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About Finding Good Work

A Personal Statement by Claude (CW) Whitmyer † 

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki

Image of ClaudeI emerged from the shower, greeted by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. I dressed, a bit reluctant to put on yesterday's clothes again, but having no real choice until payday. I had landed a job as an apprentice civil engineer, which meant days divided between drawing plot plans in the office and laying them out in the field so the bulldozers could begin grading.

I threw the bed covers up over the pillow and double checked my pockets for wallet, knife, and the few bills of lunch money that I had left for the week. I made my way into the kitchen arriving just as my older brother turned off the stove to let the percolator come to a halt. We had enjoyed mornings like this, my brother and I, since I had joined the ranks of the working men in my family. Up early to share a quick breakfast, and then off to the work of the day. Sometimes it was work that required thinking, and sometimes it required sweat. It helped support our family, and we received a kind of status from it. We worked, we made a contribution, and we were proud of it.

Finding Good Work

Sometimes it seems that work is something I've always done. For me, working is basic, like eating and sleeping. I've never considered for a moment that I wouldn't work. If I had all the money I needed or could do whatever I wanted, I know I would still work. For me, working is a way of being fully alive. It is more than the identity by which others know me. Work is the place in time and space where I am most fulfilled. And work provides me with most of the opportunities I have to practice mindfulness "away from the cushion."

In the beginning, work meant spending-money and parental approval. My earliest memories of work go back to when I was eight years old. In the winter and spring I sold greeting cards door to door, and in the summer and fall I mowed lawns. By the time I was 12, making money became more important than receiving praise, although that was still important too. I began to discriminate between jobs on the basis of how much they paid, even if the work was embarrassing. Baby-sitting, for example, always paid much better than yard work. So I babysat, even though, in those days boys "weren't supposed to."

Grocery Bags

I began regular work when I was 14, as a grocery bagger and produce clerk at the corner market near my family home. I worked every day after school until eight at night, earned $1.17 an hour, and gave all my weekly pay checks to my mother. This little ritual marked a kind of coming of age, a passage into manhood. I worked every day and paid my way. This is what men did, and now I was doing it too. It didn't matter that my mother gave me most of the money back as a kind of allowance. In my mind, I paid rent. I bought groceries. I was officially a working man.

Beginner's Mind and Working For Others

During the next ten years I held more than two dozen jobs, and I approached each one with the same "beginner's mind Leaving this site. Use your back button to return or bookmark this page before leaving." of openness and eagerness to learn. I found this approach both alluring and rewarding, and, accidentally, in what I thought was a search for better pay, I began to leave jobs when they no longer excited or challenged me.

Golden Eagle

Soon, the strategy became an almost purposeful quest for new challenges that would bring back that experience of "beginner's mind." By the time I was 25 and out of graduate school, I had worked as a coffee shop busboy, gas station attendant, bookstore clerk, librarian's assistant, office clerk, supply clerk, museum assistant, daycare teacher, apprentice civil engineer, swimming pool cleaner, motel desk clerk and night auditor, data analyst, research assistant, teaching assistant, shipping clerk, animal health technician, apprentice wild animal trainer, apprentice cabinet maker, carpenter's helper, graphic artist, and cosmetic compounder.

Compounding Cosmetics

Often, after a short time on the job, I would be promoted to some sort of supervisory position. In this capacity I worked as the inventory manager in a bookstore, crew boss on a surveying team, route manager at a swimming pool maintenance company, administrative assistant on a research grant, production manager of a soap manufacturing company, general manager of a public warehouse, and corporate manager for a startup technology company.

Thus, I was introduced to the demands and difficulties of working with others. Increased responsibility led to increased challenge, and an increase in the amount of time it took for my "beginner's mind" to fade.

