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"The Secret of life is to have a task, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life.  It must be something you cannot possibly do."

by Dick Richards 

You know the experience: 

Sometimes it happens at work. Your report is due tomorrow. You have thought about it, made many notes, and written a first draft. You have only the afternoon to write the final document. Sitting before your word processor, looking at the blinking cursor, it comes to you. Words and ideas flow. The next idea is there when you are ready for it. The perfect word presents itself when you need it. You get stuck, stand, walk down the corridor for a break and another cup of coffee, and the idea you need is there, as if it were waiting in the corridor for you to fetch it. You skip your break; forget the coffee. At the end of the day the report seems perfect, and you marvel at what has happened.

Sometimes it happens in a group. Your project team gathers for a two hour meeting to flesh out the basics of its proposal to management. You are all on the same wavelength, want the same things. You begin reviewing what you know and the questions that remain unanswered. You speak, listen, fill a white board with red, blue, green, and black scribbling and drawings. It looks like it has been sprayed with confetti. At the end of the meeting everyone is smiling. Yes! We have it, we really have it. The meeting seems like it lasted ten minutes.

I am describing the experience of joy; the kind of joy that ascends during a period of activity that engages the entire self.

The work issues we now believe to be important, such as values, empowerment, service, quality, leadership, and responsible care of our environment, are matters that crave emotion and spirit. Making significant progress in these matters requires that we learn to approach work with artistry. It requires that we are there: body, mind, emotion and spirit, as an artist pursuing joy. Developing artistic sensibility about work, and pursuing joy in the process of work, are not merely "nice to have."

We create emotional distance with regard to work rather than engagement. The net result for us is a lack of joy in our work. The net result for organizations is a dangerous lack of the very inventiveness, flexibility, and courage they so sorely need. There are four questions we can ask ourselves to determine whether we might do any particular work artfully.

1. Do I care about the work itself?

2. Can I express myself through the work?

3. Am I committed to the meaning of the work?

4. Am I tenacious enough to do the work well?

1. Do I care about the work itself?

A painter engages with the landscape. A musician engages with the melody. An actor engages with the character. Engaging means choosing to involve oneself in or commit oneself to something. Engagement occurs when we experience a deep sense of caring about the work, a sense that what we are doing is worthwhile in and of itself.

2. Can I express myself through the work?

Actors in rehearsal speak of going off book, or reciting one s lines without the script. Before going off book the actor is guided by the script, trying to find the character in the words and directions on a printed page. The actor is using an external guide. Going off book means that the actor is no longer looking to an external source for guidance. An actor who goes off book finds self-expression through the character. The actor stops wondering how to be, takes ownership of the character, and becomes self-expressive.

In much other organizational work, we avoid the moment of going off book. The line is less visible perhaps, but it is only questionably less dehumanizing. This is the corporate line, what we are supposed to think and how we are supposed to be. It is a more subtle kind of line but a line nonetheless a line that blocks self-expression.

3. Am I committed to the meaning of the work?

All work creates something: Artfulness demands that we engage with the process of the work and with its product. The meaning of the work resides in the meaning of what we create. A friend once worked for a consumer products company that prided itself on creating quality products that made life easier. The company manufactured microwave ovens, food processors, and other appliances. When it began making weaponry, he told me that many people in the company were shocked and disappointed. He refused a promotion that would have transferred him into the weapons division because he could not commit to the product. Engaging with a product requires that we ask a question of our spirit. We should be asking "What does the product mean?" Instead, we usually ask, "What is it for?" Or, perhaps, "How does it work?" We tend to ask questions of utility, not meaning.

4. Am I tenacious enough to do the work well?

Donald Hall, author and literary critic, reported that he once asked the famous sculptor, Henry Moore, "Now that you are eighty, you must know the secret of life. What is the secret of life?"

Moore replied:

"The secret of life is to have a task, something you do your entire life, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is it must be something you cannot possibly do."

Now that's tenacity.

Billy and my Bonneville

In the early 1970s I bought a venerable and well-used 1958 Pontiac Bonneville. It was a faded brown, with a beige interior kept spotless by clear plastic covers. The car was confidently approaching 120,000 miles. It reminded me of an aircraft carrier. I often imagined a scaled-down helicopter, about the size of a wild rabbit, landing on its enormous broad, flat trunk. It didn't cost much. It only needed a new set of tires. I wasn't interested in spending much money on the old boat, so I took it to a place that sold retread tires. That was where I saw Billy at work.

Billy was in his mid-twenties, small, thin, and gregarious; and could Billy ever change tires! I maneuvered the car onto Billy's lift. He went to his workbench and started a timer. Then he attacked the car with frenzy and grace. Billy was truly balletic around the car, removing the old wheels, changing the tires, balancing the new ones, and replacing the wheels on the car.

Billy was the Nureyev of tire changers.

At the instant the car returned to the grimy shop floor, Billy tapped the timer again. He looked at the timer.

A new record," he shouted. "Damn, a new record!"

Billy's co-workers applauded.

Billy knew that all work can be artful. He also knew that joy resides in the process.

Capturing the joy in our work, as Billy did, means discovering the artfulness of it, and the artist that dwells within us.

Can all work be artful?

All work can be artful, but the artfulness lies in our approach to the work and not in the work itself. Your answers to these four questions of caring about the work itself, of whether the work provides opportunity for self-expression, of our commitment to meaning, and of our own tenacity form a kind of litmus test for our ability to work artfully at the type of work we choose.

Our ability to work artfully, and our organization's ability to stimulate and sustain the artist within us, are the foundations of joyful work.


Dick Richards has been consulting on matters of leadership, creativity, organization change, career development, training design and teamwork for nearly twenty years. His consulting work with people at all levels of organizations has taken him throughout the US, Europe, Mexico, Australia and Canada. Richards' first career was as a graphic artist, and he studied advertising design at the Philadelphia College of Art. In addition to his writing, he has published his photographs, exhibited his paintings and drawings, and performed readings of his poetry. This article contains excerpts from his book, Artful Work: Awakening Joy, Meaning, and Commitment in the Workplace, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1995.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 8, Number 4, Issue 27.