A friend just introduced me to Crossing the Unknown Sea, by David Whyte. Whyte is a poet and – yes – a corporate consultant who writes lyrically and compellingly about identity, meaning and purpose at work.
Today we read much about having purpose, about discovering our why. And justifiably so, as meaning is what ignites our spirit and inspires our actions. It’s what makes work feel like, well, anything but work.
Whyte’s is not your standard find-your-purpose-and-live-it prose. He writes of work as a “pilgrimage of identity.” He observes that while our bodies are present in our work, “… our hearts, minds, and imaginations can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere.” Yet if we, “… set out boldly in our work … to understand that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but in who we have become,” then we can embrace the pilgrimage and whatever truth it may bring. The discovery of who we are takes place through our work – if our hearts and minds are open and we are sensitive to what elevates and dampens our spirit.
This is not about being more productive or getting ahead … and there is nothing wrong with those. This is about realizing that we must never, writes Whyte, “… mistake a good career for good work.”
I have seen colleagues and clients hanging on – tolerating and enduring what they do. Out of habit, fear, or the prospect of some financial outcome. Yet unhappy and unfulfilled through all of it. Because their work was not a true reflection of who they are. Because they didn’t understand, or manifest the understanding, that the personal should drive the professional. That the stream of career rewards, challenges, and expectations should not be let to supersede the priorities and ambitions of who we truly are.
That’s why Whyte writes of work as crossing the unknown sea. And that’s why work, if we have the courage to allow it, can be a pilgrimage of identity.