How much does the work we do define us?

Posted in: Bloggery

I have been reflecting on the nature of careers and on work more generally, and what this means in terms of making something of ourselves in the lives we have.  I’ve been reading the works of Richard Sennett’s “The Craftsman”[1]and an earlier book of his, “The Corrosion of Character”[2].

In “The Corrosion of Character” Sennett has a jaundiced view of modern corporations.  In his view they no longer provide a context for the formation of “character” in individuals. Character, he believes, depends on connectedness to others.  “Character concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others.”

Sennett argues that organisations no longer provide a place where one can build a career.   A career is where an individual defines long-term purposes, standards of professional or unprofessional behaviour, and sense of responsibility for conduct.  It is “a lifelong channel for one’s economic pursuits.”(p9). Sennett sees careers as a large part of defining oneself and developing character. He argues that this opportunity has been lost in the modern context of work.

I have mixed feelings about Sennett’s conclusions.  Careers are seen by him as the sole crucible for building enduring values and self-esteem as an individual.  Flexible working arrangements, casualisation and periodic downsizing and job disruption are therefore harmful to self-worth.

We do see around us the significant challenges for people whose working lives are lived out in transactional, demanding and insensitive environments.  In our work at Macfarlan Lane we grapple with the impact of this experience and with the adjustment for people whose working lives are disrupted by unplanned change.  And since so much of our time as individuals, and our professional focus and security are bound up by work, the periodic event of unplanned change has a significant impact at a personal level.

My concern is that we should find ways to balance our organisational lives with our “other lives”. We should find ways to be less heavily impacted by unplanned, unfeeling change in our employment situations.

The work we do in Macfarlan Lane is all about helping people rebuild new careers.  We are often privileged to be around and supporting some really good thinking about what the next “career” should be in a much wider sense than before.  This can be a time for reflecting on “what I want to stand for”, as a person.

I am not an advocate of very structured career planning, because the world of work is changing too fast to assume much constancy in any one career.  But we do see this as a time for a bit of pulling back and thinking, for re-engaging with those who matter most around us, and perhaps taking on some advice.  It is a time for a little “getting of wisdom” (along with street-smarts around interviewing skills and networking).  Many of the questions we ask prompt the creation of this opportunity.

My belief is that character is a personal thing, not something which rests wholly on work vocation.  I do think we need to give time to thinking about what we want to amount to. But it would be tragic for everything to rest on one’s working career in the current world of work.   Sennett writes evocatively about many of the deficiencies of recent shifts in organisational life. I think we need to build a more personal response to these deficiencies, to have our own individual remedy.

I prefer to face the challenges Sennett writes about through working to a more self-directed, more “self-employed” mind-set. Work both provides value for an organisation but also provides a place for expressing personal values and learning about how to respect and add value to the lives of others.  We need anchors in our beliefs and our goals and we need to constantly test what we are doing against our own individual development.  Unplanned change often provides a chance to rebuild the foundations and to put work back into its rightful place in service of our own development and self-expression.

[1]“The Corrosion of Character – the personal consequences of work in the new capitalism”, Richard Sennett, WW Norton and Company, 1998

[2] “The Craftsman”, Richard Sennett.   Yale University Press, 2008,