How you carry your work matters

The balance between meaning, mind, and doing the work.

We were sitting at a work site in the middle of Kenya. I had joined a small group of Americans (“The Money”) and the kind souls of a small village to build a grandmother a new mud house.

To make mud, you need water. So at the end, the women of the village (many times over throughout two full days) walked a quarter of a mile to a dirty pond and back, carrying gallons of water in buckets on their heads. They were mesmerizing to watch, and as I sat marveling one day, I noticed that I was among the tiny contingency of American women sitting in lawn chairs in the shade — watching them. The American gal beside me noticed it simultaneously, and with hardly a word spoken between us we both got up to go help the women carry water.

It was an awkward ordeal, to say the least. The women giggled, not knowing what to do with us until an older “Mama” pushed through and took my hand to decidedly lead me to the pond. After much discussion there I was given the smallest bucket (maybe 3 gallons?), another woman lent me her wrap to pad my head, and it took two of them to help me lift it and actually prop it up there.  And the careful (for me) walk back was shaky. The women continued to giggle, while my very bones hurt in places I never knew they could.

It was hard work, heavy lifting, and took an unnatural amount of concentration for me to complete the task.

After a single round of water-carrying it was evident that I couldn’t do another. But I’m an American, dammit, and I can become a good water-carrier.

That is until Isaac, our project coordinator, stopped me, and said in a very serious and heartfelt manner and said, “I have to thank you. You do not understand what you have just done.”

Isaac explained that in Kenya, everyone knows there are two types of bodies: those who carry things on their heads, and those who carry loads on their backs.

“You,” he said, “if you were Kenyan, would be a back-carrier,” foundationally due to my body type. “Everyone here can see that.” He explained that by going against my (literally) natural design to help the women carry water, I had set a powerful example and blown apart some of their cultural assumptions about work. (Unwittingly, mind you) I showed them that a willing person could go outside their physical “comfort zone” in order to help a larger or community effort.

But for me, the moral of the story was swapped. “Oh, really?” I remarked. “Because in America we do this all the time.”

I explained to him that due in part to our inherited Industrial Age work culture, we have no regard for the way people are naturally or physically designed to do their work. It isn’t a question or even a subject of conversation. We talk about what we like to make (money), or what we’d like to do (with that money), but how we’re designed? Doesn’t happen. Our individual “superpowers” are rarely recognized or supported, and instead more often shoved into a prefabricated professional mold, whether we’re suited for it or not.

But it wasn’t until that day in the village that I understood something new:

It is our natural design that enables us to do the work [better].

How this works in Business

I meet a ton of business owners who are weighed down by old assumptions as to how the concept of “business” should work, and what they should specifically be doing inside of theirs. They get frustrated, or demoralized, because they’ve either yet (or not been allowed) to embrace a simple, lovely, and very basic fact of being human:

We all are going to carry the work of business ownership differently.

And we need to.

3 ways we tend to carry our work:

Head :: The business must make sense. Logic rules, and the pieces have to fit squarely together. When you’re wired this way, the business is going to feel most right, good, productive, or effective when you can “wrap your head around it.”

Heart :: This work has to come from someplace deeper. If this is you, the business must have substance, a positive or humane impact on people, or be driven or designed for a significant purpose. The endgame (and sometimes the process there) needs to have meaning. It comes from the heart.

Hands :: You want to get your hands on it. You want to be the one to physically hand a purchase to the customer, or represent your client in person, or design the graphics you need, or crunch the tax numbers. You need to touch the work, to be active and involved in it, for it to feel productive.

All forms are valid. All are important. And all have their important place in business.

But we tend to squash it in ourselves.

Here’s how I most often hear it: I

’m too compassionate to be a good salesperson. Actually, friend, it’s the other way around: When you connect on a heart level with the value the business provides, you share it boldly and authentically with the people who need it. (In fact, this can be super-powerful!)

I like to have my ducks in a row, so I’m not very creative with new ideas for growth. Of course you’re creative — you created this business! Anchor your mind in the few, concrete, and essential Core elements of what makes your business great, and then ask, “How can we do more of that for our customers?”

Nobody can do this work like I can. I’m too irreplaceable. Okay, if that’s the case then you need to get out of business and find yourself a job — you’ll make a great employee. (It is a noble thing!) But if you want to grow a business, keep this in mind: as you train up others to do what you do (which you can), you will find the motivation to keep going by taking an hour or two to stay active in your craft.

(You might also find the operations of a business — writing, filing, calculating, registering, networking, writing, speaking, planning, etc. — is the tangible work that gives you the sense of strength and accomplishment.)

The moral here is this:

Don’t let anyone chide you because you care about your work.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an earth-shattering Why or a red-hot passion fueling you.
And don’t fear if you prefer to be a craftsperson than a high-flying business visionary.

If it motivates you, it motivates you. Let it. Carry the work in the way that makes you feel strongest. It will actually make you stronger.

And remember, this is an indication of your best starting point.

Every business needs some amount of all three (Head, Heart, and Hands) to succeed. The process you use to reach each one of them is the difference. The work may have to be smart (Head), for it to feel right. Your role may need to be meaningful (Heart), for you to put action to it. You may just need to get out there and do it (Hands) for it to make sense.

Find your starting point, and start there. You can trust it. Be proud.