Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
– George Bernard Shaw
The white paint was peeling, and chunks of plaster were missing from the exterior walls. Most of the white windows were broken. Rusted swings hung from an iron frame, and the tattered playground sat on twisted pieces of asphalt. Graffiti and trash littered the outside of the building.
For two decades, members of the small California coastal town of Port Costa, population 200, had walked and driven past the old fading schoolhouse without giving it a second thought. The town was a mix of antique shops, aging homes, and old shipyard buildings, so a bit of decay did not seem out of the ordinary.
But my dad saw something else.
Under the cracked paint and broken windows, he saw vibrant, rich community center.
“The first time I saw the Port Costa School, I knew it was made to be an institution of learning. It was supposed to be filled with people learning Spanish, or painting, or tap dancing,” my dad said.
The building had not been used as a school since 1966. And so despite having no plan, no experience with historical building restoration, no construction skills, and no way to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to fix the school, my dad and Diane, my bonus mom (my term for stepmom), decided they would purchase the building.
The fact that my dad would take on such an audacious challenge was not a surprise to me. All my life, I had watched him embrace the craft of his photography, obsessing over the perfect shot. When I was in preschool, I attended city council meetings in San Anselmo, California, where for three years, he patiently worked to establish the state’s first curbside recycling program, in 1971.
After decades of observing my dad’s work, I realized that he was not just building a career (although he was a very successful professional photographer), he was not just being a volunteer (although he spent hundreds of hours of unpaid time on community projects), but he was creating a deep and rich body of work that not only had great meaning and significance to him but also created considerable change and value in his community. It didn’t really matter if a project was overwhelming, or even impossible; if it fit within his vision of what he wanted to create for himself and for the world, he embraced it. It was an inspiring lesson for me.
As I watched the global economy fall to pieces in 2007 and sink into a deep recession for a solid six years after that, creating fear and stress and uncertainty in workers of all stripes, it dawned on me:
My dad just might hold the secret to thriving in the new world of work.
How do you make sense of your career in a work environment that no longer has any predictable career paths?
How do you create stability in a world that has no job security, uncertain markets, threats of terrorism, and a fiercely competitive global workforce?
How do you balance making a living with making time for family, health, and recreation?
How do you develop relationships with mentors when everyone is so busy?
How do you keep your skills relevant in a world that moves so quickly that companies are launched, or destroyed, in a day?
How do you plan for your financial future when you have no idea if your income stream will slow to a trickle, or even dry up completely if you get laid off or go through a difficult stage of business?
Standard career advice would say to get more education, work harder, and make yourself indispensible to your organization or customer base.
This advice made a lot of sense in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, this advice is incomplete.
I have spent the last twenty years coaching thousands of employees, executives, and entrepreneurs in a huge variety of industries. I have watched organizations start, grow, shrink, and implode. I have sat across the table from longtime employees and watched them get laid off. I have helped start hundreds of new companies.
From these experiences I know the following to be true:
No one is looking out for your career anymore. You must find meaning, locate opportunities, sell yourself, and plan for failure, calamity, and unexpected disasters. You must develop a set of skills that make you able to earn an income in as many ways as possible.
The new world of work requires a new lens and skill set to ensure career success. You must create your own body of work as you toil in different organizational systems and structures.
When you view your career through the lens of an over-arching body of work, you:
- know the deeper roots that connect your entire work and life experience.
- count all significant experiences and skills in your life as “ingredients” that can be put together into interesting new “work recipes.”
- are not afraid of pursuing work inside and outside of companies.
- base career decisions on your ability to foster skill development and meaningful creative output, as well as financial stability.
- choose to work for organizations that share your values and interests.
- contribute significant, useful and beautiful things to the world.
- are aware of the risks and pitfalls in the creative process and have the tools and resources to deal with them.
- have mental clarity, intellectual rigor, and self-awareness.
- have an active, motivated, and engaged group of peers and mentors.
- live by a very personal definition of success.
- can tell a clear, compelling story about your work path at each stage of your career.
In my dad’s case, he was a professional photographer and journalist. He worked most of his career for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), detouring for eight years to work for an oil company before returning to PG&E and staying until retirement.
He survived multiple layoffs through the decades—the most noteworthy when ten of the eleven staff members in his department were laid off, leaving him shell-shocked and alone in his office.
