What is good work?

1. Good work comes from a place deep within ourselves. Borrowing a phrase from Frederick Buechner1 it is “the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Our work is shaped by who we are not just what we do.  We cannot separate the work and the worker.   However, in the complexities of the modern world, good work doesn’t just happen.  Bridging ‘the good work gap’ – the difference between our aspirations for life and the day job – demands skill and judgment born of reflective experience. Good work comes from deep within and works in harmony with the deep structure of the world.

2. This is not easy in our contemporary ‘managed’ organisations designed to ensure that everyone is on message and on target. Organisations – at least most organisations – don’t provide enough space for us to be ourselves. It may be a little harsh but Alastair MacIntosh2 offers an image of mainstream organisational culture that “manufactures people as a monoculture. It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning”. Is it then possible to do what is good for ourselves and good for the world at the same time?

A global study in 142 countries of Employee Engagement conducted by Gallup in 2013 reinforces the dilemma. The study reported that only 13% of the global work force is actively engaged in their work. 63% are disengaged and 24% are actively disengaged. Which means that almost two thirds of all workers are unhappy and almost a quarter are dissatisfied, even undermining the efforts of the 1 in 8 of the workforce who are passionate and committed.

I have sometimes spoken of the tyranny of half success – actions that are not good enough to really succeed but not bad enough to fail. David Whyte had a similar thought when he wrote about “the haunted house of insignificant success.”

3. The journey towards effective and fruitful action in the world takes us into the heart of becoming ourselves. We are transformed as we seek to transform. The ‘extra’ that makes an expert exceptional – a master of his or her craft – exhibits more than technical skill or polished performance. It calls for more than the acquisition of knowledge or its interpretation. It demands a quality of participation in the complex webs of life that takes us into the presence of a deep and practical wisdom – what has been called “the invisible heart of good practice”.

4. One way to describe the process that helps us find ourselves through our action in the world is to see our relationship to the world as an ongoing, inquiring, conversation. This is not a verbal exchange but a much deeper dialogue with the elements of the material world and the elemental forces of the social and political world in which our truth is tested and our identity is forged. It is based, not just on our beliefs and values, but the quality of attention we bring to the world.

I recall the ancient story of Moses in the desert who noticed a bush burning but not being consumed and, as he focused his attention, a voice told him that he was on holy ground. The burning bush had led to an awakening to the realisation that wherever God is present we stand on holy ground. And because it is holy we should take off our shoes. The original verb is the same word used of an animal shedding their skin – shed your shoes – discard them, you no longer need them. Without shoes the soles of our feet touch the rough and smooth of the ground. To walk on holy ground is to be truly grounded – of the earth, humus, from which we get the words humility and humanity.

To stretch the image further, as we walk this world we leave behind our footprints, the marks of our presence and, at the same time, the world leaves its marks on us, refining us through our work, helping us become all we can be. Each of us in the course of life is building a work, an opus, to which all of our life experiences have contributed. We are becoming ourselves.

5. We cannot become ourselves by imitating others. We must take our own path. Human life is a journey that begins in childhood as we learn from others what to do. Gradually this knowledge becomes our own so that we become self-directed. For many, this is the limit to their personal development. For some however, as E.F Schumacher3 suggests, there is a third step in which we let go of our self-centred ways and invest what we are becoming for the good of others.

The recognition that we can change our centre of gravity to include others in the way we work is a powerful indicator of our capacity to do good work. This step involves, at its root, a spiritual transformation that breaks down the barriers between self and others and arises from a lifelong inquiry into the way we make sense of the world and understand our action in the world.

6. We live in a fragmented, divided world, a world of opposites. Self and other, subject and object, me ‘in here’ and the world ‘out there’. This dualism has had dire consequences for our inner self. The modern mindset is founded on the idea of the separation between the knower and the known which, it was assumed, was completely independent of the knower. The consequence was, according to Nicolescu4, the Romanian physicist, “the transformation of the Subject into an Object. The death of the Subject is the price we pay for objective knowledge”.

