Toni Morrison’s Views on Work

The New Yorker Magazine can go to extremes to appease its well-educated and slightly stuffy audience.  In depth articles on plant behavior, lingerie in the Middle East, and Bob Marley’s life can get overly complicated. But sometimes they publish pieces that are generous in their simplicity and authenticity, allowing one’s heartstrings to be pulled as if a harp is being strummed for a Celtic tune.

The following New Yorker excerpt by Toni Morrison, which describes her father’s advice about her childhood job, is one of those moving bodies of words that washes away built-up grime.

Advice that Toni Morrison received from her father:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.
  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
  3. Your real life is with us, your family.
  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

In the words of Toni Morrison herself:

“I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.”

A big thank you to Toni Morrison’s father for arguing against the career-driven, individualistic American way of life. He stressed the importance of family and home and core identity which are unrelated to one’s work. When I left a career in medicine and was jobless, I had no clue who I was outside of my identity as a doctor. What did I value? What hobbies did I have? Who did I enjoy hanging out with?

To be honest, it was that value of home that saved me from losing my sense of self. It was my friends and family members (and dog!) who lifted me up to try harder,  be better, and smile brighter. My family accepted me despite setbacks with my career because they knew all along that my core would never change. I learned that jobs can come and go but your support system never leaves you.

I am extremely grateful to my family for their unconditional love, and I must also thank myself for discovering who I was at my barest moment.

This New Yorker piece also applies to those entering retirement as they will be challenged to create a meaningful life without a career. I hope you can learn from Toni Morrison’s experience and spread this simple yet powerful wisdom!