If you want to know how hard the last couple of years have been on people professionally, all you need to do is look at the quit rate. Since this summer employees have been leaving their jobs in record numbers in a phenomenon variously dubbed the ‘Great Resignation,’ the ‘Big Quit,’ or the ‘Great Reshuffle.’
Whatever you call it, just about every expert out there has ideas for what organizations and individuals should do to regain their mojo. But perhaps the best advice comes from a very unexpected source.
The late, great novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison may be known for her searing portraits of characters wrestling with racism in America, but according to a short but powerful 2017 New Yorker essay published two years before her passing, Morrison reveals she also knew a thing or two about staying sane in an unfulfilling job.
The perfect message for the present moment.
The essay, recently resurfaced by Forge senior books editor Kelli María Korducki, relates Morrison’s experience cleaning the house of a wealthy family as a child in the 1940s. The money she earned was “used for real things–an insurance-policy payment or what was owed to the milkman or the iceman,” she writes, adding, “The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound.”
But the uncomplicated satisfaction Morrison gained from contributing financially was short-lived. As she proved her skill and work ethic, her employer piled on more, and more difficult, tasks. “I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. I fell carrying the bookcases. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly,” she recalls.
Increasingly frustrated with the job, Morrison eventually complained to her father. Instead of sympathy, he offered her these words: “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.” Morrison took from this comment four essential lessons about work she carried with her for the rest of her life:
Whatever the work is, do it well–not for the boss but for yourself.
You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
Your real life is with us, your family.
You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.
“I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home,” she concludes.
A reminder: you are not your job.
Reflecting on Morrison’s essay, Korducki writes, “It’s a morsel of wisdom that seems apt for this moment of mass reconsideration of purpose, and a bit of guidance for determining where work does — or does not–fall into the plan for a life worth reflecting on.” I couldn’t agree more.
Those who, like me, were raised in working-class homes, might not be too surprised by Morrison’s takeaways. Many of us were taught never to measure another person’s worth — or our own — by the prestige of their job or the contents of their paycheck. And in many blue-collar households (in many households in general, really), the centrality of family as the reason for work is close to the surface.
But get out there in the professional rat race, or start spending a lot of time in spaces that praise accomplishment and ambition above humbler virtues, and it can be incredibly easy to forget that for most people throughout human history a job is just a job — a way to put food on your table and enable the rest of life. That’s OK. Really. Or, in Morrison’s words, “You are not the work you do.”
Not everyone needs a reminder of this truth. But maybe you’re one of those strivers who is tottering on the edge of burnout after spending the last couple of years desperately racing to keep the hamster wheel of achievement turning. Or you’re one of those people who, after so much pandemic-related disruption, is wondering what they were chasing so frantically before. If so, Morrison’s essay might be the perfect holiday season read for you.
Chasing “success” is fine, but at the end of the day lives are measured in joy and impact and love. Keeping that fact firmly in mind might just help you be a little saner and more balanced in 2022.