The Struggle to Do Work That Matters Is Real (And Worth It)

Ultimate Contribution

In 1915 Albert Einstein sent a letter to his son, Albert. Einstein was living with his second wife and had not seen either of his two sons for quite some time. It was in 1915 that Einstein had finalized his theory of general relativity, and this letter to his son hints at that monumental achievement.

However, what strikes me about this letter (which I first saw in Farnam Street) is Einstein’s thoughts on learning that he shares with his 11-year-old son. I know that quotes from Einstein are thrown around online, and in presentations by educators across the globe…but this particular letter gets to the root of what matters in learning. In typical Einstein fashion, he writes it with such clarity and confidence, that not much else needs to be said:

What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility.

In essence, learn what you are interested in, and it won’t “feel” like the learning we often partake in school.

What I find fascinating is how Einstein shares these sentiments after working eight years to prepare his theory of general relativity to be ready to share with the world. For Einstein, doing the work and learning were tangled together. And, if it was work worth doing — something that he was interested in and challenged by — then it was worth working on for eight years.

DOING WORK THAT MATTERS

I often struggle with what to work on and focus my attention on. On the one hand, there is work that I have to do (and usually want to do): There is my job.

There are other work commitments I’ve made.

There are speaking opportunities, and lots of great conversation to have.

But, no one is ordering me to write a book (or paying me before it is a finished product). No one is telling me to create a podcast. No one is begging me to learn to code. In fact, no one is telling me or paying me to write this blog post.

So, why (I ask myself) do I do it? Why do so many of us spend time doing work that we are not “required” to do, and often are not “paid” to do?

These things that we do matter.

They matter to us, and hopefully to a larger group of people as well.

Call it passion. Call it purpose. Call it whatever you’d like to call it. I do the work because I care about the work.

The hard part is not only time but how much time is spent struggling. When I’m working on projects and work that matters to me, I spend a lot of time frustrated. But I have to believe the struggle is worth it.

PRIORITIZING THE STRUGGLE

In a recent Leo Babauta post, he writes on the concept of work priorities and where we focus our time, energy, and efforts:

Of all the things you’re working on right now, or hope to work on soon … which is the single most important? What’s your priority? Now let me ask you these two simple questions:

  1. When you start work, do you start with your most important priority first? If not, when does it come up during your work day?
  2. How much of your working time is spent on your priority?

If the order of your work, and the time you spend on your work, doesn’t align with your top priority … how can you change that?

It’s just as important to ask these questions about your non-work time: what’s your top non-work priority? Do you do it first in your non-work time? How much of your non-work time do you spend on it?

Leo’s post reminds me that we all have the same amount of time to spend each day. How we choose to spend that time depends on our circumstances, but also on our choices.

If you are one of the many people who choose to spend their time struggling to do work that matters, I’m with you. I’ve been frustrated that it’s taken longer than I wanted to release my next book. I’ve struggled to make an impact in my new job. And I’ve struggled to make sure I’m giving my family my top priority day in and day out.

But, I’m happy that I get the chance to try and do work that matters. And I count that as a privilege. 

I think it is safe to assume all of us would agree that Einstein’s work on relativity mattered (and still matters). During his lifetime he was criticized, denounced, and still today his work brings up a debate. But, I believe the secret of fulfillment for so many people is focusing on doing work that matters to them. The bonus is finding work that not only matters to you, but also has an impact on the world around you.

When you can match your passion with a contribution to the world in some way or form, it becomes purposeful, meaningful, and worth the struggle.

Keep scratching your itch and doing work that matters, even when you find your self in a place of doubt and frustration. It is worth it, not only for you, but for the countless others that will benefit.

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Hilarie says:

    I am working on sharing a project based learning experience with other teachers at a national conference. With the help of a colleague, I am also teaching them how to create a homemade book, enhanced by suminagashi papers. I still have to learn how to make the papers. I am ordering paints, brushes and papers. I am taking a trip to learn from an expert because I want to learn and I have a feeling this is going to be a blast!

  • Barry Dyck says:

    Fulfillment is definitely the goal. Happiness is a fleeting emotion. I should be working on reading the final reflections and learning units for my teacher candidate students; should be finished the editing and layout of my father’s memoir; could be emptying the dishwasher and washing the pots beside the sink. What I want to be doing is learning. And writing. Reflecting on my teaching and writing a blog post so my soon-to-be teacher-students can see at least one teacher modelling reflection on practice. The most important priority? I always answer with, “It depends.” When fulfillment is the number one priority, I choose things that are fulfilling. These are both short and long term things. Balancing doing for others while taking care of my own goals, is the biggest challenge.

  • Monique Chatman says:

    I am working on learning sign language. I see the ability to learn as a blessing that is given to me daily. I see those that struggle with knowing who they are and where they are. Those that are dealing with brain cancer, alzheimers, traumatic brain injuries and other illnesses that affect learning breaks my heart, but they serve as a reminder not to take ANYTHING for granted. I learn because I can and I am so grateful.

  • Craig says:

    AJ, love this topic. For the sake of brevity, we must think about.
    1. Are kids the benefit of what we teach, how it’s taught and the passion we give?
    2. When students leave class, are they better than when they entered?
    3. How is what we are doing changing lives for the better?
    4. Do we see true meaning in what we are doing?
    5. Is the culture of our class and school enriching the lives of others?

    Thanks, Craig

  • MD Robinson says:

    My passion is helping students find their passions. I recently created a 7-session “business skills” course, including finding your core values, dressing for success, social media branding, resumes, interviewing skills, and dining/social etiquette. We even brought in several business professionals to speak to students about the employee characteristics & skills they are looking for and how to present ones’ best self. These experts then led students through mock interviews. I’m pleased with the results! Next, I’m hoping to have a shag dance group come teach shag lessons. Social graces (& soft skills) are lacking in too many young people today.

  • Gary Gruber says:

    Good reminders. When we do what we love and love what we do, time evaporates or seems to stand still as we are immersed in what matters most. Our priorities reveal what we value and how close we are to acting on what we believe to be among the most important thing we could be about.

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