There’s a drive inside each of us to create and contribute to the well-being of others. When we serve in such a way, and are paid for that service, we’re engaging in what I’d call right livelihood.
Traditionally, within the eightfold path, right livelihood is defined as engaging in work that doesn’t create harm. And yes, that’s an important baseline (like a physician who takes the Hippocratic oath). But beyond not creating harm, I believe we each have an inner drive to bring forth our gifts, to pour ourselves out lavishly and generously for the benefit of others.
Throughout the course of our days, we have the opportunity to do this in many ways—paid and unpaid. When we can link the pouring out of our gifts to the paid work that we do, we discover a huge source of fulfillment. I believe that fulfillment is available to each of us.
Sometimes when people think of being of service and pouring out our gifts for others and being paid for it, we have the idea that in order to make a contribution that matters, we need to be involved in a world-changing endeavor, such as developing a cure for a disease. My sense is that this misses the point. “Scale” doesn’t equate with “meaning.” Seemingly small contributions can be profoundly impactful and even life-saving.
A couple of years ago as part of the Inner MBA program that Sounds True produces, I interviewed Lorna Davis who is the former CEO of Danone North America, the largest certified Benefit corporation in the world. When she spoke about how meaningful it is for each of us to connect with the underlying purpose of our work, I asked, “What about organizations that are simply keeping our lives afloat? How meaningful is such work?”
Davis responded by talking about how important it is to recognize the contribution a company can make even if it’s filling what looks like a mundane need. She used the example of working for a company that makes tires, describing how quality tires save lives.
Her point landed with me. We each have the opportunity to connect with the highest expression of our work—its underlying purpose of enhancing people’s lives. In so doing, we can focus on excellence and quality as a way to give our gifts to others.
When it comes to right livelihood, there’s what we do (the purpose of our work), and then there’s how we do it. I believe the how is as important as the what.
Work can be a rigorous and rewarding path, in and of itself. It can even be a path to spiritual discovery. We can do “double time” at work. We can engage in the tasks at hand and also pay attention to our state of being. Are we calm, alert, and open? Are we bringing our full presence to whatever is happening? Is our breath silky and smooth or short and choppy?
If we find that we’re somewhat absent, disembodied, or dysregulated, can we find ways to bring ourselves into grounded presence in the midst of our working life, perhaps through feeling our feet on the ground and our “sitz bones” on the chair, or through taking belly breaths while we’re in a meeting? Throughout the course of the day, we can commit to self-awareness and self-regulation, and in so doing, become skillful at releasing tension and coming into presence on the spot, even and especially when stressful events are unfolding.
Work can be a path to personal growth and interpersonal intelligence. Work brings us into relationship with other people, and if we’re open to it (and sometimes even if we’re not), we have the opportunity to receive feedback that can help us grow our self-awareness and relational skills. Can we communicate more effectively to bring out the best in others? How can we become more skillful as collaborators and members of a team? Do people know that we appreciate them, and if not, why not? Work can be a crucible for personal growth. When we approach our work in that way, the fruits of our learning spill into all of our relationships.
Through work, we can develop strength of character. Something goes “wrong” at work every day. How do we respond? If we can come to see the possibility in situations and not just the loss and frustration, we become deeply resourceful people. We become people who can cope with uncertainty, who can pivot, and who have greater trust in the winding ways life unfolds. We develop the capacity to “get creative,” and we stretch ourselves—becoming vulnerable in new ways and learning how to ask for, give, and receive help. We grow into people who possess humility and the ability to embrace and overcome challenges.
At work, we can reimagine and recreate our world so that it’s more just and equitable. We’ve inherited workplace institutions that often benefit the few through the work of many, often at the expense of the environment. It doesn’t have to be this way. As part of right livelihood and our commitment to do no harm, we need to reinvent business so it supports our collective flourishing. Businesspeople of conscience are called to recreate work such that our love and care for the earth and our love and care for each other is at the center of our organizations.
The workplace can become a microcosm of a just and sane society, one in which people have a voice, are treated fairly and without prejudice, where kindness, truth-telling, and collaboration become cultural norms.
In my life, I’ve found a direct correlation between what I put into something and what I get out of it. If we pour ourselves into being of service to others, and we treat our work like the honorable and rigorous journey of personal growth that it is, what comes back to us is deep satisfaction—the feeling of a job well done.