The Work You Do, The Person You Are

Toni Morrison is 86. She has undoubtedly lived a long, full life with so many rich experiences we can learn from.

One of the things we can learn from her is how to frame jobs. We all have shitty jobs. Unless we, somehow, are getting paid to be ourselves, our job is shitty. Not even Morrison could escape this reality and she recently put out a reminder to tell you that you are not your job.

Again: you are not your job.

In a brief biographic essay published in the New Yorker, the author shared one of her first experiences working, hoping to define what a job is via racial intertwined employment in the middle of the twentieth century. She cleaned the house of a well off enough white woman and her pay taught and afforded her a unique autonomy that is lost on American youth today.

The story is very fast to read and I want to highlight a section that rounds out the story, where Morrison has a standoff with her father about quitting the job after being unsatisfied with the work. His answer to her is something we all need tattooed on our forearms as reminders of our truth.

Then one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No “Oh, you poor little thing.” Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

That was what he said. This was what I heard:

1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

3. Your real life is with us, your family.

4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

Do your job well, make the job your own, real life is family, and you are not your work. Repeat that: do your job well, make the job your own, real life is family, and you are not your work.

Morrison is a treasure of writing and, apparently, a necessary icon of inspiring upward mobility and individuality apart from work. Truly her words are to he cherished.

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