Father Jacob and Question #4: “Where Does My Ladder Lean?”
The blind old priest in rural Finland hired an ex-con to read his mail. Maybe she was a murderer. Maybe she was innocent. Whatever the case, she brought enough real-world cynicism to her reading job to sway the old man.
Letters came. People wanted help with this and that: Sickness. Poverty. Death Troubles with the law. More sickness. They wanted God-help and the priest’s duty or calling or reputation was that he prayed and stuff happened in the real world. So the ex-con read the letters and the priest prayed. Except the ex-con’s readings, which included critical questions for the priest, gradually exposed his shaky foundations.
What a fool I’ve been, all these years.
The Finnish film “Letters to Father Jacob” continues with a twist, but the question “How have I spent my life and what do I have to show for it?” is central to all that happens next.
Seven critical questions help frame how we progress in our quest to balance work, art and economics in real life. One of those questions has to do with where we aim all our efforts: “Where does my ladder lean?” Common assumptions about work include the notion that you want the corner office and the big stock options that come with the high-octane positions. Of course you do: money and power are on everyone’s radar. Writers and artists want fame and money. Athletes want wins and fat contracts. Televangelists want souls with wallets. We all aim at something because that’s how we motivate ourselves.
It’s worth asking again and again what it is we are aiming at. At any point on the ladder it makes sense to stop and consider our end-goal. Especially because our work or art exacts a price from us. We’re used to the notion of the corporate executive who sacrifices family life and interpersonal relationships in his or her climb. But the craftsman or artist also pays a price: maybe relationships. But for certain the crafter or artist pays a price of looking at the world in a particular way. They move through the world with that bit of art or craft as a centerpiece—their own tool set for processing the world. Or perhaps the ladder is a ladder of faith and suddenly you wonder if it leans against, well, anything.
Anything at all.
This is not a rant against aggressive career movement. It is not a diatribe against capitalistic acquisition. It is a lament that there are not more Father Jacobs out there with an existential intelligence and a passion for listening and, well, seeking help for others. And maybe this is a plea for some to keep on seeking and to keep on waiting.
Perhaps there are unseen things worth desiring.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Please Write this Book: The Freelancer’s Attitude Kit
I’m working out new ways to present the freelance life to college writing students. They are interested in this independent life but not clear about all it entails. They wonder: is there more to it than sitting around in your underwear all day?
I’d like to present them with a textbook that answers these seven questions. Because these are seven questions that freelancers and other independents continually ask and occasionally even answer. These questions are useful for anyone trying to figure out the relationships between work, craft, art and employment.
- How do I balance art, craft and economics? Is it even possible? Because there is stuff I want to do that has no audience. There is stuff I’m less interested in that has a larger audience. And there is stuff I can do to pay the bills, which frankly doesn’t engage me much. I feel less fulfilled when I do that third category of stuff. Then again, I feel pretty fulfilled when I cash the check from that third category. Part of the answer has to do with what your time in life allows. Part of the answer has to do with the economic choices you make.
- Is it me or is it you? What does it mean to care for others with my work? Is it possible to use my art or craft or skill to truly look after the needs of another—or perhaps to look after the needs of an organization? One point I’ve made repeatedly to students is that while introspection is one way to sort out who you are—and our creative lore pegs introspection as the main work of writers and artists—there is another way. And that way is finding places and people to work alongside and, well, serve. Sometimes we begin to sort out who we are as we seek to help others. Sometimes our collaborator and our collaborative processes reveal more than we could ever sort when isolated at our desk or easel.
- What unseen forces are at work? I am a copywriter who also believes that God answers prayer. I am a copywriter who is also comfortable with artists who say the universe provides. My point is that the independent person has a better perspective when convinced there is more going on than what they can muster on their own. For example: every client I called last week said “No.” But then two new calls came in from completely unexpected sources. And these calls said “Yes.” Coincidence? Faith of one kind or another plays a role in this life—especially if a spouse/children/mortgage are part of the picture.
- Where does my ladder lean? Aiming for the approval of your boss is not bad, just limited. Bosses change—and sometimes very quickly. Better to climb toward a larger goal. In corporate life, we climb toward this position or that responsibility. In freelance, we climb toward this kind of project or that kind of project. Freelance does not have titles and offices that automatically designate how important you are. Are you ready for that? Freelance depends on intrinsic motivation—the stuff that bubbles out from inside. In fact—it turns out—that corporate life does too. The intrinsically-motivated colleagues are far and away the happiest, because they do the work out of willingness and mission. Just like freelancers.
- What do I look like, an entrepreneur? In fact you do, if you are someone who sees a need and starts to figure ways to meet that need. One textbook defines entrepreneur this way:
Entrepreneurship is the process of identifying opportunities for which marketable needs exist and assuming the risk of creating an organization to satisfy them.
–Hatten, Timothy S. Small Business Management, Entrepreneurship and Beyond (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)
There is risk with the approach: you might fail. It might take a long, long time. This approach requires turning that intrinsic motivation into an engine that chugs along every single day. That can be exhausting, especially when met with a daily chorus of “No.”
- What’s sharing go to do with it? Today artists and writers and crafters and tribe members find each other online. Not exclusively, but frequently. Part of the independent life has to do with finding generous ways to talk about your passion. This is not shilling for work, this is giving away good stuff. Good stuff that people can use. It turns out that clients just might find you this way as well
- What if people knew how weird I was? That’s right, you are strange. Really strange. But everyone is. Freelance capitalizes on weird by you doing what you do in the way you do it. Freelance is the opposite of cookie-cutter. It is niche-building with much of your weirdness intact (not all, people will run from you).
That’s the book I want to use as a text. Some books I’ve read come close.
What questions shape your work life? Tell me if you’ve read this book.
Image and dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston
Why, again, do we elevate didactic talking points?
I hear “story” a lot these days.
Clients are looking for stories because stories show how something—their product, for instance—works in real life. A story is engaging. There is some tension in a story. There is a human factor in a story—we get to know some character. There is specificity that perks our attention. This is all story stuff.
Students like stories because they put a concept together into an easily digestible form.
In some ways it seems like nearly anything put in story form gets attention. Even over at Dumb Sketch Daily people comment that they are curious about stories behind the various dumb sketches appearing there. And if there is no story, the reader makes one up. It’s nearly an involuntary response. Our minds are made to put things together, to look for the connections and to make things fit. We find stories where none should exist: I’m remembering one daughter who named each bag of leaves in the back of the van and told stories about them—even as we drove the newly-named leaf bags to the compost heap.
In the race to get heard, story is a form we are all searching for. Story is irresistible. Sermons and monologues induce sleep. Story wakes. Story compels.
So why is it, again, that we elevate facts and principles and dry argument to such a high place? We think intellect beats emotion. But how much better if emotion and intellect are joined?
Image Credit: Kirk Livingston