Living Lightly: Alternative Energy and Appropriate Technology Retail Store

Working for Myself

After ten years of working for others, my fantasies about being my own boss began to be too frequent and too strong to ignore. When the opportunity appeared for me to own my own company, I leaped at it, and for the next ten years, I began exploring what it meant to be the one with whom the buck stopped. During this second decade of my working life, I owned and managed my own natural cosmetics manufacturing company, a wood-burning stove distribution company, and an alternative energy-appropriate technology retail store. Many of the strategies I had developed as a worker were still useful to me, especially my supervisory style. But, it soon became clear that the strategy of moving on to a new job when things became boring and tedious simply didn't work when I was the one in charge.

Tai Chi: Mindfulness In Motion

Because of the value I placed on "beginner's mind," I felt encouraged to find a way to experience that state without repeatedly starting over. By this point in my life I had begun an active meditation practice as well as the regular practice of Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan. Mindful sitting contrasted with mindful movement, in a way that made it possible for me to see how I might carry the "beginner's mind" from the cushion into daily life. I began to experiment with this at home and on the job, and soon developed many specific practices that actively cultivated mindfulness. Mixing, bottling, and labeling cosmetics; ordering, stacking, and delivering woodstoves; taking inventory; stocking shelves; dealing with customers; working with employees; keeping the books; answering the telephone; making sales calls; every business task I encountered became an opportunity to practice mindfulness.

Working With Others

CW Helping

In the third decade of my working life I became a small business consultant and began learning about the close working relationship of consultant with client. Because of the emphasis I had personally placed on the practice of mindfulness, I was better able to provide advice that was specifically relevant to my clients. I was also able to offer them some guidance, mostly by example, in the use of mindfulness within their own lives. This emphasis on mindfulness practice has become an integral part of my work with clients, and, it seems, I have become known for it.

The Briarpatch

1st Meeting of the Common Good School

It was also in this third decade that I was introduced to the relationship of community to right livelihood. In 1974, I became involved with what, at the time, was called the Briarpatch Society Leaving this site. Use your back button to return or bookmark this page before leaving., a group of people who had been social activists in the '60s and who were now entrepreneurs. What drew us together was a shared belief that business did not have to be synonymous with greed, corruption, and profit at any cost. We were among the early pioneers in a movement that has come to be known by the watchwords "environmental preservation," "social responsibility" and "green" or "sustainable" business

From 1974 to the present day the Briarpatch has seen more than 1,000 people pass through it's membership roles. There were always about 200-300 names on the current mailing list and 100-200 active members at any given time. Hold a lecture by a Briarpatch celebrity and several hundred people might show up. Throw a party and 50 to a hundred people would attend. Hold a workshop on business skills and you could always get a couple of dozen members to sign up. Today, there are close to 75 people who registered as members when the community space on Ning.Com Leaving this site. Use your back button to return or bookmark this page before leaving. was opened.

Briar businesses have always been either directly involved in the environment or operated in a way that greatly reduces their impact on the planet. Most Briars have always agreed that it was important to provide the highest quality product or service and to give something back to their local community. Active members shared resources -- from information and financial statements to shovels and pick-up trucks. From the beginning, a belief that it was important to do all we could to ensure the long-term survival of our businesses and our community was a core value. To this end, we donated money to hire a coordinator who arranged technical advice and emotional support for members, as it was needed.

The Briarpatch Consulting Team

Briarpatch Consulting Team

In 1983, I was invited to join the team of volunteers that provided the technical advice to Briarpatch businesses, and, in 1984, I was asked to serve as its coordinator. In more recent times, perhaps as a testament to the maturity of their enterprises, members have become relatively less active. Other than the Briarpatch on Ning Leaving this site. Use your back button to return or bookmark this page before leaving., there is not currently a formal organization of any kind and only a few events. Members still occasionally call me for resource referrals or business advice but most folks seem to be focusing on surviving the recession and rebuilding as it as the economy comes slowly back to life.

My experience with Briarpatch over the last 40 years has clearly illustrated the value of doing work that benefits and is supported by my own personal community or extended circle of friends. By sharing resources and interests in the course of the day-to-day operations of our businesses, we have offered each other a rich source of community-based support that has no geographical boundaries.

