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Work, Right Livelihood, and Unwork
Words for “work” in the Indo-European languages have always been associated with conscription, coercion, struggle, and even torture. #unworknow
My inaugural job at the age of thirteen was pumping gas under the summer sun at the Jersey shore.
I arrived on my first day of work wearing cut off jeans and a t-shirt.
The boss scowled at me. “Wear a bathing suit. I didn’t hire you to look like a boy.”
I turned around and walked off the job before I had begun.
The various words for “work” in the Indo-European languages have always been associated with conscription, coercion, struggle, and even torture. The association is both etymological and, for many of the earth’s human inhabitants, deeply personal.
My second job was washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. Two other kids my age were already old hands.
They schooled me: “The person drying cleans the dishes.” The implication being that the actual washing part was extremely perfunctory.
I stayed for a week because I had developed a crush on one of my co-workers.
But when I realized that our job entailed rinsing uneaten vegetables and recycling them for reuse, I quit.
After a successful stint as a waitress at a folk music coffee house, I got a job working the counter at a diner near my school.
The atmosphere was stifling: low fluorescent lights, bad food, and only a narrow strip of space behind the counter to move in. Plus, I was required to wear a girly, pink uniform.
I got a migraine every day for a week. There was nothing to do but leave.
I’ve never been forced to endure a job for want of food and shelter. The one time I bottomed out financially, a friend took me in.
I’ve also never been able to continue working under standard (soul-sucking) conditions.
This really annoyed my mother.
“Why can’t you be like other people and stop complaining about having to work at a normal job?”
Livelihood has a very different pedigree than work.
Livelihood derives from words that signify “means of keeping alive,” “course of life,” “way,” and “liveliness.”
So livelihood keeps you alive, but in a lively way that has the sense of a path.
Right livelihood is part of the Buddha’s eight-fold recipe for living a decent life. I think I was born knowing this.
A brief tour of right livelihood
does good for others;
leaves you with enough time and energy for other areas of your life;
does not harm your body;
allows you to be honest;
is about about more than just making money; and
is aligned with your core values.
When we engage in right livelihood, we are supporting our health. We are supporting ourselves to recognize our own value and goodness. And we are benefitting others.
But in order for right livelihood to fully bear these delicious fruits, we need one more ingredient: right livelihood must not be work.
Since my mid-twenties, all of my employers have been nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations exist to benefit people, animals, and our world.
Working for the welfare of others seems like it should meet the criteria for right livelihood. Yet many nonprofit workers are miserable.
My childhood was also miserable, in part due to my parents’ dysfunctional marriage.
But mostly I was miserable because I felt unused. The people around me asked things of me that I didn’t have to give and didn’t ask for what I wanted to give.
I exhausted myself saying no, or trying to please, or arguing, or ducking any and all of these uncomfortable circumstances.
More than this, I was just waiting, and my waiting was full of longing and loneliness.
Many people feel unused or wrongly used in their work lives regardless of whether or not their jobs might fit the definition of right livelihood.
For livelihood to become a fulfilling life path, we must be supported to give what we most desire to give.
Each of us arrives with what one teacher of mine—Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche—called our “unique dimension.”
We each have a unique pattern of personality, capacities, and incapacities.
Unique dimension is wonderful because of its modesty. It does not demand that we find our “genius” or particularly special talent. In fact, it doesn’t assume we are competing for specialness.
Your unique dimension isn’t what sets you apart from others: it’s what connects you. The free expression of your unique dimensions opens gateways to relaxation, intimacy, and collaboration.
One time I was eating alone in a not-fancy restaurant in Portland, Oregon. The waitress served me in an absolutely beautiful way.
Her service was not just technically correct; she herself glowed with kindness, and she served my food with an attitude of ritual offering.
I felt uplifted as if I had been transported to a temple. She reminded me of the nourishing, elegant, delicate exchange of offering service to others.
When people are in a circumstance that provides opportunities to express their unique dimension, then right livelihood becomes like this. It illuminates our connection and communality. It can even open us to joy.
A big aspect of my unique dimension is an attunement to the role of the servant. Maybe that’s why I connected so strongly to the waitress’ offering.
Whatever I possess of intelligence, creativity, and love has always moved in the direction of wanting to be of concrete, practical benefit to others.
I don’t have any grand ideas about this. I could just as easily wander around being randomly helpful to strangers as work for a public service organization such as the nonprofit that I now run.
When that movement of “servanting” is blocked because others don’t want or can’t benefit from what I have to give, I feel unhappy. The flow of self-expression is blocked. That’s why I sometimes have to move along.
What is the central tragedy of bad bosses, unfair pay, workplaces that value product over people, racism and misogyny at work, and other inequities?
They each represent the narrowing, sometimes the radical narrowing, of possibilities for self-expression.
