What makes good work good?
A lot could be said, and has. But it’s a question I’ve been asking for most of my life— because it matters to all of us, for all of us. In every time in every place, human beings give most of life to labor. What do we do? and why do we do it? and why does it matter?
To put bread on the table. To pay the rent. To have money for my children to go to school. To satisfy the longings of my heart. To create because I must create. To address the aches and pains of the world. The reasons go on because we go on.
For the past several days I have been engaged again with the Praxis Labs, a surprisingly rich vision of vocation born of an explicitly entrepreneurial spirit. This was the for-profit cohort; the same leadership team also attend to a similar group that exists for those whose work is in the not-for-profit space. Each year they invite 12 men and women from both sides, profit and not-for-profit, respectively, from all over the world into a community of kindred spirits who together are bound by ventures that are taking them into the marketplaces of the world.
If one is rethinking the markets of India for the sake of previously-unemployable women, another is rethinking building homes in Texas for the sake of sustainability, another is rethinking shower-heads in San Francisco for the sake of stewarding water resources, another is rethinking the technology of virtual reality in LA for the sake of stories that matter, and on and on and on. They are serious people doing serious work.
Listening and learning, seeing and hearing, after a couple of years of getting to know each other, I have been drawn in as the Praxis Scholar. Of course it is not that I am an entrepreneur as they are, or someone whose life has been lived in the marketplace, or even that I have taught economics for my life, but I have cared about work, about what it is and why it is. And I have thought about the way that good work is written into a good life, and that a good life is written into a good society. Wherever I go and whatever I do in the days and weeks of my life, I am always the professor at the table— and that is my work.
If we were to walk along the byways of the world, asking the question, “What makes good work good?” we would hear all kinds of answers, I’m sure. But it seems to me that two words would find their way into most conversations, creativity and responsibility. We want work like that, everyone everywhere. From the smallest of shops to the largest of companies, from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern hemisphere, from more developed nations to less-developed nations, human beings want to create and to be responsible. That motivates us, that gets us out of bed in the morning, that keeps us at our work. “I get to make this” and “I’m responsible for this” are ways we speak about the days of our lives, and when we don’t, we despair about the days of our lives, living for the weekends when we don’t have to work.
The work of an entrepreneur is rooted in this reality. Even though every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve longs for work that is both creative and responsible, and would do almost anything to have this, in the wounded world that is ours, with wrongs and hurts that are not only individually experienced but institutionally embodied, sometimes, even much of the time, work brings more sorrow than satisfaction. We only need to remember Johnny Paycheck’s anthem, “Take this job and shove it!” to understand more of Marx than we are mostly able to in the capitalist economies of the West.
But entrepreneurs see a world where creativity and responsibility are the work of the world. As I know them, they also know more of hard work, and undying hope, than almost anyone anywhere. They keep at it, imagining and imagining again a way for work to be done where good work can be done— not only for themselves but for those whose own hard work and hope will be rewarded when the dream of the entrepreneur becomes reality, a common grace for the common good that it will be.
We cannot afford to be romantics about this; of course we cannot. There is a lot about the workplaces of the world all over the world that is wrong, profoundly and pervasively wrong, and we all cry out because we must and should. There are hard questions, and there aren’t easy answers; at least I don’t know them. But one of the reasons I have committed myself to the Praxis Labs is that they are honest about the world, the wonderful world where work matters but also the wounded world where work matters too much or too little. Getting that right is hard work and is the good work of these good people— because it matters to all of us, for all of us.
(And the cover of the 7th printing of the Visions of Vocation, which came to our house this week.)
This Post was originally written for the Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture