Surviving Unemployment by Living to Work

Dr. Brett HowardPerformance

I often joke that I am on career number 17. Although the actual number is much lower, there has certainly been enough to suggest that I have been in a perpetual state of “looking for work.” Why so many careers? It seems that I have always thought, “what you do matters.” However, I have come to believe that it is true that “what you do matters,” but for not all of the reasons that many people think. If you are having difficulty surviving a period of unemployment, consider for a second that you may greatly benefit from expanding your definition of what all constitutes your “work.”

Although the topics of cocktail conversation would suggest that your response to the inevitable question, “So, what kind of work do you do?” is intended to size you up, it may be that your answer is a reflection of the things that are important to you and how you have chosen to participate in this world.

It’s true that we get to choose our careers, but well before we start our first day of orientation we have chosen (consciously or not) what we value. Regardless of what career—or series of careers— you choose, what you do matters because the choice reflects a portion of what matters to you and the story you want to be told about the time you spent on this planet. But, your career choice reflects just a portion of what matters to you and a piece of the legacy that you leave.

Our careers and the jobs that we hold may help explain who we are, but they do not define the totality of who we are. However, this sentiment may stand in contrast to data published by The Lancet Psychiatry which shows that between 2000 and 2011, unemployment was the cause of about 45,000 deaths by suicide world wide, which is nine times the rate when the recession first hit in 2008.

Although we will never truly understand all of the reasons that each individual decided to take his or her own life, to the extent that any of them—or any of us left behind— think that a life lived is only worth a life employed, then the definition of what constitutes a “meaningful life” leaves much room for improvement.

In A Whole Life’s Work: Living Passionately, Growing Spiritually, Richard Lewis expands the common definition of “work” stating,

“Work is not just a job. It is the sum of all our purposeful activities. Seen in this light, work is our whole life.”
Lewis argues that throughout our lives we are continuously employed via 8 “modes of working:” earner, hobbyist, creator, monk, helper, parent, learner and elder. Through our efforts in each mode we make meaningful contributions to our communities, and reveal a potion of ourselves and what we value.
What you do does matter, but what you do to earn money is not the only work that you accomplish. If you find yourself “unemployed” or “looking for work,” keep in mind that you may only be unemployed in your role as an “earner.” Your family and your community are desperately trying to fill other positions in roles that you are perfectly qualified for.