Why Is It So Hard to Find Meaningful Work?*

Photo from The Smitten Image. Click to visit the author's page.

Still slogging through revisions. Completely rearranged the order of several events, requiring yet another rewrite of an early chapter, of which I completed about 1/3. Slogging.

I’m in meetings most of today, a privilege I am grateful for because it is part of the career I have built for myself. Most people aren’t so lucky.

Many writers, even the famous writers of yore, spend(t) most of their lives in jobs they don’t love. I’ve spent most of mine the same way. Humans seem to be almost unique in this habit of hating our work. No mockingbird ever sets an alarm clock and drags its lazy butt out of the nest for a day of foraging. A mockingbird wakes up and sings.

If you look deeper, though, it turns out we’re not entirely unique in this respect. In times past, a good draft horse would be harnessed to the plow at daybreak and work, mindlessly, without choice, at a boring job, until nightfall. He worked hard, but the job came with perks: Healthcare, room and board, an occasional Saturday dressed up and taken downtown.

The mockingbird, on the other hand, wakes up singing every morning and spends its day doing just exactly, exactly as it pleases. It’s totally free. And what it pleases to do is work: Find food. Defend its nest. Feed its young.

Because if it doesn’t do those things, somebody dies. And that, my friends, is the definition of meaningful work.

Sometimes, somebody dies anyway. Life is short in the wild. Very short. And so maybe the reason the mockingbird wakes up singing is because it knows it’s lucky at least this one more morning.

The draft horse, on the other hand, is never so close to death as the mockingbird. If he skips a day of work, the world goes on turning. If he skips a couple, he still gets his grain and a warm stall, even if he does miss out on the nightly rub-down.

And so sometimes maybe he turns his back and offers to kick because today, he just doesn’t feel like it. Go away. I’m going back to sleep.

And that’s we writers sometimes, too. Someday we will die, but not today, not even if we turn the alarm clock off and roll over and sleep through our designated writing hour. Not even if we are late to work. Not even if we call in sick. Not today, not because we missed work, anyway.

It is possible to live closer to that edge, though, and therein lies one possible gateway to meaningful work.

About three years ago, Carey’s and my personal financial situation caught up with the general economy, when Carey’s employer went out of business. We had some tough choices to make. He had been director of product at his former company, a job he loved. I had been a stay-at-home mom and part-time freelancer. But nobody was creating new products in the crapola economy, so those opportunities were few and far between, and I’d been focused on growing a toddler and hadn’t built my freelance network recently. He could get a job as a business analyst, which he would hate and would pay less but enough; or we could live a little closer to hunger, and a little closer to free.

We chose the latter. We have been self-employed ever since.

I am not always convinced it was a good choice. I will not lie to you, and I also will not tell you the whole truth. We Americans are way too uncomfortable talking about money for me to do that. Let me just say this: It got bad. Financially, I mean. Really bad.

We have periodically revisited the idea of one or the other of us taking a job. One with benefits. But with benefits come costs. And maybe living a little closer to the edge is worth it if you feel like singing when you wake up.

And that is the crux of it, really.

We always, in our fortunate, privileged society–at least we with the benefit of an education and training–have the option of a warm stable, hot grain, and a blanket at night if we choose it.

We also have the option of the storm-tossed limb.

The bird does not fear the branch breaking beneath her, for her trust is not in the branch but in her wings. -Author Unknown

That is my secret. It is not the only way.

Another way is to wrench meaning out of the cracks, the interstitial spaces between the things that must be done to earn our benefits. Write for an hour before everyone is up, or for two hours after everyone is in bed, or instead of our video games or television show. Steal the time back for the things that matter.

Even as much as I love my career, I still must steal these spaces for writing the things that matter to me alone, the things that nobody is paying me to write (yet–one can hope, it is good for one to always hope).

Anyway, maybe the reason it’s so hard to find meaningful work is that we forget that we even have that choice. That we make the choice every day when we decide between the stable and the limb, between the video game and thing that we are called to. And while we’re cozy and warm in the stable, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have this choice for one more morning, and so we forget to sing.

*Apologies, and thanks, to Demian Farnworth for letting me completely rip off inspiring the title of this blog entry.

P.S. What do you think? Do you love your work? Why is it so hard to love our jobs? To find meaning in our lives? And, under it all, why do we even care?


I hit 60,000 words yesterday. I was on a high, not just because of the word count, but because I knew I had found my calling.

I’ve always thought that expression, “found your calling,” meant that you had found something you were naturally good at. But since making it a daily habit to give an hour to my novel, I’ve discovered it means something else entirely. It has nothing, it turns out, to do with being good at it, except that when you do something regularly, you become good at it.

It’s about how you feel when you’ve found it. A sense of rightness, of “of course”-ness. I was feeling this feeling strongly the night before last, lying in bed next to Carey, and I told him this, that I thought this was my calling, this novel writing.

He rolled his eyes at me. Smirked.

Hmpf. What did he think was so funny?

“It’s funny because everyone else in the world has known this all along, Heather.” Oh.

So I spent all day yesterday on this high, because everything in the world is right when you’ve found your calling. When you realize that everything, everything you’ve ever ever done has led to this. That everything you thought was weird about yourself isn’t weird:

Obsessively reading drafts over and over because you want to see how it reads from everyone else’s point of view, one person at a time.

Obsessively researching every little thing that crosses your path.

Obsessively reading and re-reading blogs and stories that tear your heart out, and letting the tears course down your cheeks, and beating yourself up for “torturing yourself.” When it turns out you weren’t needlessly torturing yourself at all: You were researching. Researching your heart and the hearts of others.

You listen to this:

And you nod along. YES, that is me. I’m not weird. I’m a WRITER.

You find out that everything you’ve ever done–raising chickens, running a business, being a mom–all of it matters to this thing you’ve been called to. It all contributes. It all makes sense.

And so, last night, I cheerfully set my alarm for 5:30 even though I don’t have to be anywhere until 10. And this morning I rose cheerfully from bed and came to this computer to write. Write! Write my novel! And I opened my tracking document (tip: If something matters to you, track it–this does something to your brain to make it take you seriously. Even the brain science I read matters to my calling!), recorded my starting time and word count. I opened my beloved document with my incredible story, and the characters I have grown to love so very much. And I scrolled to the bottom and I re-read the last paragraph to get my bearings, and then I

blanked. out.



So I did what they say to do, and I wrote anyway. About 1300 words of boringness. All description. I managed to eke out a dialog between two main characters, but not much of one.


Calling, schmalling.

This is slogging.

Nice blank page, man.