Three Poets and a Sushi Chef: On Work


Recently, I read on distractify that on average we spend 10.3 years of our lives working. This information made me feel a lot of things and question a few of my life choices. For starters, I felt tremendous relief that the theory that it takes 10 years, or 10,000 hours to master a skill has been debunked because that would mean that by the time we are wrapping up our work years we will have only just reached true mastery in our chosen fields.

But being fairly early in my working life, it forced a deeper look into the question, “What is my chosen field?” Am I here because I am doing what I love? Am I just trying to make a living? Maybe a little bit of both? There are days when the work is slow and tedious and I must read the sentence I have read five times before I absorb it. There are days when I dream of beaches and forests and gardens, and ache for loud music and lively passionate conversations.

Are these the childish longings that should have been put away when I earned my degree and took a desk job in a cube farm? Is it my calling to review RFPs and tease the fickle “not allowable activities” from the fine print of federal documents?

Here is a poem by the Persian mystic Hafiz (translated by Daniel Landinsky) that makes these questions all the more dire:

“A Hard Decree”

Last night God posted on the tavern wall

a hard decree for all of love’s inmates

which read:

If your heart cannot find joyful work

the jaws of this world will probably

grab hold of your



Put that way, it makes me think that I had better try giving my professional life more authentic consideration. I started by searching out more writing about “work” and came across this gem by Marge Piercy from the last stanza of her poem, “To Be of Use.”

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

This resonated with me to my core. “Work that is real!” Yes. I wonder how many lucky people feel fully satisfied and fulfilled in their work. Is it a matter of finding the right calling? Or is it a matter of accepting the dirt in which you have taken root? Maybe both? Here is a quote from the movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the work of Jiro Ono, a sushi chef who has worked for more than 70 years as a sushi chef and has built international acclaim and earned three Michelin stars for his efforts. He says:

“Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with what you do… You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That is the secret of success and the key to being regarded honorably.”

Many years ago I was awarded a fellowship at the New York City Center for Book Arts where I learned to set type letter by letter for printing on an antique letterpress. Before we could handle the type, the instructor assigned us a piece to read about the spiritual practice of typesetting. It was the most beautiful thing ever. It talked about the inevitable tedium of the activity of setting type, and asked that instead of approaching the task as one approaches work, that typesetters would be best off to approach their work as a spiritual practice. It made perfect sense, and as I gleaned words from the type drawer I imagined Walt Whitman lovingly setting each letter of Leaves of Grass. I imagined all the hands and words of previous centuries being handled as I handled the five lines I was setting from one of my poems and I felt a part of a great and wondrous history. This is the work I crave. The work that makes me feel the feeling expressed by Kahlil Gibran in his poem, “On Work.”

“When you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, and in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, and to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.”

Rena Priest is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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