As Palmer says: When self and world are separated “they become locked in an endless struggle to create each other in their own image … the self creates the world by forcing it into the limits of its own capacity to know” (Palmer 1983, xx). Reality becomes “It”. I-It describes everyday experience, the world of space and time, cause and effect. While Buber recognised the necessity of the I-It view of reality he concludes, “… in all seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human” (1970, 85). In the original German the alternative to “It” is du, the familiar and intimate form of “you”, translated into the archaic English word “Thou”. I-Thou describes the world of connections and relationships, of deep and intimate encounter. The “I” in I-It is the Subject, master of all it surveys. The “I” in I-Thou is the Self, fully present, knowing not only in the mind but in the body and heart as well. To the Self the world is known as a presence rather than as an Object. “If there were no selves in the world … nothing that occurred would matter more or less than anything else, so nothing would have any meaning” (Mathews 2009, 106).

7. To explore this quality of knowing we must awaken the Self from its Enlightenment slumber. E.F. Schumacher (1977) asks a basic question: “What enables a man (sic) to know anything at all about the world around him?” (1977,39), a question he answers in this way: “Nothing can be known without there being an appropriate ‘instrument’ in the makeup of the knower” (ibid). To answer his question he recalls the medieval concept of adeaquatio rei et intellectus – the intellect of the knower must be adequate to the thing known. Writing from an Islamic perspective Suhrawardi held to the same principle “according to each plane of reality there corresponds an instrument of knowledge adequate to the task of knowing that particular level of reality” (Nasr 1979).

Schumacher employs music as a simple example of adaequatio at work. While the same sound waves created by an orchestra may be heard by two different people they are heard in different ways. To one, the sound makes no-sense, arriving in the mind as noise. To the second attuned to the melody and harmony of the music, the sound brings great pleasure. Schumacher summaries the idea by saying: “The Great Truth of adaequatio teaches us that restriction in the use of instruments of cognition has the inevitable effect of narrowing and impoverishing reality” (Schumacher 1977, 51).

8. While the physical senses may be a sufficient guide to the world of It, knowing the Other in the intimate sense of du calls upon multiple levels of reflexive attention, employing body, mind, emotion, intuition, empathy and imagination in the task, each faculty working together to open up the different levels of reality encountered in the Other. Rather than see these as distinct ‘instruments of cognition’ to be employed independently (itself a form of fragmentation) we should see them as working together as one. At the heart of this approach is self-in-relation, opening up our knowing to more than sensory evidence and the logical linkage of cause and effect. In a provocative insight Freya Mathews suggests that “the presuppositions and beliefs we bring to our encounter with the world act as a kind of invocation – they call up reality under a particular aspect or aspects, so that this is the aspect that reality will reveal to us in the course of the encounter” (Mathews 2009, 3). Two things are occurring here. In bringing an extended portfolio of reflexive awareness to the encounter the once-dead Subject lives again and, in partnership with the Other, other levels, or aspects, of reality are revealed. Or as Nicolescu asserts, “the different levels of Reality of the Object are accessible to our knowledge thanks to the different levels of Reality of the Subject. They permit an increasingly general, unifying, encompassing vision of Reality without ever entirely exhausting it” (Nicolescu 2010, 26). It is, then, as self-aware and articulate beings that we are able to encounter and disclose reality in its complexity.

It is in deepening our awareness that we are faced with questions that awaken in us aspects of our being that have been neglected or underused – opening us to our full humanity – an awakening that is dependent up and sustained by the relationship with have with the ‘object’ that caught our attention. The Other enables us to see aspects of ourselves that we cannot discover in any other way. As Needleman5 reminds us “The real world cannot show itself to the false self … the world is real only when I am real” and “when I am real, only then am I responsible; only then am I a moral agent”.

9. The implications of this are important to our ability to do good work. The reality we face day by day is not just a problem to be solved but a question that can only be answered when we allow it to expose our true selves. We must learn to live with questions, the wild questions that refuse simple answers, that tease out the sometimes contradictory assumptions we hold about a situation. Wild questions can help us tune in to paradox, taking us to new learning edges in our practice. The questions we live with tell us what really matters to us … and awaken us to who we are as human beings.

1 Buechner, F (1993)
2 McIntosh, A (2004) p1
3 Schumacher, Good Work (1979)
4 Nicolescu 2010, 21
5 Needleman, 1983, 195/196