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Treat Your Work as the Art of Your Life

Our approach to work is our approach to life.

Key points

  • Ethical work contributes to wellbeing for oneself and others.
  • How a person does their work—whatever that work is—sets the tone for how they live.
  • The dream jobs and activities that call out to a person indicate what they yearn for and value.

“Right Livelihood is not only about what we do but about how we do it.”—Joseph Goldstein

Right Livelihood, one of the three ethical teachings on the eightfold path, offers guidance on making a living in a way that doesn’t bring harm to ourselves or others. This post is part of a series about living more fully in 2023 by incorporating the wisdom of the eightfold path into our daily lives.

Ethical conduct is an essential aspect of well-being and spiritual development, and our professional conduct is no exception. The Buddha advised his followers on the notion of Right Livelihood primarily to prevent deceit and exploitation as direct or indirect aspects of our work. This teaching strives to protect us from our own worst impulses by providing guidance on vocational ethics.

The Buddha identified several problematic industries most likely to create suffering for ourselves and others: dealing in weapons, trade of human beings including slavery and prostitution, meat production and butchery, and business in intoxicants or poison. It’s not simply those working within these industries that may wish to read on, however; we all have opportunities to improve our lives and the lives of those around us through our work.

Thich Nhat Hanh describes in his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, the broad scope of this teaching: “To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others ... Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”

Consider that the way you do your work is the way you live your life; it is the art of your existence. How is your art looking these days? How well does it reflect your values and ethics? How can you lean into the meaning and beauty of life through your chosen profession and your daily approach to the work you've chosen? To explore this concept, grab a journal and pen and explore the following:

  • List the jobs and interests you had as a child. For example, maybe you loved music or you wanted to be a pilot or a veterinarian, an artist or an actor.
  • List the jobs and interests that you have now, however fantastic and unrealistic they might seem at the moment. For example, perhaps you wish to be a writer or a teacher, a mountain climber or a digital nomad.
  • Of these choices, pick the one that most excites you—the one that feels most aligned with your core values and desires.
  • Close your eyes and picture what a day in your life would be like from start to finish if you were doing the job or activity of your dreams. Really enjoy the experience—try to visualize it in detail, feeling how it might feel to live that life. Take your time on this exercise.
  • Write down five to 10 words that describe the life you just pictured. These might be adjectives like exciting, rewarding, or lucrative.
  • Ask yourself what opportunities you have for each of these aspects of life. For example, what do you do that excites you? Feels rewarding? You may not have opportunities for all the words you wrote down, but consider which you can achieve even in the life you currently have.
  • Next, write down five to 10 words to describe the person you pictured living that life when you closed your eyes. These might be words like brave, disciplined, respected, fulfilled, etc.
  • For each of these words, ask yourself how you can achieve those feelings in your life right now. For example, consider the opportunities you have to be brave, disciplined, respected, fulfilled, etc. How can you invite these qualities into your current life? Most of the time, we must make changes on the inside and outside in order to cultivate the emotions we want. For example, we may need to prioritize sleep in order to feel relaxed, spend more time with loved ones to feel more connection and job, respect ourselves in order to feel respected, etc.
  • Honestly inventory how you do your work now. Do you procrastinate? Rush through tasks? Do you avoid asking for help? Do you fail to complete things due to perfectionism? Do you say “yes” when you want to say “no?” Consider how well these behaviors align with your ideal version of yourself in your dream job/activity. Where is there room for improvement in your behavior?
  • Based on the differences between the life you want/how you want to feel and how you are currently operating, select and write down goals for change in your current circumstances. Write down as many as come to mind.
  • Now, pick three changes from your list that are feasible and impactful. Start on them today. Perhaps this is as simple as giving a friendly “hello” to your coworkers, rather than avoiding eye contact as you enter the office (if you wanted to feel connected, respected, or well-liked.) Or perhaps you strive to find grace and joy in work that has always seemed dull or repetitive simply because you know your customers need and value the products (if you want to feel fulfilled.) Make three changes now while this is all fresh in your mind.
  • Get creative about how to live out your dreams. Maybe becoming a pilot isn't an option but getting an amateur pilot’s license and flying drones is. Vet school may be off the table, but could you foster animals needing a temporary home? Perhaps it's time to try out for your local theater or write an outline for that screenplay you've had on your mind for a decade. Follow your interests and desires, knowing that you have a unique gift to the world that only you can offer, no matter how small it may seem. You can find meaning and purpose in any work, but you also don’t need to settle if you know you are destined for more.

Whatever you do each day to earn a living, let it be a life's work you are proud of, one which benefits yourselves and others.

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