Writing: My Difficult Task Done Well

When I was taking the Know Thyself course through Coursera earlier this spring, one thing that stuck with me was the finding that lottery winners are not happier than the general population. I had heard this before, of course, and, as someone who doesn’t find a lot of happiness in money or in stuff, it always made sense to me. But Timothy Wilson, one of the researchers who has studied the phenomenon, suggested that one of the causes of stagnating or even declining happiness in lottery winners was the fact that many of them quit work.

He reflects that, although many people don’t take much note of it, much of our happiness comes from the feeling of satisfaction we get for “a difficult job done well,” something that most people encounter in their work lives at one time or another. Removing work therefore removes that particular, possibly significant, source of satisfaction.

My first thought was, “But I could get that from my writing!” (So yes, I think that I could be quite happy as a lottery winner. ;)).

In the past year, I’ve really reframed the way I think about writing so that I don’t see its purpose as being a means toward achieving my dream of publishing a book, but so that I take value from the journey itself — the satisfaction I get from untangling a thorny plot issue, creating a beautiful sentence, or understanding my own experiences more deeply when I journal. Writing has essentially become a spiritual practice, something that threads a layer of meaning throughout my whole life, regardless of whether it brings outward success or not. And I certainly get the satisfaction of “a difficult job done well” when I manage to do it (and the satisfaction of at least trying when a difficult job is not done well). On most days, writing is the hardest thing I do, which is why I try to do it before 10 am — after that, the rest of the day feels easy.

I don’t think I need paid work to have a sense of satisfaction with my life, although the external validation of being recognized for it is a perk. Still, I think my own interests and compulsion to work on them without pay would be enough to keep me feeling productive and satisfied while a windfall took care of the details like food and housing. As it stands, my marriage has given me the chance to relax a bit about finances — my husband and I live simply, but I’m able to do things now that were very difficult for me to swing financially when I was single, such as home improvement, more upgraded technology, and travel. I’m grateful for that. But at the bottom of it all, we live below our means because what we both want most of all is time. We want time to devote to our personal “difficult tasks” done well — writing and learning for me, and coding for him. All money is to us is the means to take care of the necessities of life so that we can put as much time and energy as possible into the things we’re truly passionate about.

Although I’m more financially secure now than I have been in the past, I’m also more passionate about finding ways to “do more with less,” with the hope that someday that will allow us to be less beholden to our paid work. We’ve discussed that if we somehow came into a large sum of money, we’d put it away and give ourselves a yearly allowance and use the opportunity to work full-time toward our creative goals. We think we could live on 1 million dollars for twenty years — and perhaps after all that time devoted to our passions, they would have finally started reaping some financial rewards! Until then, we keep our day jobs, dependent on them for the cost of living, while we reap the majority of our satisfaction from our jobs that offer that very satisfaction as their only reward.


One Response to Writing: My Difficult Task Done Well

  1. G says:

    I share your outlook on money and the important things in life.

    It’s a shame, though, that most of us have to resign ourselves to a day job we’re personally alienated from (and, in most cases, get a tiny cut of the profit from). I want people to stay annoyed and rebellious over this issue even though they have to get on with making a living.

    I really like this (huge, sorry) quote from Wilhelm von Humboldt:

    “. . . Man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits. . . . In view of this consideration, it seems as if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists; that is, men who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their pleasures. And so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, thought beautiful in themselves, so often serve to degrade it. . . But, still, freedom is undoubtedly the indispensable condition, without which even the pursuits most congenial to individual human nature, can never succeed in producing such salutary influences. Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.

    If a man acts in a purely mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, “we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.”

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