Craig Bennett Explores Our Working Worlds


by Craig Bennett

The Oxford English Dictionary initially defines work as “[a] thing done; an act, a deed, a proceeding; spec. one involving toil or strenuous effort.” A good deal farther down the column, however, it gets to a definition that matches what most Americans refer to when they use the word “work”: a regular job of some sort, usually their own. What they get up every week-day morning and go do in order to pay the bills.

Professor Joanne Ciulla, of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, expands on that common definition to note that work “determines our status and shapes our social interactions.” She goes on to explain that people often make extraordinary sacrifices in the hope of landing a job that will enable them to exercise greater choice in the conduct of their lives.

It’s probably safe to conclude that most people never quite achieve that end; and Professor Ciulla suggests that by seeking satisfaction and fulfillment in what we do to earn a living, we allow the market and our employers to control our level of happiness and general contentment with life.

This suggests not only that we place an enormous amount of importance and expectation on our job; but, because of this, there is considerable potential for whatever work we do to become a source of disappointment, frustration, or even embarrassment. This is because we let our jobs represent far too much of who we are.

When we’re introduced to someone and begin a casual conversation, one of the first questions we’re likely to be asked is, “What do you do?” To which we nearly always respond, “I am an accountant,” or “I am an insurance adjuster,” or I am a truck driver for the XYZ Trucking Company.” This illustrates the extent to which we conflate our job with our personal identity. We respond as if our job is our personal identity, the sum total of who we are.

At times when I’ve been in a slightly irascible mood, I’ve answered the same question with something like, “Well, I read a great deal. Write some. Listen to music. Hike a lot. Ride my bicycle. Travel when I can. Cook, clean, do the laundry, shop for groceries, and the usual domestic stuff.”

This is commonly met with a moment or two of silence, accompanied by a blank stare, until my interlocutor realizes that I’m actually answering her question with something that reveals considerably more about me than what I do to pay the bills.

Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz makes the distinction between a job, a career, and a calling that sheds light on why some people with jobs that offer neither enviable status nor high pay nevertheless seem quite satisfied with them, while other people, who work at jobs that are generally well-respected and pay quite well, are not.

Those who work at a calling seem to be largely unaffected by either the low pay or the low status often associated with their job. This, I would suggest, is because they hold a very different set of values from the rest of us regarding the work they do.

It is not about status or even about money. With few exceptions, it is not even about them. They may identify with their job even more closely than the ambitious executive, but it’s not because of the opportunity to work one’s way up through the hierarchy of management and the salary scale. It’s because of the nature of the work itself and a belief in their own importance as someone who does it. And, far too often, they become examples of anthropologist David Graeber’s observation, “The more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”

I once heard Professor Schwartz speak about having done a study of job satisfaction among various kinds of workers. One of his more interesting findings was that an unexpectedly high level of job satisfaction existed among the cleaning staff in hospitals. This was certainly neither a high-status nor a high-paying job, but those who performed it recognized its importance to other people.

Hospital facilities need to be as clean and sanitary as possible in order for patients to heal quickly and safely, and the responsibility for that falls on the cleaning staff. They seemed to see themselves as not very far below the doctors and nurses at the hospital with regard to their importance in maintaining the conditions necessary for patients to heal and recover.

But as long as we continue to conflate our job with our identity and our value as a human being with our paycheck, it will be difficult to follow a calling; and the majority of us will still wind up working at nothing more than a job.

One doesn’t have to look very hard at who makes the most money in contemporary American society to appreciate what a mismatch income can be with the amount of actual work done to earn it, the value of that work to other people, or the character of the individual who receives such a munificent salary.

And yet, as a society, we tend to lionize hedge fund managers, CEOs of huge corporations, and others who make more money in a year than the average person would need to live comfortably for a lifetime. And I have to wonder: is it sincere and well-deserved admiration, or is it simply envy?

-Craig H. Bennett, author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth, available at,, and the Firefly Bookstore, Kutztown, PA

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