre of our being) can discern the music of what happens. As we open ourselves to what happens it becomes our teacher. As the American philosopher Jacob Needleman reminds us, “we genuinely know what is good only when the whole of ourselves knows it – when it is known not only in the mind, but in the body and heart”. This calls for dual attention – the ability to observe closely what is happening before our eyes or ears while, at the same time, noticing what is happening in ourselves.
This perspective on good work is an invitation to notice the way everyday encounters with people and things get our attention, trip us up and interrupt our casual ways of being. As we move through the world we confront reality in many different forms, often as resistance. Many encounters are unexpected and unwanted. It is as if the world is talking back, questioning the way we make sense of it, insisting on its own voice. Paying attention to these encounters enables us to learn from them and to discover something about ourselves as a result. They are invitations to realign our orientation towards the world.
When we collide with situations that push back against our ways of being they expose our pretences and our foolhardy attempts at control. Some are minor irritations and we quickly return to life as normal. Some confront us with life changing situations – redundancy, illness, a breakdown in relationships. When old certainties are being challenged it is hard to see how these situations can teach us about ourselves. But big or small, they are invitations to consider not just what we can do differently but how we can be different. This dimension of good work calls for insights and tools that can help us learn from experience and respond to the everyday surprises and disruptions of daily life.
To do good work we need to re-imagine the complex social and professional situations in which we live and work, and develop the courage and skill to engage with the systems and structures that both nurture and suppress the human spirit, in order to become instruments of peace, joy and hope.
We move in and out of these social and cultural institutions everyday, most of the time taking them for granted as if they are a natural part of the world. But our organisations, hospitals, businesses, schools and so on are all products of human initiative and ingenuity. Once they are established they take on a life of their own, with a purpose and will of their own. Their structure and operational processes limit the freedom of those who work in them. Their way of achieving their goals becoming ends in themselves. So while they are essentially human creations they shape the life of those who live and work in them.
We can easily forget that these systems do not exist apart from human choice and action. So in pursuit of good work we need to discern to what ends our institutions are aiming. Are they contributing to human flourishing, a just society and harmony with the environment or, in their striving for efficiency or productivity, have they lost their way? We will not grasp what is at stake unless we are asking what vision of humanity are they serving. Paying attention to the systems in which we live and work and keeping them true to their purpose, therefore, is a vital and endless task. Without such vigilance it becomes impossible to do good work through them.
Some of us may choose to establish new organisations and enterprises to implement a vision of what else is needed in the world. Organising for good work – harnessing the passion of others to do good work together – requires a very different way of imagining “the organisation”, a task that can call on the practical wisdom of others involved in the GoodWork Academy.