Meaning is in the “Work”

Collaboration-WordleThere are truths we encounter over and over again. Sometimes those truths mask themselves as metaphors that we can rely on, other times those truths seem more coincidental like open doors or chance meetings. Still other truths are even more rich and overt, striking an unmistakable chord of clarity in your heart and mind like when you discover what you believe is your passion or purpose.

The latter happened to me recently during a meeting with colleagues, other educators, artists, and programmers, where right in the middle of that meeting, it hit me, clarity. I’ve been meeting with this talented bunch of professionals for several months now, but I admitted to them that I felt lost in what we were working towards. What was our purpose: data, results—a particular product? In trying to find the right tone for collaboration, the right space to focus on this open-ended work, we got lost in searching or worrying about a perfect outcome. For months we’ve gone round and round, meeting, talking, traveling, researching, and still our work felt contrived and seemed to lack depth and meaning.

But it was in this most recent meeting that clarity struck me. After so many months of forcing our time and energy into droplets of meaningless results, it occurred to me that results, the outcomes we desired would become evident as we document our work in progress—allow a sense of transparency of our sometimes awkward, meandering path.  I realized we were already in the midst of the work but what needed to happen was translation—that work into words, into narrative, into image. This may sound abstract, but I would argue that the data we were searching for was in the starts and stops, the stumbling we’ve been doing as a group for these past few months.

I like to say there is something messy about learning, and this too was a lesson for us professionals seeking a meaningful purpose for our time and collaboration. This collaboration could not be in name only. This time we’ve spent together thinking, researching, talking through ideas and obstacles was just as relevant and sustaining as whatever we will produce on the other side of this collaborative work. Sitting there in that meeting, it was clear that what was most important was the process of our work. What will later drive and inform any data or results will first be a narrative of the work, of how we got there.

Collaboration is often a complex walk of will and compromise. And any work of that collaboration is a process where even the best-laid plans are often slippery and a bit muddied by varying dynamics and change. But I encourage those in collaboration (which applies to most of us personally and professionally) to take a deep breath and continue through that slippery process because to truly know the meaning of the work is to find your way in it, be fully engaged and committed.

The passage below is a reminder that meaning is in the work.

Art as Experience

The Organization of Energies (From Art as Experience, John Dewey)

“IT has been repeatedly intimated that there is a difference between the art product (statue, painting or whatever), and the work of art. The first is physical and potential; the latter is active and experienced. It is what the product does, its working. For nothing enters experience bald and unaccompanied, whether it be a seemingly formless happening, a theme intellectually systematized, or an object elaborated with every loving care of united thought and emotion. Its very entrance is the beginning of a complex interaction; upon the nature of this interaction depends the character of the thing as finally experienced. When the structure of the object is such that its force interacts happily (but not easily) with the energies that issue from the experience itself; when their mutual affinities and antagonisms work together to bring about a substance that develops cumulatively and surely (but not too steadily) toward a fulfilling of impulsions and tensions, then indeed there is a work of art.”  -John Dewey


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