The professional satisfaction of being a part of something good

I missed my monthly posting on this here blog because of: well, everything. So much work, so much transition, lots of guests in our house (which yay! missed this during the pandemic, but wow! lots of meals to cook), and a planned month-long stay in the Lake Tahoe region that ended, sadly, after one week, due to the devastating wildfires raging there.

During the mad dash of packing up the house we had rented and returning home, I had the good fortune of riding in one of the cars on the way back with my son, who is simply a stellar conversationalist. We can talk about anything: films, television shows, music, politics, interpersonal dynamics, big abstract ideas and funny little concrete ones. The four hours of battling through traffic and scorching heat (obviously, our cars have A/C, but you still get really cooked on the sunny side of the car) passed really quickly, this time.

My son’s entering his sophomore year at the film school of a university in California; he’s been making videos and artwork since the beginning of middle school, and we always talk a lot about what goes into storytelling and the creative process. His big fear is that he’ll get better at the technical parts of filmmaking, but that he won’t ever find the stories that he wants to shape and tell and even if he did, he wouldn’t tell them in a way that inspires and moves audiences. As a writer, I totally get that fear; I burped out exactly one lovely little children’s book that got published when I was in my early twenties, and since then, I’ve focused on public-interest communications work while simultaneously engaging in a skittish dance about whether to do more creative writing, like a novel or a screenplay.

I honestly don’t know whether I have a novel-length or film-worthy idea in me. I have LOTS of ideas; I can look at any random stranger on the street or in a store and make up all sorts of stories about them in my head. But to build out and sustain those ideas over multiple chapters and scenes? So that you feel the way about the characters that I do about my favorite characters in books and movies—that they are multi-dimensional human beings, familiar and exciting at the same time? So that more than anything, your audience wants to find out what happened next? THAT level of writing, I’m not sure exists in me. And the problem is compounded by the fact that both my son and I are highly sensitive to all the things that make films and books great and also, to all the things that make them suck. We have lots of discussions about writing, aesthetics, plot pacing, sound, lighting. We groan when favorite characters of ours suddenly start behaving in out-of-character ways or start acting plain stupid. (Is everything okay at home, writers’ room? Too many notes from the suits?)

But as we thoroughly discussed our hopes and fears about the creative process, during this long car ride home, I was reminded of an important realization I had, first when I was in my late thirties or early forties and then periodically since then, about work and about the times when work felt meaningful to me. I’ve had multiple periods when I loved my work because I was a part of something much greater than myself—something that was driven by a noble and a pure-hearted vision that was both timeless and informed by the current context of when the work was taking place. And I was reminded that just being a part of that sort of work can be, actually, very satisfying and wonderful—even when I was responsible for just a tiny, tiny piece of it.

As an example of this sort of professional satisfaction, let’s take the Affordable Care Act—A.K.A., Obamacare. During the lead-up to this federal legislation, I worked at a very large health and healthcare foundation. There are very strict tax code rules that prohibit foundations from lobbying activities (which feels like more of a hollow principle these days, given that corporations can lobby all they want!), so of course we weren’t directly involved in shaping or advocating for the legislation. But many of our grantees had done groundbreaking research or pioneered new approaches on the benefits of getting more people health insurance, on how to make healthcare more patient-centered and less irrational. And many of them needed help to communicate about their work. My job was to help them communicate, period, regardless of whether there was a major piece of federal legislation being discussed or not. But the work of helping them communicate what their work was about and why it mattered took on special significance during that heightened (and stomach-churning) period.

I want to say, again, that my part in this whole endeavor was miniscule. One, I worked with a giant team of people. Two, the efforts of literally thousands of people went into the Affordable Care Act—and regardless of how imperfect the final result was, there is no doubt that it was an historic piece of legislation, one that resulted in millions more people getting health insurance and important considerations of quality and cost and value getting added to the mix. But as miniscule as my part was, I have no doubt that I DID play a part. That because of the job I had at the time and the role I played, I was able to add some small measure of leadership, sweat equity, and resources to the many processes and debates leading up to the passage of ACA.

Is this feeling of being a tiny part of something historic and important as professionally satisfying as seeing my name on the cover of a book? No, it is not. One, I absolutely love seeing my name in print. Two, I understand the difference between the pride I feel in something I created out of my own brain, under my own steam, versus something to which I contributed a tiny part. And there is no doubt, the former is a tremendous feeling. It is part of the reason why I write on this blog: because I have ownership and control over what I put in this here space in ways that don’t even remotely resemble the writing I do for clients.

However, both states of being are, in their own ways, creatively and professionally satisfying. They both matter, is what I’m trying to say. I absolutely loved how this theme was expressed in the recent Pixar movie Soul, which is about a jazz musician who experiences an untimely early death, and then desperately tries to get back to being alive because he doesn’t want to miss his big creative moment. SPOILER ALERT: He gets his moment—and yet he is blown away by how another character, the little unformed soul 22, revels in all of the most mundane aspects of life when she, too, becomes alive. Like the way a slice of pizza tastes. Or the way that an autumn leaf looks when drifting downwards, silhouetted against the golden clarity of a fall afternoon.

I hope my son continues to chase down and put some work into realizing the stories he wants to tell. I know he will have moments of self-doubt and even anguish, if the stories prove to be elusive. And I still hold out hope that a period of creative writing is in my future, even though my energies get directed elsewhere.

But I also hope that he will find other things in his life that are professionally satisfying, like I did. I want this for all good people out in the world, actually, who get joy out of honest work done well, who love to collaborate with kind, funny, smart people, and who have been sickened and depressed by toxic work cultures and meaningless tasks. For those people, I want the same things I want for my son: that he will get to be a part of something he finds inspiring and motivating. And that even if his part in the something is tiny, he will still know the exact dimensions of his contribution and he will understand that his contribution made the something better.