Red Vineyards Near Arles by Vincent Van Gogh

Should We Consider Our Work a Form of Personal Expression?

With the release of the movie Ender’s Game, many people have been asking whether the political and religious views of the book’s author, Orson Scott Card, should affect their opinion of the movie. Though I have not been following the debate closely, I understand that some people even called for a boycott of the film (which, evidently, was not successful). On the geek culture podcast The Incomparable, host Jason Snell used the occasion to speak more broadly about authors whose views, personality, or later writing caused him and his fellow panelists to reject their earlier, classic work. The podcast – entitled “I Assume Everyone Is Awful” – is quite good, and I recommend listening to it. They cover many of the same authors that I’ve given up on or struggled with myself.[1]

Throughout the podcast, though, I kept wondering about an assumption at the heart of the conversation. Would it have made sense for them to be discussing, say, accountants and plumbers in the same way? Even staying within the work of writing, should we care about the political or religious views of technology writers? Since the Romantics, art[2] has been regarded differently than other kind of work. Art has been considered to be a form of personal expression different in quality than other forms of work, and the artist has been considered the kind of person whose expressions matter more than other persons.

I’m not convinced that art should be considered as a different category of work, which led me to wonder:

Should our work be considered a form of personal expression?

There are at least three valid answers to this question.

Work As Personal Expression

Yes, our work is a form of personal expression. Our work – whatever it might be – reflects our personality, values, beliefs, and attitudes. In creative work, whether that means artistic labor or the creation of a new business, our personal investmant is obvious. Even when our work consists of “getting the right answer” or following a set procedure much of our selves can come through in the execution of our job.

Have you ever had a restaurant server who truly cared about you as a human being? The experience of been waited on by friends or family members is dramatically different than having a server who scarcely cares about you. Or take the example of two carpenters, one of whom is careless and sloppy, the other of whom is meticulous and demanding. Doesn’t that difference say something about the two persons? Now, it might not say what we first assume – the “careless” carpenter might be trying to rush through the job so that he can get home before his children go to bed, while the “demanding” carpenter might have made an idol of his work. Still, each carpenter’s work expresses something personal.

Work As Impersonal Task Execution

No, our work is not personal expression. On the other hand, all work – even “creative” work – can be understood as a series of impersonal projects, tasks, and routines with existence outside ourselves. It could be done to more or less the same quality by many different kinds of people. Even artistic work.

Several years ago, I encountered a personality test based on the four classic temperaments which claimed to tell you what kind of writer you should be. Have this kind of personality? Write self-help books! Have this personality? Try poetry instead! As soon as I saw “poetry” listed as one of the “styles of writing” suggested by this test, I knew that it was bogus. Identify any kind of personality you want, and you can find a great poet matching it. (And, I would argue, those that pigeonhole “poets” into a particular personality type don’t know much about poetry or poets.)

Work As Corporate Expression

It depends on what you mean by “personal.” No one, with the possible exception of hermits, does their work alone. Most of us work as part of a group, whether formally structured (like a corporation or nonprofit organization) or informally (like a family or project team), and most of us have people to whom we’re accountable for our work – employers, employees, clients, dependents, etc.

When we’re working as part of a larger corporate body (like a company), we’ve probably chosen to work for that company because it aligns with our personal values and objectives, but it’s probably not a perfect fit. There will always be decisions, both big and small, that we make differently because we’re making them on behalf of the corporate body rather than for only ourselves.

If we’re working for a client who has hired us for a specific task, we have a responsibility to do what’s best for the client, even if it’s not necessarily what’s best for ourselves. This includes “creative” work. If you’ve every struggled to find funding for a creative project, you may have fantasized about landing a wealthy patron who will pay your bills while giving you the freedom to pursuse your artistic vision. Reality, though, is more complicated, even when the funding is given with “no strings attached.”

Because much of our work is done in partnership with other people, it takes on characteristics of all the people involved, even if a single person is the leader. My wife owns her own business, and it’s been excited to see her vision and beliefs take shape in the form of this enterprise. Yet she also has teachers working for her, and those classes reflect some combination of her vision for the classes and the individual teacher’s. Again, the teacher’s vision mostly aligns with the business’s, but everyone brings something different to the table. Even artistic work that seems driven by a singular artistic vision – like a novel – is actually the product of many people working together: the writer, who rightly deserves most of the credit, but also editors, publishers, artistic and personal influences, etc.

Aiming for the Middle

I know that you’re probably looking for a single answer. Instead, I’ll offer a set of correctives. Each of the answers above is true, but you might need to hear each of them at a different team.

If you’re consumed with the idea of your work as the ultimate expression of your innermost being, get over yourself and focus on the work, not on yourself. .

If you’re thinking of your work as “just a job,” that has nothing to do with the “real you,” reconsider that idea. You likely spend more hours at your job than at any other single activity on a day-to-day basis. If that’s not part of the “real you,” then who are you?

Finally, if you see your work as “your business” and no one else’s, think of the other people who help make your work possible and the debts you owe to them. How are you giving back to them?

Photo credit: The Red Vineyards Near Arles by Vincent Van Gogh, the only painting known to have been sold by Van Gogh during his lifetime

  1. E.g. Piers Anthony, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Frank Herbert.  ↩
  2. Even science fiction. The Romantics were early adopters of sci fi.  ↩

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