My parents always encouraged me and my sister to pursue our passions and follow our hearts. We also regularly heard that we should find careers that didn’t feel like work. As I have built a career over the last several years, I have recognized the inherent privilege in both pieces of guidance. I was lucky enough to have people who named my gifts from an early age and who nurtured those gifts in ways that translated directly to a career. I had access to quality education, positive mentors, a dedicated support network, and resources that allowed me to follow my heart rather than worry about bills, loans, transportation, or rent in my formative years. Although I now regularly worry about these things, I still have a safety net that many people do not. I feel blessed AND simultaneously know that many people (particularly from the schools and communities I serve) do not always have the access, opportunities, or realistic capacity to “follow their hearts.”
Furthermore, while I appreciate the sentiment of finding work that doesn’t feel like work, I believe this ideal undermines the challenges we inevitably face as humans. My work, although usually deeply enriching and fulfilling, feels like and is work. Instead of pressuring myself to feel like it should all be easy, I have found it is more effective to challenge myself to not only value the labor but to also celebrate it. In addition, it has become important practice for me to name what feels like the hardest work and why. Sometimes the gap has to do with misalignment between my and my company/coworker’s values or priorities. Other times, it’s caused by my plate being too full. Still other times, the work is hard because I am not taking the time to take care of myself—to breathe, exercise, cuddle on the couch, or eat a good meal. Often, honest reflection leads me back to the core of what I do and forces me to address the factors that make my work feel unlovable, to make more time for the pieces that are most enriching, inspiring, and grounding. If the challenges seem insurmountable or perilously sustained, it is often (yet not always) time for a change.
Over the course of our lives, we work far too much to feel consistently unhappy, ineffective, or trapped. Though it is natural to experience these feelings on occasion, we limit ourselves and our contributions if we do not love and are not enriched by how we spend our time. It is therefore critical for us to know ourselves and what is contributing to or exacerbating both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. In the end, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all work should feel like work. Yet, healthy challenge helps us grow, so work needs to be at least part of the journey, especially as we are starting our careers. Perhaps a healthier challenge is to love the labor and labor in love.