Finding Your Place

Common Dreams recently published an article by Huck Gutman, a man who had the opportunity to spend a week in New York City. While he partook of the usual visitor experiences in the city, what struck him most was this brief experience watching a man in a laundry through the store window:

As I walked, I passed a dry cleanerís shop. At its front, immediately behind a large plate glass window, was a man ironing a shirt. I stopped and watched. (I should mention that I like ironing my own shirts. In America, ironed shirts are an expensive luxury unless one does it oneself; and I have found that the repetitive motions of ironing, and the concentration required to assure that one irons wrinkles out and not in, is a restful activity. For me.) He ironed, and I watched. And watched. He ironed one shirt, then a second. There was a defined progression for each shirt. First, he sprayed the shirt lightly with water to dampen it. Then, as he ironed each successive portion of the shirt he sprayed on a light dose of starch to make the fabric stiffer. He proceeded to iron the collar, then carefully laid out each sleeve and ironed them, one at a time. Then he starched and ironed one half of the shirt, placed flat on his white-cotton clad ironing table. When he was done, he lightly touched the iron to the middle of the collar at the back of the neck ó just a small crease so it would fold properly. He hung the shirt on a hanger, and proceeded to the next. I, an amateur, iron quickly. He, a professional, did not. He took care, making certain that each sweep of the iron made a flat expanse of brilliant white fabric.

There is something almost primeval about this recognition of the importance of doing a job with excellence. As I mentioned in my article two years ago, It’s What I Do, doing something extraordinarily well is more than just a matter of pride. It essentially defines us. We are all inherently social creatures, and our sense of belonging to the communities which we adopt, and which adopt us, is caught up in, and expresses itself through, our role, our specialization. Even in the earliest tribal cultures individuals recognized other individuals’ strengths, experiences and talents, and this recognition refined and defined each individual’s role, and importance, in the community. These skills, these differences, established one’s position, one’s membership, in the community.

Doing what we are, what we enjoy doing, and what we do well, is essential to our self-esteem, so it is not surprising that it is naturally selected for. A Lakota leader defines ‘mastery’ — the need to build on personal competence — as one of the four ‘capacities’ of ‘the circle of courage’ that gives each of us heart, self-confidence, and spirit.

What is it that determines this special role, whether it be ironing, running, painting or writing or giving care to others? It is, I think, a product of four things:

  1. our natural talents — things we inherently find easy to do well,
  2. our learnings and experience — which come from study, but more importantly from practice,
  3. our passion — the desire and focus and dedication to excel at doing this one thing, and
  4. our audience — the degree to which this role is needed, appreciated, respected and encouraged.

findingyourplaceThe search for one’s personal role, our place in community, is often a lifelong quest. Today, when it is so easy to be anonymous or left alone, and in which we move from community to community often, the fourth element — our audience — can be the hardest to achieve. When we have no audience, when we do not know where we belong, we are left to choose what we will do in abstraction. As a result, many of us devote large parts of our lives to study and diligent work only to find we have no audience, and that no matter how great we see our own talent and acquired skill, it was all wasted time.

The task is much easier when we find our audience, the community with the need for what we can do, first. In this respect we are all entrepreneurs at heart. We are all seeking to find something that is needed, and for which we have talent and passion, and the rest is just hard work. Or rather, it isn’t hard work, because our passion, our natural talent, and the recognition of its value by our community makes it easy work, obvious and important. As we learn, lifelong, to do it well and then exceptionally well, we are merely following our heart, our destiny.

The characters depicted in the vidcap above, from Aaron Sorkin’s comedy Sports Night, have found, in journalism, the intersection of talent, experience, passion and audience. That’s why they can, and do, say That’s What I Do, That’s Who I Am. How many of us, in the real world, can say the same, without a sigh, a doubt, a frown?

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6 Responses to Finding Your Place

  1. Patry says:

    Thanks for clarifying and inspiring. What you do is pretty damn great.

  2. Sean Young says:

    I appreciated your well articulated thoughts on a subject that has become somewhat cliche. For my daily journey – my quiet & persistent prayer is to: Find the place in the world where my greatest talent meets to the world’s greatest need. I believe it is from there that I will pursue the learnings I need, and will find the love of the task in fidelity to my true heart’s desire.All the best,Sean YoungCommercial Activist

  3. Rayne says:

    This is one of the key reasons I’ve long enjoyed Martha Stewart. She takes the things that many people dismiss out of hand and turn them into something entirely different, simply by increasing the attention to effort and detail. She also recognized the same in other artisans and craftsman.

  4. This is “really” an important topic, and I enjoyed reading both of your pieces. To find your place is definitely part of the “secret to happiness”, and only when one has the chance to realize this, can we…as an old song goes…stop “looking for love in all the wrong places”. :)Thank you for such an enjoyable truth-filled read!

  5. Zach says:

    “Daddy didn’t love me.” -Austin Powers

  6. dave says:

    again. this is why i keep coming back to this blog. i’m probably the anti-christ to you but it is post’s like this that keep me coming back; the horrible free marketer that i am.

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