The Sanctity of Work: A mindset for bringing your best to work

I recently sent buckets of old family photos to get digitized.

Going through them, I found this:

That’s me, the blonde one in the red dress shading my eyes from the sun.

And that’s my mom, holding my brother on her hip.

When this was taken, my mom was living an American Dream: she’d dropped out of Stanford University to home-make, looking after me and my siblings while her young husband, my dad, made the dough as an architect.

Like any dreamscape, the more I look back on this time the more I see its weirdnesses and fragmentations.

My parent’s marriage was falling apart. My dad struggled with alcoholism and mental health. And as much as he tried to fulfill his role as Bread Winner, he was always better at playing Starving Artist.

Not long after this photo, my mom found herself single, with no formal education, career path, or means of supporting herself.

(Note of credit to my dad: he tended to his health and stayed sober until his death. I have many fond and meaningful memories with him. There’s a blog ahead honoring how his spirit of play infuses my entire world view).

This moment in my childhood captured in the photo captured my family’s transformation that formed many of my fundamental insights about the world of work.

I watched my mom go back to school while working nights as a nurse. Over the years she rose into a nursing leadership position where she navigated a robust and fulfilling 35-year career.

I imagine she felt terrified to have the life she’d expected—a husband who’d provide, while she stayed home—taken from her. I imagine how angry she must have been at her powerlessness to fix things and her frustration at being left without the money she needed to buy us food and clothing.

Yet, as she worked, she found power. She was one among many women who picked up the frayed threads of the nuclear family model and found a viable path forward.

She told me over and over again how important it was that I had my own money, my own credit, and my own way to support myself.

During that time, she told me and showed me about The Sanctity of Work—how devoting oneself to showing up, contributing, and earning money can be a form of salvation, a means to a fulfilled life.

I think it was my mom’s way of expressing herself as a liberated woman.

By the time she was able to retire, part of me expected she’d be eager to shake off the burden of her work.

So I was surprised when her first move was to take a 6-month job as the Head Gardener at a remote Wyoming Guest Ranch.

By the time she died, I knew that job was one of the highlights of her life—she relished that period.

My Mom went to work for the cash and its corollaries.

But she stayed for The Sanctity of Work: for the way it gave her a place to be, a purpose to fulfill, community, and learning.

While the world she left—a world where woman aren’t recognized for the full scope of their contributions and fragile masculinity works like a poison—still has vestiges today, my mom shines bright to me as a stalwart pioneer demonstrating how central work is to our identities.

She supported me through every twist of my career, even when the work and the travel and the stress threatened to overwhelm me and as my family, too, suffered divorce and hardship.

When I turned 50 she asked me what I was looking forward to in my 6th decade.

From a tired, weary place, I said something snarky, like, “I want to rest!”

She replied, “Oh, no, keep working. Your 50’s are when everything finally comes together.”

Somewhere along the way, my Mom learned how precious work is.

Even in her last days, across many years of retirement, she proudly told people she was a nurse.

Every time she did, her eyes sparkled.

Being a nurse gave her power. It gave her knowledge. It was something she’d achieved and was immensely proud of.

I’ve come back to The Sanctity of Work throughout my life, when the going gets tough.

And I’ve found my mom’s wisdom to ring true, even all these decades later.

What is “The Sanctity of Work”?

A few more words on The Sanctity of Work:

The Sanctity of Work doesn’t mean work is the most important thing your life.

It doesn’t mean you must submit to unreasonable levels of stress and exhaustion or sacrifice what you care about to serve some machine.

It doesn’t over-index on productivity over well-being or production over loving the people in your life.

Rather, it’s a generous mindset that encompasses the varied and very real, very human, and very simple needs we have from work, and work’s unique capacity to fill them.

Needs like:

  • Our need to have somewhere to be, even when we don’t want to get out of bed.
  • Our need to build things with a community and connect with others.
  • Our need to be seen for our unique ideas and contributions.
  • Our need to make ends meet for ourselves and our families.
  • Our need to practice doing hard things, because it feels good.
  • Our need for the tiresome hours of our lives to mean something.
  • Our need to learn and grow right up to the end of our days.

In my experience, the best employers are the ones who can recognize and embrace The Sanctity of Work.

Those employers are the ones who design their workplaces with The Sanctity of Work in mind.

They design their time-off policies with this sanctity in mind.

They structure their compensation packages and training plans with The Sanctity of Work in mind.

They reward leaders who are good for people with an eye to the primacy of the people leader relationship to thriving.

They empower people to define and create their own sacred work because it matters.

And it just so happens that when they do all of this, they get really, really good employees and—voila—the organization thrives, its value grows, the mission is met, and profitability happens.

Since Margaret (my Mom) passed almost two years ago, she visits me in my dreams nightly. When I wake, I ache with longing for her presence, but I am enlivened by her voice in my head, encouraging me to go to work.

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