In such a volatile environment, he did some specific things:
- He always focused on the mastery of his craft, inside and outside of work.
- He never got lazy, or took his work for granted. Although I never heard of a situation where a client was unhappy with his photographs, he still worried every time he sent in a job.
- When he got divorced, he took a manual labor job at an oil company. He hated it with a passion. But he kept plugging away so he could provide for himself and his kids, did freelance photography on the side, and waited for the opportunity to back to PG&E. It took eight years.
- He showed deep respect for everyone he came in contact with, especially the frontline employees who were repairing power lines in the middle of a storm. He never forgot what it was like to do manual labor and related to them with humility and compassion.
- He truly appreciated his role inside a large organization that provided financial stability as well as many opportunities to grow professionally.
- He was passionate about community service. He was one of a handful of volunteers who recycled all the glass and aluminum in Port Costa every two weeks for thirteen years.
- He showed his kids and grandkids how enriching work can be when one truly delights in its craft. We were all inspired to pursue meaningful and significant careers.
My dad turned sixty-five in November 1999, making him eligible for retirement benefits. In December 1999, he was laid off with a severance package. To this day, at the age of seventy-eight, he still does freelance projects for PG&E.
Was my dad lucky? Very. But I think the fact that he always viewed his career as more than a straight and narrow path, and always as a more cumulative and connected body of work, saved him from layoffs, opened up new opportunities, and allowed him to feel great success and satisfaction in his life.
What exactly is a body of work?
As Daniel Pink wrote in Drive, “The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created. Individuals who structure their careers around autonomy, mastery and purpose will have a powerful body of work.
For organizations, it is the products, property, inventions, ideas, and value they share throughout the course of their existence. Organizations that structure their internal strategies around autonomy, mastery and purpose will be more competitive and resilient.
Smiling and waving at your neighbor every morning as you get the paper can contribute to your bigger desire to see more civility and joy in the world.
My passion for and commitment to individual determination and transformation has led me from community development projects on the outskirts of Bogotá, Columbia, to science and art education to teaching martial arts to corporate consulting to parenting to blogging to entrepreneur coaching and writing books. And it will take me in new directions in the future, without having to feel constrained by any one audience or business or job title.
A body of work is big and deep and complex. It allows you to experiment and play and change and test.
It supports creative freedom.
It includes obvious things, like books, software code, photographs, videos, process improvements, paintings and stories.
And not-so-obvious things, like community development, love, movements, memories and relationships.
Bodies of work often have big overarching themes, such as:
Solving complex problems—Like David Batstone’s commitment to end human trafficking with his nonprofit advocacy organization, Not For Sale.
Building bridges—like Kai Dupe and his work to bridge the digital divide in technology for people of color.
Changing the world through powerful communication—like Nancy Duarte, who has changed the way business leaders create and deliver presentations.
Making the world more accessible to more people—like Glenda Watson Hyatt, the Canadian writer and motivational speaker with cerebral palsy who writes with her left thumb.
Strengthening the bond between parents and children—like Marilyn Scott-Waters, a children’s book author who has created a world of free paper toys at thetoymaker.com.
Each of these examples shows a deep commitment to a cause or problem that is bigger than any one job title or profession or business. And they can include a whole range of output, including writing, physical products, legal legislation, systems, speeches, books, conversations and advocacy.
Focusing on building a body of work will give you more freedom and clarity to choose different work options throughout the course of your life, and you’ll be able to connect your diverse accomplishments, sell your story, and continually re-invent and relaunch your brand.
You won’t have to say things like “I am throwing away ten years of studying and practicing law if I start a yoga studio.”
(Don’t worry—your relatives will say it.)
Or “I am undermining my potential if I take a job as a barista” after you get laid off from your corporate job as a highly paid creative.
If your body of work is about creating beauty and art, why not make lovely images in latte foam while you retool for a new job?
It’s also possible to contribute to your body of work if you work in a cubicle inside a larger company.
While the organization may have amnesia about your contribution to its body of work, you know what you created and what you are capable of.
If you completed a huge, significant project, did a spectacular job, and it ended up getting shelved right before being launched, you still did all that work. It may not become part of the organization’s legacy, but it is part of yours.