Briars value right livelihood. Their first newsletter, The Briarpatch Review Cover Image from The Briarpatch Review, was subtitled "A Journal of Right Livelihood and Simple Living."

To Briars, right livelihood means not only work that doesn't hurt living beings or the environment, but work that also brings adequate financial rewards. In other words, you can't save the world if you can't pay your bills.

Do What You Love and Still Pay the Bills

The stereotypes of religious clerics as "poor as church mice" or all those who pursued art as "starving" were widespread in 1974 when the Briarpatch began. Doing good and being creative were not considered as appropriate values to include when seeking a career. Much more than today, business was supposed to be about making money and only that.

If you wanted to do good, the story went, whether spiritually or creatively, you had to work for a religious or non-profit arts organization. To approach life creatively meant that you would "have to work for peanuts!"

In today's world, doing good, innovating and creating are considered part and parcel of a meaningful life. Innovation and creativity have become central to our ideas regarding meaningful work and "sustainable" entrepreneurship. The strictures of the past are easier to overcome than ever and large segments of the population expect to be able to "make good money" pursuing these values.

Now, it is not only possible but it's almost a requirement that work, whether employment or entrepreneurship, must allow you to live a simple life — while being both spiritual and creative — doing work you love while still paying the bills with enough left over to help others through charity or crowd funding.

After a decade of social activism in the '60s, Briars found themselves doing business in the '70s, but doing it in a way that simultaneously offered quality and benefit to the community and still made an honest profit. We saw that, by supporting one another, we were supporting all kinds of ethical, virtuous businesses and that these businesses could make a profit and still be run in the context of a personal set of values. The increasing visibility in the mainstream, during the late 80s and early 90s, of companies such as Esprit, Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, The Body Shop, and many others began to make this truth apparent.

As they enter the marketplace seeking work and growing a career, today's generations X, Y, Z and/or "The Millenials" are demanding that values and responsibility, ethics and stewardship be part and parcel of the way that business is done. And they are, likely as not, to quit a job and start their own business if they aren't satisfied with their everyday work lives.

In the early 90s, if you searched the Internet for "mindfulness" "meaningful work" or "simple living" you wouldn't get many hits. In this most recent decade, there is an increasing emphasis on these ideas as well as those of "simple living," "tribes," collaboration, and creativity and innovation. as well as collaboration and meaning in the work place are becoming a new norm. Today, the demand for advice and learning about these ideas is so widely sought and the number of people joining the conversation is growing by leaps and bounds.

Throughout my 50-plus years of work, I have experienced terrific jobs and terrible jobs. It is clear to me now that, while many factors determine whether a job is personally fulfilling, the single most important one is responsibility. The more responsibility I was given, the more fulfilling the work became. Another important factor was creative latitude. When I was allowed to use my own imagination and resources to solve my work challenges, the job was far more rewarding than when I was forced to follow someone else's idea about the "only and best" way of doing things. I guess that's why I just naturally gravitated from working for wages, to entrepreneurship, then consultancy, and finally to the work I have discovered that gives me the most latitude, writing.

The relationship of responsibility and creative latitude to job satisfaction held true for me whether or not supervision, management, and, finally, ownership were involved. The few jobs where my bosses were smart enough or lucky enough to have provided me with greater responsibility and a chance to participate in the creative part of the work were also the jobs I found most rewarding. My apprenticeships, in civil engineering, wild animal training, and cabinet making, come to mind.

Is entrepreneurship the ultimate right livelihood?

I think the answer might be yes, if we allow ourselves to redefine entrepreneurship so that it applies to a certain approach to work by employees as well as owners.

The word "entrepreneur" comes from the French entreprendre, which means "to undertake." "Entreprendre," in turn, comes from the Latin inter, between or among and prahendere, to take before, to grasp, to seize, to hold. This means that within the word entrepreneur is the connotation of "one who grabs hold of the whole thing with their own two hands."

