Life’s Work

by Rich Fernandez

When I was a young child I spent several years living with my extended family in the Philippines, where I learned to speak Tagalog. The language contains a beautiful expression for work – hanap buhay. When literally translated this term for work means “the search for life.” I have always liked this way of thinking about work – that it is an inward journey towards discovery where the things that make you feel most alive become your life’s work.

During childhood there is often a certain moment when a well-meaning adult asks you the big question, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” What I like about this question is that it embraces the idea that work is an expression of who you are as well as who you want to be. Yet that familiar question takes an odd turn when you actually become an adult. “What do you do for a living?” becomes the question we typically ask each other. Gone is the inquiry about what you aspire to “be.” This shift in emphasis from “being” to “doing” focuses you solely on the external activities and behaviors that you perform for your work, rather than on your intrinsic values, strengths and motivations.

“Most of us think too much about what we should do and not enough about what we should be,” said the fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart. “If we would pay more attention to what we should be, our work would shine forth brightly.” How true. What if instead of simply creating “To Do” lists for ourselves, we also create “To Be” lists of what we aspire to be in our working lives and beyond? I invite you to experiment with a To Be list. Here are some prompts to get you started:

  • How would I like each day to unfold?
  • What would I like to be focusing my energy and attention on, if I had any choice available to me?
  • What makes me experience joy?
  • What energizes me?
  • What makes me feel balance? Integration?
  • What state of mind would I like to be in while I work?
  • What other aspects of my life do I wish to be paying more attention to?
  • By the end of my life, what kind of person do I wish to be?

The answers that emerge from questions like these can influence and direct your work, ultimately allowing you to thrive in that work because you are following your own life’s energy, instead of opposing it, fighting it or suppressing it. By placing attention on what it means to be fully aligned, fully yourself, and fully present in your work, you are able to give your best to your work, to yourself, and to the world.

Being as fully as I can in my work has been an important realization in my own life. Being has guided me to make decisions that are not motivated by a desire for achievement, but by a desire to do work I find truly meaningful, work that makes me feel alive. I have had wonderful experiences working in clinics, hospitals and institutions of higher education as well as in amazing organizations such as eBay and Google. Always, the decision to move into an area of endeavour was made by following what most alive and inspiring for me, even as that changed over the years.

Certainly, being inspired and thriving in work isn’t always easy and working itself means different things to each of us. No matter what meaning you ascribe to your work–whether it is a job (a means to an end), a career (a purposeful drive towards attainment in a certain discipline) or a calling (a sense of fulfilling a life’s purpose) – by focusing on being fully present you can better connect to your own alive presence and vitality within the experience. All work, even very difficult work, contains within it some element of vitality simply because you are capable of doing it and sustaining yourself with it.

The good news is that focusing more on being in your work does not require any extraordinary effort. You do not need to pursue your life’s work because it is already reflected in you, as you. You need simply to be present and allow yourself to experience what is most alive in your work and in your life, how you are disposed to it, what decisions you make relative to it and how you take action. Working in this sense is truly a search for life and the answers, as well as ultimate success and fulfillment, come from within you.

 Rich Fernandez PhD is the co-founder of Wisdom Labs and former director of executive education at Google.

13 responses to “Life’s Work

  1. Thanks my friend, very interesting and senseful
    Working means active meditation, with brain or muscles and skills
    Working means to give the best of ourselves, beeing completely free of the result
    I have often realised that if you are really convinced having given the best of yourselves in one job, the result has no importance at all
    we can only deplore the loss of one deal if we accept that we have not given the best of ourselves when doing it
    Otherwise, no regret at all
    We are rather happy for our brother competitor who was better than us this time!
    keep on enjoying and working for our freedom

  2. This comes at a rather perfect time. Situation at work going on for a month already. This reminded me to stay aware, to remain conscious, and see it through. It also gave me two simple, yet great definitions of what I want for my professional life next- a career AND my calling. I’ve been patient in finding it. I feel I need to be even more patient, and continue to do a great job where I currently am, and do it all by stayng present. That is until the opportunity presents itself where I can move to fulfill both of these desires.

  3. Hi Rich!!
    Thank you for your writting. I liked the idea about take care of our energy, in this way, our outcome is going to be great. Thanks!

  4. Rich I want to thank you for sharing such insight and meaningful words! “Hanap buhay” has become the guiding principle within me. My life’s work and word that I bring forth is ‘Connection’ . Living and breathing consciousness & presence is a truth, and when I learned this, it was my beginning to the unfolding of my purpose here on this earth! I love the questions you posed here and all the thoughts that may be evoked because of them. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and writing!

    With gratitude

  5. Beautifully said. I am bringing this with me to tomorrow on a one day retreat. We will be doing trance work-self-hypnosis, on the things that block us from how we want to “be”. This post could not have come at a more appropriate time. Thank you.

  6. I’m in my mid-50s, very happily married with 2 wonderful children and generally very contented. The one exception is that I chose my career for pragmatic (read financial) reasons and have never felt comfortable or at ease in it. When I try to answer the questions in your list I find that, with only a few exceptions, I am totally unable to do so. My current place of employment will be closing down in 6-8 months and I will need to find new work in which “to be”. I’m trying to look at it as a sort-of unplanned “opportunity” to find a way to grow for the next 20 years of employment. However, I have no idea where or how to start looking. Any suggestions?

  7. You hit me right in the present moment with this… so needed! I am in a hellish job, riding on the cusp of presence. It is time to move toward a more peaceful, fulfilling position elsewhere. I have questioned my career, its direction and promise. This article clarifies what I truly desire in a work experience. This will guide me toward the necessary change that must happen.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!


  8. I feel blessed that I was always dedicated in my work, whatever ‘work’ that meant.

    I soon found that jobs, careers and plans are all egoic in nature. The only relevant part of that experience is learning to let go and trust that life has a plan, even if we are not privy to it (yet).

    As in the end, anything you are doing, is a part of who you are.

    I also found that being fully present at any regular job isn’t feasible, as crisis after crisis keeps one in the grip of the mind/egoic complex.

    It is a regular complaint of newly present beings (not yet awakened), that no job holds their interest any longer. As all jobs require some level of mind activity (some more, some less).

    Letting oneself let go of work, in the end, was the ultimate blessing, for me.

    This of course, is where most people remain stuck, in their limited viewpoint that money can only occur (ie. safety, security and predictability…which is what money affords) from working for another.

    Sometimes, it is about re-discovering one’s own interests and own desires (which usually have little to do with any occupation in the regular job market) that leads one to more self discoveries.

    For instance, I found that no owning material wealth was very freeing and required a much less work load to support.

    And that working for myself gave me freedoms that allowed me to remain present, more often than not.

    In the end;
    It is part of the nature of reality that we discover this self evident truth and begin the final process of letting go of all egoic form, including getting paid at a job …if we so desire.

    Not because the job we have doesn’t provide security, but because our heart desire is perhaps in another direction, one that may seem difficult at first, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

    What that position might be (our heart’s desire), isn’t known….till it is sought after. But then what fun would it be, if we knew our future ahead of time.

    Let time (whatever is happening now) be the arbitrator (decider) and us just the leaves that float upon it. It might feel disconcerting, at best, but it is pure freedom that leads us that way (rather than egoic purposes).

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