The Psychology of Right Livelihood
I'm looking for something more than money out of my work. I expect deep fulfillment and a little fun too.
--Executive, Major U.S. Corporation
Work I disliked the most was work I wasn't suited for. Once, for example, I sold vacuum cleaners door to door. Now there's nothing wrong with that job, except I was painfully shy and basically introverted, and knocking on doors in strange neighborhoods was, for me, an unnatural act. But I was working my way through college and in desperate need of tuition money, so I silenced my fears and told myself I could do it. The money was good, and that somehow made it all right. The only catch was my heart wasn't in it. I lasted one day.
Looking back on that experience and others depressingly like it, I realized that I am not cut out for some occupations. I have a specific disposition and a given set of aptitudes that require an equally specific type of work. I know now that work needs to fit my personality just as shoes need to fit my feet. Otherwise I'm destined for discomfort. As an organizational psychologist and educator, I have come to believe that this is true for everyone. Our right work is just as important to personality health and growth as the right nutrients are for our bodies.
Almost any job has its benefits. "At least I don't have to take it home with me," "It's only five minutes away," "It pays the bills," are some of the advantages people identify in their otherwise uninteresting, tedious, or unrewarding work. Moreover, even in situations not particularly suited to them, people are able to develop new abilities. A shy person can learn to be more socially comfortable by selling vacuum cleaners, cars, or Tupperware. An extrovert can learn to work in solitary, focused settings. A technical specialist can become a good manager of people. Clearly we can see that people do grow through "staying the course," through facing difficulty, through self-discipline, through toughening their resolve and perseverance.
Yet, even though we are all fairly adaptable, elastic, and multidimensional, we are not born to struggle through life. We are meant to work in ways that suit us, drawing on our natural talents and abilities as a way to express ourselves and contribute to others. This work, when we find it and do it--even if only as a hobby at first--is a key to our true happiness and self-expression.
Most of us think about our jobs or our careers as a means to fulfill responsibilities to families and creditors, to gain more material comforts, and to achieve status and recognition. But we pay a high price for this kind of thinking. A large percentage of America's working population do not enjoy the work they do! This is a profoundly tragic statistic considering that work consumes so much time in our lives. In a few brief decades, our working life adds up to be life itself.
Such a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude is not even a good formula for success. When you study people who are successful, as I have over the years, it is abundantly clear that their achievements are directly related to the enjoyment they derive from their work. They enjoy it in large part because they are good at it. A bright client of mine once told me, "I'm at my best when I'm using my brain. My ideal day is when my boss gives me lots of complex problems to solve." Another client remarked, "I like people, and when I'm involved with them, time just flies by. Since I've been in sales, I find everyone I meet interesting and fun to talk to. I should be paying my company for letting me do this work."
Right Livelihood is an idea about work which is linked to the natural order of things. It is doing our best at what we do best. The rewards that follow are inevitable and manifold. There is no way we can fail. Biology points out the logic of Right Livelihood. Every species in the natural world has a place and function that is specifically suited to its capabilities. This is true for people too. Some of us are uniquely equipped for physical work, athletics, or dance; some of us have special intellectual gifts that make possible abstract or inventive thinking; some of us have aesthetic abilities and eye-hand coordination that enable us to paint, sculpt, or design. Examples are numerous of nature's way of directing us to the path that will support us economically and emotionally; this is the path that we were meant to travel.
Any talent that we are born with eventually surfaces as a need. Current research on child prodigies--youngsters who, from an early age, are mathematical wizards, virtuoso musicians, brilliant performers--tells us that they possess a burning desire to express themselves, to use their unique gifts. In a similar fashion, each of us, no matter how ordinary we consider our talents, wants and needs to use them. Right Livelihood is the natural expression of this need. Yet, many of us cannot imagine that what we enjoy doing, what we have talent for, could be a source of income for us or even a catalyst for transforming our relationship to work. But, indeed, it can be. Leaders in every walk of life (e.g. housewives, crafts persons, entrepreneurs, inventors, community volunteers, etc.) who have the drive, skill and compelling vision to advance their ideas, despite obstacles, need to exert their influence as much as their solutions, energy and enthusiasm are needed by others.
The original concept of Right Livelihood apparently comes from the teachings of Buddha, who described it as work consciously chosen, done with full awareness and care, and leading to enlightenment. I do not advocate saffron robes and vows of poverty, but I am keenly aware of the wisdom contained in the Buddha's concept. For many people today, alienated from both their talents and their labors, his injunction is food for considerable thought. We must begin to think about ourselves and our work in a larger sense than mere nine-to-five penance for our daily bread. However, this larger concept of work carries with it increased demands, demands not everyone is willing to meet.
Right Livelihood, in both its ancient and its contemporary sense, embodies self-expression, commitment, mindfulness, and conscious choice. Finding and doing work of this sort is predicated upon high self-esteem and self-trust, since only those who like themselves, who subjectively feel they are trustworthy and deserving, dare to choose on behalf of what is right and true for them. When the powerful quality of conscious choice is present in our work, we can be enormously productive. When we consciously choose to do work we enjoy, not only can we get things done, we can get them done well and be intrinsically rewarded for our effort. Money and security cease to be our only payments. Let me discuss each of these qualities to illustrate my point.
