A life’s work

My Nephew and Godson J, asked me, “Is it true that if you find a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life?”

“The ‘follow your passion’ advice?”

He nodded.

“Do you know about the MOE Scholar? The one who was studying in the UK, was caught collecting child pornography, and expelled from the University, returned to Singapore and was caught having sex with an underage girl? He was following his passion.”

J smiled.

“The ‘follow your passion’ advice works – sort of – if your passion is moral, legal and worth following. ‘Do what you love’ is easier said than done. Maybe I love playing ‘Counterstrike’. Can I get a job playing Counterstrike for a living?”

“How long have you been working at the same place?” J asked, after a moment.

“Almost 20 years.”

“Wow. I can’t imagine working that long in the same place,” J said. “Do you love your work?”

“Have you watched a documentary called ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’?” I asked by way of a preamble to an answer.

He hadn’t. So I told him about Jiro Ono, the first sushi master to have a 3 michelin-starred sushi restaurant, who started working at the age of 10 in a sushi restaurant and has done so for 75 years.

Jiro is a “shokunin”.

This is often translated as “an artisan, or a craftsman.”

But a shokunin is more than that. A shokunin is not just dedicated to his craft, he is obsessed with perfecting his craft.

Or perhaps, he has OCD.

Then I told J about me, and my work, and how it is both a source of pride and a source of humility for me.

“I have done this work for so long, that I can say that I am the foremost authority on the subject. That is the source of my professional pride. However, it is also the source of my humility because, really, no one cares about what I do, or how well or how thoroughly I know my work. I told my boss about this personal epiphany, and she was worried (‘cos I said, no one cares about what I do). She was missing the point, though. I don’t need recognition. I don’t do it for the recognition. I do it as well as I can, because it is my job, and I take professional pride – a shokunin’s pride – in doing the best job I can.

Jiro strives to make the perfect sushi, and he is constantly working to perfect his craft. He may have been recognised as a great sushi chef by the Michelin people. BUT, if he hadn’t been, he would still do what he does, the way he does it, with attention to detail, and meticulous preparation, and obsession with minutiae.

Lee Kuan Yew was still critically ill in hospital then (he would die that evening/in the wee hours of the morning). This is what he says of his life’s work:

LKY Life

What have I given up for a successful Singapore? My life.


“Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead”. 1978, The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew



By this time, I had probably thoroughly confused J with my rambly answer so, by way of explanation and elaboration, here is what I had wanted to say in answer to his implied question: how do I know what I am to do with my life.

There are very few people who have the opportunity to do what they love and be paid for it. Say I love acting. It is what I love to do. BUT I am a TERRIBLE ACTOR. I couldn’t act my way out of a wet paper bag, as the saying goes. Who is going to pay me to act for a living?

Some things we do for love. Some things we do for money (to make a living). And some things we do because it is our duty, our responsibility, and because it is the right thing to do, and we are the best person (or the only person) who can do it. Often these things are mutually exclusive. But sometimes, if you are lucky, two or even all three of them are rolled into one – what you do for love is also what you do for a living, and also what you need to do. But generally, things you like to do are not things people will pay you to do. Or if they do, you quickly stop liking it. For example, people who (claim to) love children shouldn’t go into teaching or childcare (personal opinion).

The “Finding Yourself” Theory of purpose and happiness

Ok, one might say. If you don’t know what you love or what you are good at, perhaps it is a matter of finding yourself, finding what you love to do, are good at, and can make a living from it.

Ah! The “finding yourself” theory. This theory suggests that we all have a place in this world where our talent will manifest and bloom. We just have to find our place in this world. It is why stories about “The One” or “The Chosen One” or “The Slayer” are so seductive. We wonder – how nice it would be if we could know our destiny. Or shouldn’t it be true that we all have a destiny and the first thing we need to do is to find that destiny, find ourselves.

Except… That is not usually how the world works. Or life.

And also, what does it mean to have your life pre-destined? What does it mean to be “The Chosen One”, “The Slayer” and know that your fate is to slay vampires, for example? You cannot be a dancer, or an artist, or a doctor. There is no point trying to play a guitar or try to be good at science or write software. Your “destiny has already been decided – you are the Vampire Slayer. Or rather you can be anything, as long as you are first The Vampire Slayer. David Brooks suggests that life is not about finding yourself, but losing yourself:

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self. Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

I thought Brook’s perspective was insightful. Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about losing yourself to find yourself.

