Some of my work colleagues were this week discussing the challenges of undertaking “knowledge work” and how to survive it.
Knowledge work is an idea coined by Peter Drucker which means work that consists primarily of creating, using and communicating knowledge, as opposed to manual labour. Any work whose focus consists of generating ideas, communicating and leading is knowledge work.
This means that essentially, it’s work that can follow you everywhere you go. It’s not limited to set times, locations or activities. It can be anywhere, everywhere and all the time.
As I followed the thread of the conversation I recalled a sermon that I’d heard that argued that there shouldn’t actually be a thing called work-life balance. We shouldn’t be compartmentalising our lives so as to distinguish one part as work from the other but should actually work towards integrating our work into the rest of our lives to ensure that we remain whole.
I then stumbled across a conversation Krista Tippet was having with the activists and commentators Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin about the inner life of rebellion. How they strive to effect change in the world and at the same time endeavour to keep themselves whole as they wrestle with this rebellion.
Here’s a passage from this conversation that jumped out at me that has really helped me to wrestle afresh with this question.
Krista Tippet: There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs, activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of its innate violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work. It destroys the fruitfulness of his or her work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”
And then you talk about how this came to you the hard way, as an activist who burned out. And you said, “There’s a critical question that you asked yourself, ‘What what do I need to do right now to tend the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?’” And I think fruitful not necessarily being synonymous with efficient, or even evidently effective.
Parker Palmer: And I will say that one of the things that I think about a lot, I mean, I could talk about practices I have, like walking in the woods, or reading a lot of poetry or sitting in silence alone or with other people, um, those are helpful to me in sort of letting the waters still, and coming back to myself, and learning more about what it is — where it is my life is taking me, rather than where I want to take my life.
But there are some important frames around that for me, and I’ll mention just one of them. We are in a society that is obsessed with effectiveness, with outcomes, with results. And efficiency is very much attached to that, which Courtney wisely pointed to. I want to be clear that I’m not against effectiveness and getting results. I work hard on writing books, or on creating a non-profit, and on propagating programs through our 220 facilitators around the country. I want that work to be effective, just as everyone in this room wants to be effective.
But I am very clear, for myself, that the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on, because they’re the only ones with which you can be effective. But there has to be a standard that trumps effectiveness. And I have a word that I use for myself that helps me walk this path. Um, and that’s the word faithfulness. Faithfulness has to trump effectiveness. And I don’t mean anything high and mighty about that. Remember, I’m the guy that God kicked out of seminary.
By faithfulness, I mean, am I being faithful to my own gifts? Am I being faithful to the needs I see around me, within my reach? And am I being faithful to those points at which my gifts might intersect those needs in some life-giving way? Um, you know, at age 75, I think about my mortality more than I did when I was 35 or 45. And, one of the things that’s very, very clear to me is that when I’m drawing my last breath, I will not be asking did I sell enough books? Did I get enough good enough reviews? What are the numbers looks like, you know? I’m going to be asking, given my limitations, given my fallibilities, cutting myself a lot of slack for my failure to do so, did I use my limited lifetime to show up fully as I knew how with what I’ve got? That’s what I call faithfulness. And I think it’s a matter of framing what we’re doing as well as those particular practices, like walking in the woods, like silence, like reading poetry, that can bring us back to those points that you might call true north.