Life's Essential Work | Gary Rush, IAF CPF PDF Print E-mail

September 2005

 

In between careers I've been doing a lot of thinking. I have 26 years experience in data processing (management information systems (MIS), information technology (IT), or the old electronic data processing (EDP)). I have 20 years experience as a consultant training people how to be facilitators and how to gather requirements. I left consulting for a year to open a restaurant and be the chef – that had been my dream. We closed the restaurant after a year and I returned to consulting. One of the reasons that I left consulting and became a chef - besides the fact that I really like to cook and am very good at it - is that I traveled extensively - over 3 million miles in 19 years. I made a lot of money, but didn't feel satisfied. I wasn't crazy about the travel - it is more difficult than those who have never traveled think. Heavy travelers know what a headache it is. Others think it is glamorous - it's not. I also left consulting because I felt that what I was doing wasn't essential, so I thought. It bothered me to be doing something for the sake of making money without contributing. By essential, I mean we need this skill to live.


Thinking about essential work, I've developed a simple test. Ask yourself, "If a catastrophe happened today and the world was suddenly thrown back to a virtual beginning, what skills would be needed to survive?" You may scoff at the question, but think about the people stuck in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Think about what would happen if another Ice Age happened. Think about what would happen if a nuclear war broke out. These are all real possibilities - possibilities that most of us would rather not think about and we all hope that they never come to pass, but they could. If we had to start over - no modern conveniences such as a roof over our heads, grocery stores, clothing stores, electricity, plumbing, air travel, cars, gas stations, hospitals, or society as we know it, what would we need to survive? If you look at our hierarchy of needs, we need shelter, need to eat, have clothing, and have meaning. How many of our jobs today address any of our basic needs? I've thought about it - especially after returning to consulting.


To survive in a brand new world, we need:

 

  • Carpenters to build shelters for us.
  • Farmers to grow food for us.
  • Hunters – such as fishermen or ranchers – to raise or catch our protein foods.
  • Tailors and seamstresses to make clothing for us.
  • Cooks to prepare food to eat.
  • Health care providers to keep us healthy.
  • Teachers to pass along knowledge.
  • Leaders to guide us


Most people wouldn't argue with the carpenter. We need a place to live - a shelter from the environment. Carpenters provide that. This is definitely an essential job. Farmers and hunters provide us with our basic foods. Most people wouldn't argue with the farmer. Some may argue that hunters are not necessary if we were vegetarian or vegan. A farmer is essential. A hunter is optional. Tailors and seamstresses are needed to make our clothing. We could decide to become nudists, thus eliminating the need for clothing, however, that would be a problem anywhere but in the tropics - it gets cold in the winter. So, I still argue that tailors and seamstresses are essential. Since we need to eat, we need to know how to prepare the food from the farmer and/or hunter so we can eat it. That makes the cook an essential job. In a new society without modern conveniences, we do need to stay healthy. Health care providers come in many forms. I didn't mention doctors on purpose because I feel that there are many versions - nurses, Eastern medicine practitioners, alternative medicine practitioners, etc. We need someone who will help us heal ourselves in this new world - with no prescriptions, hospitals, or HMO's. My choice would be a holistic healer - one who knows about herbs, natural medicines, acupuncture, massage, and spiritual healing. Without hospitals or pharmaceutical companies, most Western medicine practitioners would be lost. Teachers are critical to ensuring that our children learn the fundamentals, such as reading and writing.  All of us need to teach: our children as we raise them and others as we pass along the skills and knowledge we have learned.


Finally comes the leader. Humans have always been tribal - especially today. We don't call ourselves tribes. We call ourselves American, French, Arab, Chinese, and so on. These are simply larger tribes with better-defined boundaries. As tribes, we'll wander around aimlessly unless we are guided. Anarchy would reign and we would eventually die. We need someone to lead us, remind us of our values, remind us to work together, bring order, and overcome our smallness to see the grander scheme. That is the leader. We desperately need leaders.


This brings me back to my first thoughts - is what I'm doing essential? As a chef, yes it was essential. But, is a consultant essential? I teach leadership skills to people; therefore, what I do creates essential people - people with essential skills. Given that, I am doing a job that is essential - it adds value to life. I still have to travel - a lot. That is at least compensated by knowing that I am contributing to the good of humanity. If the world had a catastrophe tomorrow, at least what I do would be missed.


I think we all should ask ourselves these questions. We go through life never asking why we do what we do. We often work to make a paycheck and feel unfulfilled. I'm not suggesting that people stop any job that isn't "essential"- we'd all lose a lot. Many jobs help us enjoy life without having to be essential. There is no harm or disgrace in that. At the same time we need to think about what we learn to ensure that we include essential skills. For example, a baseball player may not be an essential job, but leading a baseball team gives us leadership skills - essential. Being an accountant may not be essential, but directing a firm gives us leadership. We don't have to be the leader of the baseball team or directing an accounting firm to practice leadership skills - just as we don't have to be chefs to practice cooking. Whatever we do, we should make sure that we are contributing something to the greater good and we should be ensuring that we are practicing essential skills. I believe that the essential skills give us greater fulfillment than doing work for the sake of work. Essential skills are essential for numerous reasons - not just survival. I now teach leadership skills. That is more fulfilling for me than just consulting. I feel that what I do adds value to humanity. I am fulfilled.