Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design: Lawrence G Boldt (Penguin-Arkana, 1999 revised edition)
Choosing to review a book like “Zen and the Art of Making a Living” is an act of bravery, if not bravado: it is such a Big Book in every sense. I hope, therefore, that I can capture just a little of its essence in this c.900 word review without diminishing its value and gravitas.
In a world where sound-bites and wikis cater for our every information need, why would anyone want to read a large, challenging and discomfort-inducing tome (this last adjective refers to the disquiet that comes from having the basic tenets of modern life challenged)? – the answer is that this book makes you think; will make you feel slightly uncomfortable and will probably change your perspective on the world (of work particularly, if not the whole entity).
The book’s essence is about being true to yourself: it is about finding yourself and creating your own future; defining the success measures as you go. The explanation of the title is that – as the author explains – Zen is the spirit of the everyday; the integration of the spiritual and the material. The book divides into five main sections – lenses, if you like: in each, the author reviews life as Art, as a Quest, a Game, a Battle and a Voyage of discovery. The starting point is that we must get an honest and comprehensive understanding of ourselves, to discover our own unique talents and gifts. Boldt explains his belief that our lives are constrained by restricted thinking and a focus on the potential downsides and negatives: the things that limit our thinking are denial, availability (of options, resources and other things that might limit us), approval of others and lack of self-confidence.
Generation Y and the post-millennials are at the forefront of a significant shift in the way we conceptualise work: there is a discernible shift in attitude toward greater balance in our lives, wherein success is measured with a more personal and balanced yardstick. This almost feels like a social movement, but one without political action committees, paid lobbyists or national / international organisation. Whilst throughout the twentieth century work was viewed principally as a means to an end – be it survival, security, status or power – today it is increasingly being valued on its own terms, and more and more people are coming to expect that their experience of work should include some meaning. The criteria for success now include meaning, challenge, self-expression and joy. In this respect, the book – written in the late twentieth century – harks back to the social / organisational behaviourist writings of the 1960’s and early 1970’s and looks forward to the century we are now in.
Some may see this text as rather counter-revolutionary; one which says that doing the conventional and the expected might not be in the best interests of the individual. Indeed, Boldt asserts: “The implicit goal of virtually all education for many years now has been to equip students with the skills and attitudes that will make them more valuable as workers for those whose agenda they will spend their lives serving. It has not been to help students discover their own purposes and construct and realise goals based on these.” Since Zen is about being present and conscious to what we are and do, its application in the work of work is to be conscious about the choices available to us and in the way that we conduct our work. This is about determining what success looks for us all as individuals; being aware of this and acting upon it. And it implies not having our agenda set solely by those who employ us.
The author reviews the usual list of factors governing the shift in fundamental job and working practices and the impact on people’s attitudes to work and employment. The debilitating impact of technology, consumerism and reliance on bureaucratic state mechanisms all have a blunting effect on our personal drive. On our way to developing a new paradigm of work, the author encourages us to take a Jungian perspective wherein our psychology has elements of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ (feminine and masculine traits). And our understanding of our self and our environment also draws from opinion (sense), science (dialectic) and illumination (intuition). In his opening chapters, Boldt makes a strong connection between work and the dissatisfaction one feels in one’s personal life; and this does beg the question of what success really means for each of us. The message is not to ignore who we are and what we could be: rather, to get our heads up and view the larger landscape of the world and be more expansive in our thinking. Work should be an expression of self not a chore or economic exigency.
The author talks about the four facets of being at work: we need to see ourselves as the Hero (seeking and choosing the right road through the power of decision-making), the Magician (using the power of showmanship and imagination), the Warrior (single-mindedness and tenacious creativity) and the Scholar (potent personal growth, life-long learning and wisdom). Each of these themes is developed into useful narratives for the reader – put into the context of careers and life-plans. The sections dealing with each of the four facets are supported with practical checklists and to-do exercises which leave the reader with an obligation to take action for themselves.
This is an expansive, wide-ranging life-manual that uses history, mythology, the arts world and philosophy to contextualise the choices that we all have about how to lead our life. With a liberal use of quotes from people as diverse as Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln and Confucius, it does not step back from aggressively promoting single-minded pursuit of personal self-realisation within a framework of social conscience and communitarianism.
Be bold: pick up this book and prepare to change your perspective on all the things that drive your life.