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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Job Crafting

Updated: Mar 4

Job crafting is a proactive approach to redesigning what we do at work and how we do it (Berg et al., 2007). Job crafting is a mindset that changes our approach to tasks, our relationships, and our perceptions of the work we do. We can stay in the same role, getting more meaning out of our jobs simply by changing our mindset.

We begin with right livelihood, working ethically, following an honest occupation which promotes the common good, respects others, and the natural world. Uncompromising integrity is required of us here. Fortunes can be made trafficking in weapons or drugs, pillaging the Earth for natural resources, encouraging unnecessary consumption or meaningless distraction. We assume a cost, however, when we violate our conscience.

From a contemplative perspective, how we work moment by moment matters. Buddhists call this right concentration, or presence. There is a Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” That is, before enlightenment, we go about mundane tasks mindlessly. After enlightenment, we are fully present and engaged in what we're doing no matter how trivial or mundane. The Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh explained it this way:

When I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the annual Rains retreat all the monks would come back to the monastery to practice together for three months, and sometimes we were only two novices who had to do all the cooking and wash all the dishes for well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a difficult chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then we had to heat up a big pot of water before we could do any scrubbing. Nowadays with liquid soap, special scrub pads, and even hot running water it is much easier to enjoy washing the dishes.

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant.I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost.

I will be constantly dragged into the future, miss out on life altogether, and never able to live in the present moment.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life. If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.

We elevate the mundane to the purposeful by how we do it. In crafting a job, a third consideration is Right Motivation which refers to the absence of greed, craving, or self-aggrandizement. We do the work for the work's sake- because it needs doing. Rodney Smith Jr travels the country mowing the lawns of the disabled, veterans, and the elderly who need the help. Peace Pilgrim crisscrossed the country promoting kindness and peace in her words and actions. Sindhutai Sapkal, herself destitute, begged on the streets of India to feed hundreds of orphaned children she later adopted. As of this writing, she has adopted and supported over 1,000 orphans who fondly refer to her as “mai” (mother). These are ordinary people of limited means, backed by no organizations. They serve others with a pure heart full of unconditional love, expecting nothing in return.

Jesus, I was taught in Sunday School, was a carpenter, but he is not known for joinery or framing. His work was not to build structures that would stand for 2 millennia, but to set an example millions have followed for millennia.

Selfless service for the good of the whole self of which we are a part is our work; self-promotion, survival, or self-expression is secondary. When we work out of that selfless energy, we have more to give. We remain detached from outcomes, even feelings.

We strengthen desirable qualities- compassion, service, generosity, empathy- and extinguishing unwholesome qualities that contribute to suffering. Goodwill is there; non-violence, or the absence of cruelty, is also there.

My work grew out of this. I withdrew from law school to start a career in one of the worst paid, most undervalued professions in America; I thought I could make a difference in the lives of children in my community. I was working 60 to 70 hour weeks and earning less than $2,000 a month. There were plumbers who’d earn more in an hour than I’d earn in a day, realtors who’d earn more in a day than I’d earn in a month, executives who’d earn more in a month than I’d earn in year, and athletes who’d earn more in a season than I would earn in a career.

I was taught that we were paid for bringing value to the marketplace. By this logic, CEOs who laid off employees or MVPs who laid up shots brought more value to the marketplace than teachers who could bend minds, inspire children to search within themselves or coax out their beauty and potential. By this logic, teaching a child to reason, to question, to read, to calculate or to create was of less value to the marketplace than installing a toilet.

Jaime Escalante, the famed school teacher who taught AP calculus to inner city students, earned 1% of what hostess Vanna White earned for turning letters on the Wheel of Fortune game show. Such was the “logic” of the marketplace.

I didn’t accept this line of reasoning. I could not explain to others why I had chosen this path. The call to teach was strong. The heart was insistent and overruled objections from the ego.

I started my career in South Central, Los Angeles. I positioned myself in the early elementary grades (2nd-5th grade), where I hoped I could make a difference for those who were most vulnerable. For me, knowledge was an inoculation, a vaccine to protect the mind against the memes that corrupted clear-thinking- memes being those ideas which, like viruses, replicated, infected, and in some cases, destroyed their hosts. The mind of a child was plastic and malleable. True education could be a hedge- true education being knowledge of Self, not the trivia-peddling that passed for education.