The very best way to relate to our work is to choose it. Right Livelihood is predicated upon conscious choice. Unfortunately, since we learn early to act on what others say, value, and expect, we often find ourselves a long way down the wrong road before realizing we did not actually choose our work. Turning our lives around is usually the beginning of maturity since it means correcting choices made unconsciously, without deliberation or thought.
The ability to choose our work is no small matter. It takes courage to act on what we value and to willingly accept the consequences of our choices. Being able to choose means not allowing fear to inhibit or control us, even though our choices may require us to act against our fears or against the wishes of those we love and admire. Choosing sometimes forces us to 1eave secure and familiar arrangements. Because I work with many people who are poised on the brink of such choices, I have come to respect the courage it takes even to examine work and life options honestly. Many pay lip-service to this process; to do something about the truths we discover in life is no easy matter. However, more people live honest lives than we might imagine.
One young woman told me she had grown unusually depressed about her career in finance, one for which she had been preparing herself since high school. "Lately I've lost interest in what I'm doing. I'm living more for the weekends; on Sunday nights, I find myself dreading Monday mornings. Maybe I'm bored and need more responsibility." Yet, when her boss suggested she return to graduate school for an MBA, she began to feel even worse: what she found in herself was a host of conflicting desires.
After scrutinizing her enjoyments, motivations and values she admitted, "When I first started talking with you I thought I wanted to climb the corporate ladder. But I've come to realize that the idea of starting back to graduate school doesn't appeal to me at all. This is the first time I've been willing to see that.
"I realize I haven't been truthful with myself. What I really want is more flexibility with my time--not less. I dearly want to have children and to be a mother. I've entertained the graduate school goal so as to please other people.
"My boss--even my parents--would like to see me become a financial whiz. I know I have the capacity to be good in finance, and I guess I look like their image of the corporate brain who makes good. But I also know I have a great interest in raising a family, in being a good wife and mother, in trying my hand at some sort of crafts. That is what would really be satisfying to me at this time--not business."
She discussed her decision with her parents, and with her boss, and they were highly critical. But she was willing to pay the price of their possible rejection in order to stick to her choice. "I feel more together than I have in a long time," she told me later. "I feel an inner confidence that tells me things will work out just fine. "
A Spanish proverb teaches, "God says, 'Choose what you will and pay for it.'" And so it is that as we weigh the yes/no possibilities of our choices, we learn more about our strengths and weaknesses and become more willing and able to pay the price of each choice. By choosing we learn to be responsible. By paying the price of our choices we learn to make better choices. Each choice we make consciously adds positively to our sense of ourselves and makes us trust ourselves more because we learn how to live up to our own inner standards and goals.
But the reverse is also true: When we unconsciously drift through life, we cultivate self-doubt, apathy, passivity, and poor judgment. By struggling, by facing the difficulties of making conscious choices, we grow stronger, more capable, and more responsible to ourselves. Once we see and accept that our talents are also our blueprint for a satisfying vocational life, then we can stop looking to others for approval and direction. Choosing consciously also forces us to stop postponing a commitment. In this way we move one step closer to being responsible, contributing adults.
Choosing our work allows us to enter into that work willingly, enthusiastically, and mindfully. Whatever our work is, whether we love it or not, we can choose to do it well, to be with it--moment to moment--to combat the temptation to back away from being fully present. As we practice this art and attitude, we also grow more capable of enjoying work itself!
Work Is a Way of Being
As a way of working and as a way of thinking about work, Right Livelihood embodies its own psychology--a psychology of a person moving toward the fullest participation in life, a person growing in self-awareness, trust and high self-esteem.
Abraham Maslow, foremost to study and describe such healthy personalities, calls them "self-actualizing." The phrase simply means growing whole. These are people who have taken the moment-to-moment risks to insure that their entire lives become an outward expression of their true inner selves. They have a sense of their own worth and are likely to experiment, to be creative, to ask for what they want and need. Their high self-esteem and subsequent risk-taking/creativity brings them a host of competencies that are indispensable to locating work they want. They also develop the tenacity and optimism which allows them to stick with their choices until the financial rewards come. They are life affirming. For them, work is a way of being, an expression of love.
A friend of mine is a furniture maker--a true craftsman and artist. Of his work he says, "I get great satisfaction from making fine furniture the process enriches me, makes me feel that I am somehow in each piece." He believes, as I do, that part of the unique beauty of a lovely, hand-made piece comes from its being part of the spirit that is brought to it during its making. He nourishes his creations with his care and attention, and his work, in turn, nourishes him.
Self-actualizing persons follow the often slow and difficult path of self-discipline, perseverance, and integrity. No less is required of those of us who yearn to trade in our jobs or careers for our Right Livelihoods-work that suits our temperaments and capabilities, work that we love.