As we learn more and more about what it takes to make any enterprise work, it becomes obvious that the owner can't do it alone. Workers who take things into their own hands are increasingly seen as the key to success in organizations of all sizes. As author and pundit Tom Peters explains,

Think about your corner grocer. Think about a line worker, or even a middle manager, in a big, traditional firm. The former is a businessperson, no mistake. The latter 'fills a job slot.' What a difference.

The most fundamental building block of the new organization is the 'businessperson,' or 'informated individual,' 'case worker,' 'care pair,' 'mass customizer.'

Emerging organizational forms will permit -- and the market will demand -- that each employee be turned into a businessperson.

Liberation Management (Knopf, 1992, p.227)

In the quote above, if you read "entrepreneur" for businessperson, it's easy to see each employee taking things into his or her own hands, being empowered by having access to all the information necessary to make the on-the-line, in-the-moment decisions that keep customers satisfied and the corporation accountable to its workers and other stakeholders, including the community. This is what Peters is saying, and this is the trend that encourages me to think of each of us as an entrepreneur, doing our own right livelihood, taking our lives and our livelihoods into our own two hands, doing well by doing good.

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 † This article is an edited excerpt from Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood (Parallax Press).

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Further Reading

A whole spate of new cheer‐leading books on creativity applied to business and work have recently been published. Among my favorites of the last few years are:

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The Chinese Character for Tao, the path or the way.

The ancient followers of the Tao were
subtle, mysterious and penetrating.
They were too deep to be fathomed.
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Hesitant, as if crossing a winter stream.
Watchful, as if aware of neighbours on all sides.
Respectful, like a visiting guest.
Yielding, like ice beginning to melt.
Simple, like an Uncarved Block.
Open, like a valley.
Obscure, like muddy water.

Who else can be still,
and let the muddy water slowly become clear?
Who else can remain at rest,
and slowly come to life?
Those who hold fast to the Tao
do not try to fill themselves to the brim.
Because they do not try to be full,
they can be worn out and yet, ever new.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15


Books On Business, Community and Meaningful Work

ClaudeClaude (CW) Whitmyer has long been a thought leader in the movement to bring back purpose and values to the workplace as demonstrated in his writing, including his books:


Cover from Mindfulness and Meaningful Work.Mindfulness & Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood (Parallax Press, 1994), through which he helped introduce the idea of "right livelihood" to the English-speaking world.


Cover from Running a One-Person BusinessRunning a One Person Business (Ten Speed Press, Second Edition, 1994), in which he and co-author Salli Raspberry were among the first to call for a values-based "business-as-lifestyle" approach to entrepreneurship.


Cover from In the Company of Others.In the Company of Others: Making Community in the Modern World (Targer/Putnam, 1993) where he was an early champion of the practices of "circles of intimacy" and grassroots marketing that have come to be known as "degrees of separation," "social networking," and "social marketing." Please visit an example of one of the social networks he helped grow at, The Briarpatch and read about its long, fascinating history at Briarpatch.Net.

These books also document the development and describe the elements of Good Work Guidance, CW's unique approaches to career guidance and coaching for people seeking a more meaningful work and life.

Today, CW continues to offer individual sessions and group workshops by special arrangement. to learn more about how you can benefit from the expert advice that comes from CW's nearly 40 years of experience, click on the message link at the bottom of the left hand column or visit the contact page to schedule an initial 30-minute consultation.

Executive Coaching.

If you are a manager or executive facing a job transition or looking for career guidance, I offer you private consultations in person or by phone or email. To schedule an appointment write or call 415-648-2667.

Workshops.

The Path to Meaningful Work is available as a one- or two-day workshop by special arrangement for groups of eight or more. To let me know of your group's interest, please write or call 415-648-2667.

Business Consulting.

Starting, expanding, or selling a business? To do it right, don't try doing it alone. Let's work together. We can collaborate to help you do well by also doing good. For more information about these services, visit the, please go Good Business Advice™ page or write or call 415-648-2667.

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