A seed must “die” so that it can generate new life. It must cease to be a seed to become a plant and give life and produce more seeds (this is from the Bible, and this reference to the Bible covers my duty as Godfather to J.)

The seed has to lose itself to realise it’s full potential. Just as Lee Kuan Yew gave his life for his life’s work – building Singapore.

The harsh truth of life is that nobody owes you a living. Everybody contributes to the world  in one way or another to make a living.

Life offers only one guarantee: Death. But before death occurs, Life offers you opportunities. Life isn’t fair though. Some people have more opportunities. Some have fewer. But life offers you choice and the freedom to choose.

The (fictitious) “Chosen One” does not get to choose, but is chosen. And that is a curse.

The one important question you need to answer to the world is, “what have you got for the world?” The world only cares about what it can get from you. It is harsh, but that’s the world. So the full advice is, “if you can find a job you love and which the world is prepared to pay you to do, and you can do it well, you will never work a day in your life. ”

And the most important part of that advice is not “a job you love” or “you will never work a day in your life”.

The two important part of that advice is “you can do it well” and “the world is prepared to pay you” for it.

In that order.

Sometimes the world may not pay you for it. Maybe you want to give it for free, or are happy to give it for free. But whatever you do, for money or for love, people have to benefit from it.

Like I can make pretty good roast pork, and Mac & Cheese. Friends and family like it. Can I make a living from it? Maybe. Can I make enough to quit my job?

That depends on whether I like it so much that I would be willing to live on whatever I can make from that business.

Or I may decide that because the result and effect of my cooking is more easily and readily seen, and felt, and because it gives me a sense of achievement, more than my job, I might as well just do it full time and be more fulfilled.

Regardless of whether I can or want to do that for a living, I can do that for family and friends, and that is something.

To find your place in the world, you need to know who you are, and who you are isn’t a name, an identity, a status. As far as the world is concerned, you are what you do. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne was pretending to be a playboy when he bumps into Rachel Dawes. And he could see that she was disappointed in his playboy persona. So he tells her, “underneath, I am still the same person”. And Rachel tells Bruce:

“… it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

And that is how the world sees everyone – what do you do? He is a doctor, or a lawyer, or a social worker, or a pianist, or a singer, or an actor, or a char kway teow hawker, or a chicken rice hawker, or a police detective, or a taxi driver, or an engineer, or a nurse, or a dog groomer, or a veterinarian. And so on.

Name 5 things that you can do well. You don’t have to be the best, just good enough that people will know you for what you do. Maybe you can draw very well. Or write very well. Or speak very well. Maybe if you are doing group work, the rest of the group will say, “you can speak very well, you present for us okay?”

Maybe it is something small or even mundane. Maybe you can make very nice sandwiches. People don’t know what it is, but when you make sandwiches, it is very nice. So your brother and sister asks you (nicely) to make sandwiches for them.

What you can do well, may well define who you are.

Sure, you can be a filial son, a good brother, a loving spouse, a capable parent, a nice person, a kind person, a friendly person. Those are social roles. But how the world sees you, defines you, is by what you do.

I do not know what the future holds for J or Z. Times are changing. People are changing and life is changing.

It is interesting times and interesting times can be stressful and uncertain. Before my time, people worked their whole lives with one company. My colleagues are likely to change jobs a few times in their career. And they are considered rather stable employees. Younger colleagues are like J – they don’t stay long. Five years is considered a long time to stay in one job for them.

By the time J and Z start to work, jobs may be short-term, project-based, and temporary. Maybe they won’t be able to build a career, just a succession of projects and jobs.

I must be old, because I find that quite stressful. Maybe J finds the idea of a single job, or a career stressful?

If we are defined by what we do, and we used to do one thing, hold one job, thirty years in one job, in one lifetime, and now and in the future, people may be changing jobs every year, 30 jobs in one lifetime, then maybe we are no longer defined by what we do. Or rather, what we do is more than our jobs? Something to think about.

Well, this is not the final word on the topic, and J and later Z will have to figure things out for themselves.

And I am not sure I have answered his question. In fact, I think there are two questions:

1) What should I do with my life; and

2) How can I be happy?

So here is the straight answer: You will be happiest when you know you are doing something that other people value. What should you do? Something useful.

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One Response to A life’s work

  1. Pingback: Child of God | PL And G Together

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