Work is a natural vehicle for self-expression because we spend most of our time in its thrall. It simply makes no sense to turn off our personality, squelch our real abilities, forget our need for stimulation and personal growth forty hours out of every week. Work can be a means of allowing the varied and complex aspects of our personality to act on our behalf, translating our attitudes, feelings, and perceptions into meaningful productivity.
It may help to think of yourself as an artist whose work is obviously a form of self-expression. His first efforts may appear to be experimental, scattered, bland, or indistinct. But as he applies and disciplines himself, as he hones his skills and comes to know himself, his paintings become a signature of the inner man. In time, each canvas speaks of the artist's world view, his conscious and subconscious images, and his values. He can be understood through his works, almost as if he had written an autobiography.
Though the medium may be different, physicians, carpenters, salespersons, bicycle repairmen, anyone who uses his work as a means of self-expression, will gain the satisfaction of growth and self-understanding, and will single himself out from the crowd. Even entrepreneurs, who comprise a large part of my client base, tell me that there is "something within" which finds outer expression through their businesses. This expression allows their ventures to thrive. The remarkable thing about such self-expression, they say, is that it breeds confidence both in themselves and in their customers and employees, who quickly recognize someone whom they can count on.
When we are pursuing our Right Livelihood, even the most difficult and demanding aspects of our work will not sway us from our course. When others say "Don't work so hard" or "Don't you ever take a break?" we will respond in bewilderment. What others may see as duty, pressure, or tedium we perceive as a kind of pleasure. Commitment is easy when our work is our Right Livelihood. As social activist and former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare John Gardner once said, the best kept secret is that people want to work hard on behalf of something they feel is meaningful, something they believe in.
I met with a young man last year who had drifted into a far-from-satisfying, but lucrative computer career. After much inner struggle he decided to leave his secure niche to return to school and study psychology. Recently, I received a letter from him and a copy of a straight-A transcript of his first semester courses. He was elated about his grades, but was having a hard time making ends meet, a condition he had never before encountered. Yet his certainty that he had found the right path for his life allowed him to excel and also gave him the power to respond resourcefully to the trials his new choice presented. He used his former skills and contacts to find part-time work and eventually decided to take a semester off to earn the lion's share of his tuition. "Once upon a time I would have quit when the going got rough," he reflected, "but now I'm eager to do what I must to stick to my choice." Because he is committed to his choice, he has gained a new level of vitality which fuels his ability to see it through to completion.
Successful people not only have goals, they have goals that are meaningful for them. They know where they are going and they enjoy the trek. Like this young man, when we are excited about what we are doing, when we are progressively moving toward the realization of meaningful goals, the difficulties become solvable problems, not insurmountable obstacles. I know that nothing will stop him from becoming a psychologist, and he will probably be a fine one at that. I knew it when he wrote in his recent letter, "The courses have been difficult and challenging, but I feel at home in this work and I am experiencing great joy for the first time in my life."
If we think of what we do every day as only a job, or even as only a career, we may fail to use it fully for our own development and enrichment. When we are bored, frustrated, constrained, or dulled by what we do all day, we don't take advantage of the opportunities it offers. Moreover, we don't even see opportunities. The kind of relationship to work that is manifested in drifting attention, clock watching, and wishing to be elsewhere also robs us of energy and satisfaction.
In contrast, anyone who has ever experienced active, concentrated attention knows the truth of the statement by well-known Quaker writer Douglas Steere: "Work without contemplation is never enough." You may have played a game of bridge, read a book, gardened, pieced together a ship in a bottle. Afterward, you realized that you had lost track of the passage of time and forgotten your cares.
A friend's experience of a tennis game illustrates the power inherent in mindfulness during work: "It was a slow-motion game--everything lost its ordinary quality, everything seemed more vivid. I could almost see the threads on the tennis ball, that's how fully I was in the moment. I was entirely free of caring whether I won or lost. I played without my usual ego and emotion. I just played with total attention and my game was unsurpassed. More than that, I felt completely happy and fulfilled."
What can be achieved in such momentary pursuits is the result of a quality of mind--a mind fully absorbed in its task, in the present--that can be available to us daily when we are working at our Right Livelihood. Absorption is the key to mindfulness, the deep involvement in the work itself and the way in which each task is performed. Mindfulness puts us in a constant present, releasing us from the clatter of distracting thoughts so that our energy, creativity, and productivity are undiluted. You become your most effective. Attention is power, and those who work in a state of mindful awareness bring an almost supernatural power to what they do.
If you are asking, "How can I do what I love when I'm afraid...when I'm uncertain of the outcome...when I have to make ends meet...when I don't even know what I love to do?" read on. You, too, can find your Right Livelihood, and when you do, it will enable you to pay the bills and will richly reward you with a sense of meaningful participation in the one life you have.
Note: Right livelihood was popularly addressed in the mid-seventies in Seven Laws of Money(co-authored by Michael Phillips and others). Professor Theodore Roszak's book, Person/Planet, contains an entire chapter on right livelihood, and Chop Wood/Carry Water also discusses it. Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind has had a profound effect on my vocational life. Further information on these books may be found in the References section in the back of this book.