You are what you do. (So choose carefully)
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 December 2007)

In Chicago, where Nelson Algren was once a literary hero, they still quote Algren's Law: "Never eat at a restaurant called Mom's, never play poker with a man called Doc, and never sleep with anyone crazier than you are."

Hard to answer life's great questions with more brevity. But contributors to the Post's Lessons Learned series are offering a more detailed service.

If you are like most of us, you'll spend a large part of your time working for pay. That applies equally to parents and non-parents, since full-time parenting usually fills no more than two decades of the 50-or-so years we nowadays spend as adults.

Choosing your work is one great task of youth. Begin by imagining the pleasures and dangers on the road ahead. Ask yourself, will the work challenge me? You'll be happy, and make those around you happy, if your work pleases you and you enjoy its demands.

Still, with all the planning in the world, you can get it wrong. You'll know you've made the wrong choice if you find yourself yearning for the weekend or for five o'clock. "Burned out" (it took me years to understand this) describes someone for whom work no longer holds meaning. But people do change their jobs, more of them every year. It takes audacity and energy, but it's your life that's at stake. Listen to Noel Coward. He worked long, hard hours writing, rehearsing and performing. He still claimed "work is much more fun than fun."

As you plan your life, play the cards that are dealt you. Don't whine. Self-pity has a way of drowning ambition. We are all handicapped in some way, and we are all, from time to time, treated unfairly. Don't manufacture unfairness. Never say, "I gave that company the best years of my life." You didn't. They paid you for every year.

If bosses insist you do your best work, be grateful. They won't be doing you any favours if they accept less than that. When I was 18, a copy editor handling my stories would scream at me, over the heads of about eight colleagues, every time I spelled a name incorrectly. He was not a lovable man, and expressed himself inappropriately. Still, having become a pretty good speller, I think of him fondly. But I failed to emulate him. Many years later, I supervised a writer who misspelled about every 10th word. (Neither word processors nor spell check had been invented.) Hoping to be considered a good fellow, I spoke to him gently, in private. He never improved.

When you've chosen your life's work, ask yourself if you can do it successfully and still live an honourable life. Aristotle provides the oldest and best advice. He says we are what we repeatedly do. Virtue results from habit. If you let ethics slip out of everyday life, you're unlikely to show a strong moral sense when offered the chance to commit a crime or bravely uphold justice.

Morality is a matter of custom. If you are uncharitable when young, you are unlikely to become a philanthropist when old. Aristotle says you become a builder by building or a lyre-player by playing the lyre. "So too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts." Of course no one can be consistently virtuous. But those who set high standards for themselves will be halfway to the good life.

Whatever your job and your age, if you are not learning you're dying. Education begins when you decide you are your own educator. Teachers provide an outline of an education: You have to fill in the enormous spaces they leave empty. Read books that are too hard for you. Not all the time, but often. They'll slowly grow easier.

You are in danger of severe and crippling desolation if you devote yourself entirely to one kind of work and one corporation. Corporations, private and public, can be cruel even if well-intentioned; they may collapse, downsize or simply decide they don't need your particular skills. The wise individual will already feel passionately about something else--a second job, possibly, or a charity that demands work and attention. If you awaken on the day after you're downsized and realize that no one outside your family and friends needs you, you have somewhere made a serious mistake.

With planning and luck, you'll be able to follow my last piece of advice: Never retire. Don't even think of it. It's a killer.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image