Mattering

The best compliment I’ve gotten this summer came from my wife when she saw me with Wes Moore’s book The Work: My Search for a Life that Matters and she said: “Why are you reading that? You already do work that matters.”

the workI’ve been an educator all of my adult life. Beyond unloading trucks at Bi-Mart and sorting broccoli at a cannery the summer before my senior year in high school, teaching (and now being an administrator) is about all I’ve ever done as work.

There are days when I feel like I make a difference, that what I do really does matter, but there are also days I feel tired and a little beaten up. Those tough days are the minority, but they’re real, and I was speaking the truth when I answered my wife’s question of “why?” by answering that I was reading The Work for “inspiration.”

It’s summer and as a principal I’m on the hunt for stories and experiences that renew and replenish hope. The Work is rich with these.

Moore tells his own story of time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, of serving in combat in Afghanistan, and returning to the US to find a path of meaning. Throughout, he weaves in the stories of inspirational people living lives of service and meaning: an entrepreneur, a leader in the Peace Corps, and even a grade school principal.

Each of these individuals saw a purpose greater than themselves and crafted a life that did more than simply earn an income. They’re the direct opposite of the line from Citizen Kane: “It’s no trick to make a lot of money …if all you want is to a lot of money.” The meaningful work Moore describes does more than fill bank accounts.

One example that resonated with me on this score came in Moore’s description of his grandfather’s funeral.

At the time of his death, he had almost no money in his bank account, less than a thousand dollars to leave behind, but hundreds and hundreds of people came out on a rainy day in December to pay their final respects to a man who had devoted a portion of his life to helping them with theirs.”

This ability to impact lives is at the heart of most educators. We get into the business of teaching to help students learn, and stay because we feel like we may be able to help others, our students, live meaningful lives.

Along the way, many of us look for what Moore calls “fellow travelers.” Describing his own rich experiences in the military and at Oxford, two very different places to say the least, he writes about the way the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives led to “an invaluable collateral education.”

A great term, “collateral education” captures the truth that spending time with others who bring real differences to the pursuit of meaningful work not only makes our lives richer, but has the potential to make the work we do more effective.

Yet Moore’s book acknowledges that following one’s calling isn’t always easy, and seldom comes in a straight line. In an insightful recollection of a conversation he had with William Brody, then president of Johns Hopkins, Moore quotes this mentor as having told him:

If you feel the need to go and do something you are not passionate about, for whatever reason, then that is a decision you have to make. But I am going to tell you, the day you feel you have accomplished what you need to accomplish there, leave. Because every day you stay longer than you have to, you become extraordinarily ordinary.”

The profundity of that statement has stuck with me long after I finished The Work. Not every step we make is forward, but keeping our minds set on what matters most, and having the courage to pursue it can make the difference between “extraordinarily ordinary” and extraordinary.

Moore’s book, a thought provoking and emotion stirring narrative, reinforces the value of professions like education. His respect for others and love of learning illuminate every page, and I finished The Work inspired to return to campus this fall and do work that matters.

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