In her stunning collection of essays (highly recommended) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett offers us this simple, yet profound question about marriage she received from her friend, Edra. Quoting Ann:

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked…I had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” she said, running down her list. “Does he make you better?” 

That last question could be applied to many things in life–including our work.

We need a new word for “work”

I’ve been struggling this week to find a more uplifting word to replace the word “work.” In writing a book on thriving in the 3rd Act of life, I’m asserting that engaging in creative work is one of the keys to staying vital.  But “creative work” could mean working a job, making art, serving your family or community, creating a business, fixing a car, or ???  In wanting to stay open to so many creative possibilities, I figured that I’d better define what the heck I mean by work.

I checked the dictionary’s synonyms for work and found: labor, toil, drudgery, and exertion–not an uplifting array. Is work really synonymous with  “ugh?” (As in “It’s Monday and I have to (ugh) go to work.”)

No wonder people want to leave “work.” Who wouldn’t given the negative overtones?

A more positive way to look at work

What if you could engage in an endeavor where:

  • you applied devotion and discipline and showed up regularly.
  • your creative juices flowed freely.
  • you experienced a sense of wonder, curiosity, and continual learning.
  • you felt a sense of rightness, as if you were doing something that was truly yours to do.
  • you felt a sense of purpose and passion.
  • you might be paid or not.

What would you call that?

The way to know what qualifies as a right endeavor might be by asking a question like the one Edra asked Ann Patchett.

“Does it make you better?”

Not richer, more successful or likely to show up in Time Magazine’s top 100 People of the Year. Just better. You know what I mean.

“Are you more vital, alive, compassionate towards others, a more fulfilled human being?” “Do you feel like your being is expanded as a result of your engagement?”

Another word choice could be your “creative practice.” It comes with less baggage. (I’d love to know if you have a better alternative!)

The nature of a creative practice

You know you have a creative practice when you feel like it has you.

There’s a bit of a master-devotee feeling in it, combined with the above-mentioned devotion and discipline, When I was studying photography during my year as a college student in Paris, I couldn’t wait to get into the darkroom to see what miracles could happen next. My accredited “work” for the year was studying French and passing a number of courses, but my real work-as-practice was allowing myself to explore photography and cinema with eyes of wonder.

I can still remember that cool, blue-lit darkroom, where the shallow troughs of water and chemicals bubbled. We students spoke in subdued voices as we awaited our turns to print our films, swooshing our papers through their chemical baths, while holding our breaths to see what would emerge.

I’d leave the studio in wonder, my eyes captivated by the Art Nouveau curves of the Parisian Metro signs; my curiosity piqued to study the faces of subway riders, my time on the trains absorbed in dreaming of what I would shoot next.

Today’s practice

My work-as-creative-practice these days is writing, although I hesitate to say that because I still love any chance to teach leadership storytelling and coach my clients. But the master who calls me to attend is intangible, not measured by money or external rewards, rather elusive about what she or he wants from me, and very demanding.

I’ve learned that in showing up for work, I will be challenged, altered, and rewarded if only by the satisfaction of launching a few ideas that someone else might read. As a result, I walk in the world differently.

Heeding the master

Years ago, when I was in a period of high obsession in the garden, I had a similar sense of commitment to a master with whom I was in regular dialogue. The rules were similar: show up consistently, maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder, structure my life to support my endeavor, and wait for orders.

When I’d garden in those days, a world opened up for me. I’d spend hours on my knees getting to know my garden by weeding, digging and pruning before it would start to “tell me” what it wanted next. Then I’d enter an altered space where I followed the orders I was hearing: remove this hellebore, transplant that Japanese maple, trim the lower branch, pave the path with logs, etc. I only left when night descended and I couldn’t see to work.

Similarly, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I needed devotion and discipline to work on my research while managing a full-time job. At first, I felt like I was slogging uphill, but as the project continued, a voice started emerging from the pages, talking back to me, and encouraging my work. Its directions weren’t as assertive as my garden’s, but I was in dialogue with a force and my work was to listen.

I smile to myself when I hear people complaining about the process of completing a doctorate, knowing that mine was a delight. Hard work, of course, but a practice that “made me better.”

What’s your practice?

Am I’m crazy? I’d love to hear from some of you who know what it is to surrender to a creative practice. If you have a better word for work-that-allows-you-to-thrive, please let me know.

What is your creative practice and…does it make you better?

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