What do we mean by 'work'?
This month I started a different kind of schedule – one that requires me to do a certain amount of grafting and creative soul searching: freelance life. It has many connotations- some people hear that and immediately think ‘instability’, perhaps lack of commitment or even indecisiveness. I suppose I even might have had a bias towards the notion at one point in my life. Since graduating four years ago- at no point have I had the classic 9-5 job. Yes, I am lucky that I moved home and that home was in London, where I needed and wanted to be. I am lucky that my parents supported me by providing a house for me to continue to live in- where I lived pretty independently, with friends, for the first few years as my parents were often abroad. I am aware of the privilege I have had in order to live in this way. I have judged my lifestyle at times – harshly viewing myself through the lense that I might just be that typical entitled millennial. But then I have grown some perspective in my view- enough to see and recognise the need for gratitude for the space to get to know myself as an adult- in my personal world and in my career- and the difference I can attempt to make in my contribution to society.
Me, hiding behind my non-ironic matcha latte, avoiding all responsibility and wafting through life
I’d like to propose this question: ‘What constitutes work?’ I ask this as open-heartedly as possible. I am interested in this. Recently I read, from a study called ‘Power Up’ from Creative People and Places- where they quote the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules of 1968: ‘The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work, all of the time, who eventually catch on to things’. Now, this fascinates me. Partly because this is on the wall of an Art department and I bet you any money that many people wouldn’t consider people painting, sculpting and reflecting through artistic means as ‘work’. So we live in a world that is totally subjective when it comes to this concept and usually the view is still pretty conventional.
The moment I read that I felt enthused. And that’s because right now I am in a short period of uncertainty in which I have to create my own structure and codes and ideas to live by. I am my own boss in many ways. I seek out opportunity on a daily basis. And most importantly, I ‘work’. And, most of the time, I work very hard. I have looked for the opportunities to grow and exercised this work in multiple varied environments. I don’t wait for things to land in my lap and I say this not to justify myself or prove anything but because I understand that it is a completely necessary process- to be active- in order to get by in this world.
The issue, as some might see it, is I’m not always getting paid to do this ‘work’. So does that mean I’m really working? I’m not talking about volunteering my time to others- although of course I have had to do a fair share of that in choosing a career in the Arts. No, I’m talking about self-created spaces of development. At the moment my brain is switched on and whirring around almost constantly; thinking up new ideas, seeking out new opinions and conversations, writing it down and drawing diagrams; filtering, processing, annotating and analysing. Sometimes it is actually quite tiring and sometimes I even surprise myself by earning that 'Friday Feeling'. And I can end a day of this ‘work’ and feel like I have genuinely achieved something- but to an outsider I could just be another freelancer in a coffee shop with an idle schedule. More went out of my bank account than went in. So how is this ‘work’? Sometimes I put on my glasses (because I remember I need them) but also because I'm aware that someone's unconscious bias might mean they view the scene more like 'look at that studious woman over there god she MUST be writing something very important' (I'm not, sucker, i'm googling German baked goods).
So here we go, work as a noun is defined as ‘an activity involving mental and physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result’. I am interested in the word ‘purpose’ in that definition, more so than the word ‘result’. I think purpose helps remind us that engaging in life and work is a process and not always a product. Last year, I sat in a room with a group of people my age, taking part in a discussion about leadership, and we were asked the classic question ‘what is more important- process or product?’ Everybody else said product. I think perhaps this was partially because they all worked in what would be considered as ‘corporate’ jobs and I am a theatre-maker and artist. So I suppose we all went about fulfilling our destined stereotypes in that moment. In fact, it sparked an interesting conversation- and there is a real benefit to a difference in perspective, especially engaging with that. I found it interesting mostly because we were all the same age but are our understanding and perception of work is moulded differently. I do remember a slight feeling of judgement and hardness that I was met with in suggesting that what our output is, doesn’t always take precedent over what the quality of the journey is to get there. So it isn’t always just a generational thing, where the older people in our world look down at the entitled snowflakes and roll their eyes. Our systems are still built to reward specific targeted fixed mind sets- although these are always shifting and more so now than ever to encourage a ‘growth’ mind-set.
In the last month or two- I have had lots of conversations with people from various fields and interests- all of whom have reflected on my approach and ideas- and I on theirs. These meetings have sometimes been in pursuit of job opportunities and at other times a space to bring two perspectives together and debate, because I am interested in who they and what they do. In those conversations I have been asked: ‘what is that I am in pursuit of? What’s the dream? What are the ideas and then what is the practical reality?’ I recognised that I needed to try to find a way to bring those thoughts into a succinct statement – something that tells the world a little about me as a person and practitioner and can be applied in lots of environments and contexts. This process has been the ‘work’ for me- as much as the days where I am being paid to run a workshop or plan a session.
The work is the moment on the tube when I frantically write down a thought in the notes on my phone because something important has a occurred to me- and that might appear in one of these blogs or a be a sentiment I share with young people when devising theatre. The work is seeing other people at work and loving what they do. The work is having moments of doubt as well as moments of achievement. The work is reading books about the origins of our planet and books about the business case for diversifying. The work is finding ways to marry those two subjects together because they are all part of the same narrative. The work is learning from mistakes and being honest about them. The work is writing a weird sketch or a sensitive speech and the work is sharing and being inspired as well as sitting alone putting it all down on paper in my bedroom. The work is never done.
It is true and important to note that the feelings I am describing are something that people experience at all points in life. It is not a predicament or a pondering reserved only for the mid twenties. I believe, for example, that my Dad who has just retired and now finding a new structure, rhythm and purpose in his life is likely to be experiencing similar levels of self-reflection. Even though he is at the end of his career and I am near the beginning of mine. The ‘work’ now is a process of re-defining the activities we engage with mentally and physically that bring meaning to our lives beyond the boardroom, the factory floor and the teaching space. I believe we do too much splintering and fracturing of our identities in suggesting that work is an absolute thing. And the word has many negative connotations too – especially with the well-known concept of the ‘work/life balance’. I believe it is about where we place the value and perhaps looking at re-defining the spaces we operate in so that people feel less boxed in and in need of categorising themselves based on a payslip or a job title (by the way I still don’t really know what my job title is- it’s always changing- and honestly I've landed on the opinion that it doesn’t really matter).
So to finish here is the statement I wrote for myself and others. It is not edited from the original to sound clever. This is not a CV or a list of credentials and evidence. But, instead, it is my current truth in my view of my 'work' is all about:
I am an artist, a theatre maker, and a reflective practitioner. I am interested in transformative processes- experiencing change through being present, participating, witnessing and contributing. To live inclusively is to seek a diversity of experience and thinking; to make new and important things happen through fluid leadership. I used to think I had to separate myself out into lots of pieces to fit the agendas of the people I met and the spaces I enter. But I am beginning to understand that every individual can only really be fulfilled when they bring the whole. This holistic approach is what I am interested in encouraging in others as well as myself. I plan to lead with honesty. I want to make things, to debate and analyse. I want to think about the function of systems and also what happens when we get rid of them. I wish to use my voice and my body in equal measure to express this and to collaborate with as many other different voices and bodies in the process. Life is storytelling; finding connection where we may least expect it. I believe it is important to fight and experience endurance and in turn to create space to be peaceful together; always challenging our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. This, for me, is a process and certainly one with no fixed end point.