My work was motivated by love. In one of my first assignments in South Central, I walked into a classroom with no books. The injustice and unfairness stung. The American educational system was once the envy of the world. For decades, we neglected educational reform, diluted academic rigor, weakened public institutions structurally, and devalued education generally. The price for mediocrity would surely be passed on to society that invested more in prisons than in schools.

I alchemized anger into action. I found a warehouse that sold used textbooks for pennies and purchased class sets of math, science, reading, and history books. I also found a science center that loaned out science materials, models, and kits. Within days, I transformed the classroom into a place of learning for children. I wanted to design a curriculum heavy on science, math, and technology. Many of my students were second language learners. I reasoned that they would sooner understand science and mathematics than they would the eccentricities of the English language. Nearly half of American Nobel Laureates are foreign born, 45% of our physicists, computer scientists, and mathematicians were born abroad. The 21st Century economy, moreover, demanded more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Inasmuch as scientists made up less than 5% of the population, they contributed more than 50% to the GDP. I had a liberal arts degree, but ventured outside of my comfort zone to craft a curriculum heavy on science, learning along the way.

I had no formal training in technology either. My ignorance did not deter me from crafting a technology program. In the mid 90s when I started my career, a few desktops made their way into the classrooms. I requisitioned one. I had no experience with computers. A colleague taught me how to turn it on and off. She showed me how to open a document and print. She also created an email account for me so that I could send and receive email. The learning curve was steep. I was intimidated and pestered her every time the computer did something unexpected. Never would I have guessed that within a few years, I would go from being a nuisance to a mentor to a technician to Director of Academic Technology and IT consultant. Love set the trajectory.

The district wanted me to teach to tests. I got around this by teaching well and letting the results take care of themselves. Job crafting takes some courage. I adhered to my convictions. I wanted my students to be able to compete, not to be bound to a life of menial labor, low expectations, and poverty. The world did not respect weakness, but exploited it. The world would celebrate them if they overcame their obstacles, not for being pummeled by them. In the Information Age, those who respected and cultivated knowledge (especially in math, science, and technology) would thrive and prosper. Decades later, several of my former students contacted me- among them a geologist and a lead integration technician for the aerospace manufacturer Space X, founded by Elon Musk. Naches is a Yiddish word that refers to the joy a parent or mentor feels when a child succeeds. My heart overflows with it.

I am still job crafting. To teach mindfulness to children, I piloted a program at the Boys and Girls Club in 2017- which is still running. We integrated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with mindfulness. Classes begin with 10-20 minutes of training. We use transformational technologies to enhance their regulatory skills: electroencephalograms (EEGs) and heart rate variability (HRV) sensors allowed the children to peer into the workings of their own minds in real time. The feedback data allowed them to see, monitor, regulate and modify their responses to enhance their physiological and psychological well-being.

Our data supports the existing body of research that the ability to self-regulate enhances cognitive functioning. In other words, we are more clear and creative when the mind and body are calm.

As satisfying as the work is, there is a trade off. I earn less in the non-profit sector than I made in the public sector, but I have fun. The constraints, moreover, force me to be more creative with less. I have multiple income streams and more freedom to do the work I feel called to do.

This blog and the retreats I organize are another example of job crafting. The need is there. Famed investor, Charles Munger, attributed his success to 3 simple rules. The first was: "Don't sell anything you wouldn't buy yourself." Everything I teach is valuable to me. And much of the learning came at a cost. I don't promote anything I don't practice. I walk the talk. Munger's second and third rules are not part of my job crafting strategy, but they are illuminating: 2. "Don't work for anyone you don't respect and admire" and 3. "Work only with people you enjoy."

Identifying and aligning one's signature strengths to the work we do is another path to fulfillment. A signature strength is a character strength. They are grouped into 6 main classes: wisdom & knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence. Signature strengths point to our deepest values- for one it might be curiosity, for another honesty, for another social connection or teamwork or prudence. My top signature strengths are curiosity, love of learning, gratitude, self-regulation, and perseverance. Daily, I search for ways to exercise these strengths. My work as an educator, for example, leverages my innate curiosity and love of learning. I get paid to learn music theory, programming, 3D modeling, laser cutting, languages, writing, fitness, meditation, gardening, cooking, investing, carpentry, neuroscience, electronics, finance, mathematics, and just about any other subject I'm curious to explore. You can identify your signature strengths by taking the survey. 

Guided by right intention, right motivation, and love for the whole Self of which I am a part, I work. The results take care of themselves.

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