In Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better (1976), John Holt wrote, “A life worth living, and work worth doing–that is what I want for children (and all people), not just, or not even, something called ‘a better education.’”
Holt is known mainly as an education writer and reformer of the 1960s and 70s, like James Herndon, Jonathan Kozol, and others. He dived deep into educational issues and used his own life and pursuits to try to figure out what education was really for. Somewhere—I can’t find the line right now–he stated baldly that the goal of education and of life itself is to find our work.
By work, Holt did not mean a job, or not necessarily. He meant something like Joseph Campbell’s “finding your bliss.” A person, for example, might be the best, most joyful cab driver in the world, blessed in having found the perfect job, the perfect work. Another might be a competent cab driver who spends every off hour playing piano, coaching youth soccer, creating luscious dishes in the kitchen, or solving the world’s most nagging mathematical problems. Both people have found their work, one in a job and one in an avocation.
This “finding your work” is not a definable goal with a finite deadline. It may happen when you’re a child, like a little girl who knows she’ll be a pediatrician and successfully achieves that goal. For most people, though, finding your work is a process. A person takes tentative steps that feel right at a given moment and eventually, with luck and persistence, arrives at fulfilling and bliss-giving activities. A person falls in love, marries, and finds joy and fulfillment in creating a welcoming and loving home. Such a person had found his or her (or their) life’s work.
My husband is a good example. He loved movies from his childhood and teen years. In college, he majored in English and Theater and Film, making some small movies in the process. Gradually, he realized that creating films might not be his path and wrote about them instead, for his college newspaper and after graduation for small publications. This gave some satisfaction but still wasn’t quite it. He realized that he loved sharing movies. What he wanted to do and what he was good at was curating films. He ran film programs at local libraries and eventually co-founded the Cleveland Cinematheque. By taking small steps, following his bliss, he built a career–not blissful in every moment, to be sure–but creative and ultimately soul-satisfying.
We spent half of our honeymoon traveling in Alaska, and we both remember the young woman driving our tour bus in Denali National Park. We said to each other, “That guide is in the right job.” As she surveyed the vast distances of wilderness, pointing out moose outside our windows, she exuded a quiet joy; she was right where she belonged. My own modest position as an adjunct faculty at Cleveland State teaching Latin was finally, after years of teaching at all the lower levels, where I felt at home. Writing plus teaching plus raising my family were my work.
All this is a very roundabout way of returning to last weekend’s subject, the photographer and fashion journalist Bill Cunningham. And a roundabout way of explaining why he fascinates. Despite his disapproving conservative Boston family, he moved to New York and began designing avant-garde, wildly creative hats. He was obsessed with fashion. He saw clothing as a manifestation of our culture and as an expression, often a beautiful expression, of individuality. His camera recorded thousands and thousands of people wearing interesting clothes, as he pedaled around New York City on his bike wearing his little blue jacket.
Like John Holt, who became a skilled amateur musician in his later years (Never Too Late, 1978), our Denali bus driver, John Ewing, and even me in a small way, Bill Cunningham found his work. The collection Bill Cunningham, On the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photographs (2019) is a stunning but only partial record of his work and his spirit.
What do you think? Have you found your work? Or do you find the whole idea simplistic, reductive, elitist? Let us know.