Most of us want to live purposefully, particularly when it comes to our work. Unfortunately, many workers feel they have very little freedom of choice once they enter the workforce. What’s more, we’re not used to the idea that the work we do will have a major impact on our capacity to be self-loving. And yet a life of purpose is essential for fostering self-esteem: taking responsibility for consciously creating goals, identifying the actions necessary to achieve them, making sure our behavior is in alignment with our goals, and paying attention to the outcome of our actions so that we see whether they are leading us where we want to go.

I’ve thought a lot about this in my work as a social activist, professor, and cultural critic. Work occupies much of our time. Yet, most workers cannot do the work that they love. The good news is that we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do. We find that satisfaction by giving any job total commitment.

Doing a job well strengthens our self-esteem

Doing work that we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. But when we work as well as we can, we can subvert this.

When I had a teaching job I hated (the kind of job where you long to be sick so you have an excuse for not going to work), the only way I could ease the severity of my pain was to give my absolute best. Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.

Creating a loving environment makes any work meaningful

Throughout my life I have endeavored to work with individuals I respect, like, or love. When I first declared my desire to work in a loving environment, friends acted as though I had truly lost my mind. To them, love and work did not go together. But I was convinced that I would work better in a work environment shaped by an ethic of love — to follow the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood,” or a livelihood guided by purpose and integrity.

Today, whether or not people call it by name, many people intuitively strive toward a right livelihood and embrace the belief that work that enhances our spiritual well-being strengthens our capacity to love. And when we work with love, we create a loving working environment. Whenever I enter an office, I can immediately sense by the overall atmosphere and mood whether the workers like what they do. The author Marsha Sinetar writes about this dynamic in her book Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, with the aim to encourage readers to take the risk of choosing work they care about and therefore learning through experience the meaning of right livelihood.

While there are many meaningful insights in Sinetar’s book, it is equally true that we can do what we love, and money will not always follow. Although this is utterly disappointing, it can also offer us the experiential awareness that doing what you love may be more important than making money.

A job you hate can still support your inner life

Sometimes, I have had to work at a job that is less than enjoyable in order to have the means to do the work I love. At one point in a very mixed-job career, I worked as a cook in a club. I hated the noise and the smoke. But working nights left me free to write in the day, to do the work I truly wanted to do. Each experience enhanced the value of the other. My nighttime work helped me relish the quiet serenity of my day and enjoy the alone time so essential to writing.

Whenever possible, it is best to seek work we love and to avoid work we hate. But sometimes we learn what we need to avoid by doing it. Individuals who are able to be economically self-sufficient doing what they love are blessed. Their experience serves as a beacon to all of us, showing us the ways right livelihood can strengthen self-love, ensuring peace and contentment in the lives we lead beyond work.

That said, when a job really assaults our well-being, sometimes it’s time to move on. Often, workers believe that if their home life is good, it does not matter if they feel dehumanized and exploited on the job. Many jobs undermine self-love because they require that workers constantly prove their worth. Individuals who are dissatisfied and miserable on the job bring this negative energy home. We can encourage friends and loved ones to move toward greater self-love by supporting them in any effort to leave dehumanizing or psychically damaging work.

Most of us did not learn when we were young that our capacity to be self-loving would be shaped by the work we do and whether that work enhances our well-being. No wonder then that we have become a nation where so many workers feel bad. Jobs depress the spirit. Rather than enhancing self-esteem, work is perceived as a drag, a negative necessity.

Bringing love into the work environment can create the necessary transformation that can make any job we do, no matter how menial, a place where workers can express the best of themselves. When we work with love, we renew the spirit; that renewal is an act of self-love, it nurtures our growth. It’s not what you do, but how you do it.

From the book ALL ABOUT LOVE: New Visions by bell hooks. Copyright © 1999 by Gloria Watkins. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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