The Meaning of Work

What do Gustavo Dudamel and Stephen Hawking have in common?

The fact that both were featured in the Los Angeles Times Arts & Letters on a recent Sunday is a coincidence. To me, what they have in common is that while both have work, neither have jobs. Not by my definition, anyway.

Dudamel was featured in an article about The Mahler Project, in which he will conduct nine symphonies in three weeks. It will take two orchestras to keep up with him in this endeavor. Then he’ll rest for two days and repeat the whole thing on another continent in 12 days.

Sure, he’s only 30 years old. Youth will do that to you – give you both crazy ideas and the energy to make them happen. But it’s more than that.

Stephen HawkingHawking was featured in a book review on the occasion of his 70 birthday. It was 50 years ago that he was diagnosed with ALS and given two years to live. With limited body movement using a voice synthesizer, he taught mathematics to some of the world’s brightest brains, and led the world in thinking about theoretical physics and cosmology.

He also shared his concepts in a way the rest of us could understand through his books, including A Brief History of Time, which spent 237 weeks on UK’s The Sunday Times bestseller list. As the LA Times article said: “He didn’t have time to die.”

On this, my first official day back at work this year, I’m thinking more about, well, work. It seems to me what Dudamel and Hawking have in common is that both have work. Not the toil-and-grind sort of work, although no doubt a lot of that is involved, but the kind of work we refer to as a body of work or an art work.

Dudamel clearly fits into the artist category, and one could argue that Hawking, with his wildly creative thinking, is a type of artist as well. But should work be limited to these extraordinary beings? Or is it something that is available to us all?

Certainly few of us will ever share our work as publicly as these two prodigies, but I believe we could also be doing work rather than toiling at jobs.

What would that look like? For me, it would be something I’m proud of, that captures and holds my attention, puts me in a state of high concentration, and that I would do even if I didn’t get paid.

No doubt there are some days I have a job to do, and I do it. But I strive to have most days ones in which I do my work – the work I am meant to do. That uses my unique blend of talents and skills to make a positive impact – on both me and those who experience my work.