When we cannot express the natural “flavor” of our unique dimension, we cannot reap the rewards of right livelihood. We cannot relax. We cannot fully manifest our capacity to benefit others because we are blocked from developing and giving our best thing.
Unwork is right livelihood enriched by the freedom to express our unique dimension.
When we are battling to express ourselves or suppress ourselves or be something we are not, work becomes exhausting. We feel depleted, and that shows up as anger, sadness, fatigue, frustration, self-doubt, and hopelessness.
The experience of connection that comes when we are free to express our actual capacities, however modest or grand, brings more energy into our lives.
This is why I call the enriched version of right livelihood “unwork.”
Being in a circumstance that allows you to express your unique dimension conserves energy. You are no longer wasting your vitality trying to hide or defend or warp into a shape that doesn’t suit you.
But unwork also connects you to a larger reservoir of energy than just your own personal stash. You become enlivened by your whole circumstance. The environment of work itself becomes a field where the ease and beauty of exchange can manifest.
And that doesn’t feel like work at all.
*The visual artist Janet Stein introduced me to the coinage “unwork” when I was in my early 20s. She produced a wonderful series of political cartoons based on this theme.
Express your unique dimension
Expressing your unique dimension begins with identifying your capacities — what you have to offer and what you want to offer — and also what you don’t have to offer.
Here is a random list of honest self-reflections culled from people I’ve encountered in real life.
I shine when I’m being number two and supporting whoever is in the leadership position. I’m not suited for being number one.
Friendship is the most important thing to me. I want to learn about and explore friendship in my work and through my work.
I’m a maker. I’ve tried other occupations, but when I’m making things with my hands, that’s when I feel most fulfilled and useful.
I’m here to repair the brokenness of my family line. My life is about being a good parent and establishing new habits of care and kindness for my children and their children. I need a job that gives me a lot of flexibility and supports me supporting my family.
I want to use my energy helping other people to be more free.
I can make people laugh. Whenever I’m doing that, I feel good.
The garden is where I’m most at home. Whatever I’m doing for work, it has to include plants and sharing the seasons of nature.
Everyone in my family is so intellectual. I’ve been trying to compete with them all my life. But really I’m more devotional. I have a lot of fear about expressing that in my work life, but I’m moving in that direction.
I own a small business. I get a lot of satisfaction doing what I do well and teaching my apprentices.
I’m good at seeing structure and making things line up. I like working with data. I get lost when there are too many possible approaches or there isn’t a single “correct” answer.
My inner child is a detective. If you give me a problem to solve or a question to answer, I will never stop until the thing is done. I enjoy hunting down solutions, and I’m a closer.
I’m a storyteller. Stories pop into my mind when someone asks me for help or when I’m looking for the answer to a question. Sometimes this annoys people who just want to get straight to the point. But it feels natural to me, and I want to put this to use in my work.
A big obstacle to expressing your unique dimension is living in a competitive society that values individual achievement, intellectual work, power, and unending growth above all else.
You have likely internalized something of this attitude. It might be difficult for you to clearly see and say to yourself that what you most want to offer is something modest compared to the expectations of whatever culture you find yourself living in.
Many people are afraid to stop striving for conventional success, even when their unique dimension is prompting them to choose a different direction.
Organizing our lives around expressing our unique dimension is the foundation of happiness and satisfying relationships with others. Doing this might bring us more money and recognition, or it might not. The fact is that we cannot be fulfilled if we are leading a contrived life.
We also often encounter severe obstacles related to power imbalances and systemic bigotries in the workplace.
My consistent experience as a woman is that we generally can exercise more freedom of self-expression than we believe we can.
Many obstacles are external, but we also internalize and naturalize limitations on our self-expression to avoid experiencing pushback. We become “obedient actors,” and we lose sight of our value and true capacity.
Perhaps in some circumstances, the margin for expressing our unique dimension is not large, but there is always some way to move at least a little bit more freely in a situation. It requires creativity and courage and fortitude, but it is doable.
I have proved this to myself many times over. And despite the sometimes aggressive pushback, the result for me has been greater ease, self-confidence, happiness, and more opportunities to give.
Sometimes, though, the only solution is to leave. Knowing that we can leave and centralizing our freedom to express our unique dimension is key to the power of unwork.
Opportunity and Alliance
During my early-20s, I cooked and waited tables at a rather infamous artists’ bar in Times Square. The owner was a far-left political activist who came from a wealthy Washington, D.C. family.
I once asked her how she reconciled her privilege with her activism. Her answer has been a good guide for me ever since.
She said, “I take what I’ve been given and use it in service of what I value.”
Many of you reading this will understand that it is a privilege to have the time to contemplate your unique dimension and make choices based on that when it comes to employment.
This kind of privilege is an opportunity. Take it and use it in service of what you value.
Make an alliance with your unique dimension. Reveal your value so that you can be of greater value to others.