According to a recent Washington Post article, the American workforce faces a crisis of meaning. Millions of people report lack of fulfillment in their chosen jobs. They long for vocations that provide meaning and purpose but don’t know how to find them.
Steve and I don’t need any more stuff, but one recent Saturday, we stopped at a yard sale—just to look. We browsed through displays of other people’s castoffs—vintage purses, antique furniture, kitchen gadgets, books and tools.
Steve browses faster than I do. He got a few displays ahead of me.
After a few minutes, I looked for him and noticed he was doing more than browsing. As I watched, he handed some bills across a table to a vendor. And didn’t get any change. He seemed to be spending more than his fair share of the cash he’d pulled from our joint account on our way to the sale.
Picturing more unorganized stuff in our already cluttered garage, I caught up in time to talk him out of his next impulse almost-buy, a crate of mismatched tools.
Then, noticing the stack of items he’d already paid for, I thought, “No sense in me holding back.” I tugged on his shirt sleeve, held out my hand, patted my palm, and said, “Give me a twenty.”
“What are you going to buy?”
“I want that toy typewriter.”
I pointed and waited for him to convince me otherwise. I waited for him to ask what I was going to do with the toy typewriter, to suggest that I didn’t really need it, and to insist that I ask the owner if she’d take less than the thirteen dollars she was asking.
But he didn’t.
He started to tap a rhythm on the toy keyboard with his fingers.
Noting our interest in the toy, the owner said to her young granddaughter who was handling the cash. “Faith’s a writer. That typewriter is perfect for her. She has to have it.”
To me she said, “Make it ten.”
I handed the money to the girl (she looked about 10 or 11, I think. Elementary school, for sure.) As she counted out my change, her grandmother said to me, “My granddaughter likes to write, too.”
“That’s awesome. What—” I paused, carefully choosing the words to use to ask her what type of writing she liked. I like to get the wording right. When I teach technical writing, I talk to scientists and engineers about apt use of field-specific jargon.
To the students, I say something like: If you use jargon your reader (or listener) doesn’t know, your message will be unclear, and you might come across as pretentious. However, if you use an everyday term (like stuff) when the reader is expecting you—as an expert in the field–to use a technical term, you diminish your credibility.
At the yard sale, I gauged my listener’s knowledge and went with “stuff.” I said to the young writer, “What kind of stuff do you like to write?”
“Do you mean what genre do I write?”
Yup. That’s what I meant. My credibility dented and my face slightly pink, I said, “Yes, I mean genre.”
“I like to write fantasy.”
Right on that spot, I wished she liked to write comedy. I think her impression of me: an adult, so-called writer who couldn’t come up with the word genre and had to have a toy typewriter could’ve inspired her next story.
She probably writes on some generation of tablet that I’ve never even touched, but I had to have the toy typewriter.
I wanted the toy typewriter, of course, because when I saw it, I felt the pull of nostalgia. A longing for something from my childhood.
The toy reminded me of a toy typewriter that I’d used as a girl. I remembered carefully winding the carriage to place a sheet of paper. I recalled tapping on the typewriter keys to raise levers and print letters on the page.
I didn’t long for the object or the act. I longed for the feeling.
As a child, when I used that toy typewriter to put words on paper, I felt focused, intent, joy filled, and so important. Not important in a way that other people would notice. Important in a way that felt—putting stories on paper: this is what I was made to do. This act satisfies me.
In the years since, I’ve continued to tell stories. But sometimes my delight in the act has become dulled and skewed. When publishers reject my stories, I think: I’m not a very good story-teller. I should do something else. When chores and distractions of daily living mount, I convince myself: there’s no time for storytelling.
Advertising emails that clutter my inbox about how to make money writing and how to become a best-selling author entice me to think: stories are only worth something if they make money and if many people read them.
So I wanted that toy typewriter as a visual reminder of the supreme focus and delight that filled me when I was a child tapping out a story.
The Washington Post article that I mentioned says that I’m not the only adult who finds keeping in touch with a purpose inspired by passion a challenge.
The article says that millions of American adults get lost in making money, climbing the ladder of success, caring for family, feeling the need to be efficient, and they forget, or never find, a meaningful vocation or activity that provides satisfaction.
“Higher education graduates millions of students into career paths that leave them unhappy and unfulfilled. They suffer from a crisis of meaning.”
Recognition of this need for meaning, in this case, work that coincides with an individual’s values and life purpose, has prompted some universities to design courses geared to helping students find their passion. Stanford University offers a course called “Designing Your Life.” Harvard, “Reflecting on Your Life.” Bates College offers a purposeful work program. The goal of these courses is to help college students find work they are good at and feel passionate about.
For individuals who can’t take a course, there are books and assessments and life coaches to help with the search for a fitting, meaningful job.
But here’s what I think: You don’t need a course or a book or a complex set of self-analysis quizzes. Just reconnect with the object that first ignited your delight the way a toy typewriter did for me. The work or hobby you pursue may be a more sophisticated version of the original act, but reconnect with the joy that called you. See where it leads.
It led Steve to a hobby he enjoys immensely. He’s a drummer. I once asked my father-in-law about Steve’s first steps into drumming. I couldn’t fathom enduring the banging noise of the drums and cymbals of a novice drummer in their small house.
My father-in-law said, “I had to get him a drum set to save the lamp!”
They had a three-tiered pole lamp and until he got the drum set, Steve used his
mom’s combs as drumsticks to rap on the lamp shades.
Now it’s your turn. A recommendation built on two individuals’ experience is flimsy. Help provide evidence that my recommendation is sound. What object ignited your early interest? What did you have to have and how has pursuing or not pursuing that interest turned out?