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Sturman: True Work

01/11/12 5:55PM By Skip Sturman
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(Host) Main Street versus Wall Street, 99% versus 1%... The more commentator Skip Sturman hears protestors and politicians drawing distinctions between 'us' and ‘them', the more he wonders if much of the Great Divide in our body politic today is about something much more fundamental than income disparity?

(Sturman) Is it just my imagination or are we really debating, once again, the meaning of True Work in our country? If so, this is not a new debate. From time immemorial, Americans have been trying to determine whose work contributes the most to our society. Think back, for example, to the last election when Sarah Palin disparaged Barack Obama's background as a community organizer which, she insisted, suffered by comparison to her own True Work as the mayor of a small town.

Of course, how you weigh the relative worth of various professions depends a great deal upon your particular station in life. If your view is from the ground floor up, the world can appear quite different than gazing down from the 34th floor.

True Work is often framed as a contest between those who get their hands dirty and those who work in the clouds, literally and figuratively. All too often- in films and in print- the former are glorified while the latter come up short.

Take the recently released movie, Margin Call, for example. In one scene, an ethically challenged financial tycoon tries to convince his morally conflicted associate that their work beats digging ditches. The associate, who has just been asked to "sell worthless assets at the highest price to unsuspecting buyers", asserts that "at least in the case of digging ditches, there are holes in the ground to show for the effort".

A kinder, gentler, but not entirely dissimilar opinion is voiced by the steelworker in Studs Terkel's classic book, "Working". The steelworker laments, "If a carpenter built a cabin for poets, I think the least the poets owe the carpenter is...a little plaque" that says, ‘Though we labor with our minds, this place we can relax in was built by someone who can work with his hands. And his work is as noble as ours."

Having spent the bulk of my career, counseling others about their choice of occupations, I have been cautious about declaring which occupations deserve to be elevated over others, but in truth, I have always had my favorites starting with the people who grow our food, teach our children, care for our elderly, treat our sick, fight our fires, protect our homes, and so on.

Ultimately, however, I think what really matters is how people perform their work. Whatever the field, I have always admired individuals who take great pride in and derive great pleasure from their work.

As usual, my favorite sage, John W. Gardner, says it best this way: " The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."
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