…for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.
— from The Charge of the Goddess by Doreen Valiente; adapted by Starhawk via Reclaiming
There are numerous reasons why I read Seth Godin’s blog, but the primary one is for resonance. I will often find in his work something that harmonizes with a deep understanding of a personally held belief. In today’s case it’s about motivation. As I was scrolling through his posts this morning his recent critique of external vs. internal motivating factors hit that harmonic.
He begins by talking about the external motivating factors such as reward and punishment from superiors as the model influenced by the industrial age. But in today’s knowledge economy external motivation is less useful.
In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job.
While not explicitly stating so this dichotomy is one that flows from the theory of the work ethic. Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic being the external motivating factor, and Pekka Himanen’s Hacker Ethic being the internal motivating factor. Why do we do the work that we do, and what keeps us coming back to do this work? What would make someone want to continue doing this work even if it wasn’t their job?
As goes the economy so goes public services, and libraries are often one of the things that politicians always consider cutting. Perhaps they see it as a luxury expense, perhaps it’s the tough call that everyone has to take a cut. Whatever their motivations for reducing budgets, it’s happening, and it’s been happening with more and more frequency. Librarians are being laid off and libraries are being closed all over the country.
But librarians haven’t stopped working. Many of them, the highly dedicated, internally motivated ones turn right around and begin volunteering at the library instead. They can’t let go, and they won’t let the community go underserved just because they lost their job. There are many times I have turned to a colleague or a patron and said that even if there was no money in this work for me that I would do it out of the goodness of my heart. I have a secret post-apocalyptic contingency plan of continuing to run the library and sharing information with people on how to grow food and blacksmith based on the materials in the collection alone.
Why does librarianship inspire this kind of enthusiasm? I think there’s something very deeply ingrained in the internally motivated librarian that goes beyond “job” or “career” and moves into the realm of “vocation” and “calling.” One of the books that really captured that was Nancy Maxwell’s Sacred Stacks. Nancy’s premise is that librarianship has a similar effect on individuals as ministry and priesthood, and that there are roles that we play within the profession that approximate the types of experiences associated with clergy. But the primary element in this equation really is the feeling of “the call.” That librarians are people with a calling, who come to being a librarian because they have a passion for this type of service work.
True, not every library or library staff member is filled with the spirit of library science. There are those who never had that, for whom this is just a job. There are those who had it and lost it, for various reasons, who have died inside and retired in place. There are those who had it beaten out of them from poor management. And there are those who have just plateaued and figure that their work is “just good enough and no thank you I’m not interested in anything else.”
But then there are those who have it, who get it, and who strive to make this an even more wonderful and vibrant place. Who drag themselves to the office and push through the work even when they should be resting. They come in on off days to prep for programs. They read and write blogs in their spare time. They are constantly talking, dreaming, visioning and living for the next day to come so they can jump back in. These are the people we need in libraries; the passionate ones, the dreamers, the experimenters, the revolutionaries, the ones who will go the extra mile and beyond.
In the Atlantic Lane Wallace has a wonderful piece about why, even in the toughest times, you should follow your passion and never compromise. I couldn’t agree more. My post-undergraduate life had me temping and then getting hired on by Chiquita Banana to do export paperwork for two years. I lost my soul in that job and only when I went to library school did I feel like I reclaimed my sense of self. After that experience working against my passion I swore I would never do that to myself again. The emotional and psychological cost was too high.
When I got out of grad school the job search for me took about four months from graduation to actually being hired as a librarian. Sadly, this is somewhat normal. But I had no unemployment checks to draw, since I was a college student. I had no job, and refused to take one unless it was in my field. This led to me foraging for fruit in Seattle, losing my apartment, couchsurfing at my friend Ken’s place and having my mother pay my cell phone bill so that I could wait expectantly for that call. There was a time somewhere in that bleary period of jobless/homelessness that I considered going back to shipping. But I said no, held out, and eventually I got the call. It was my passion for the profession that kept me believing, and in the end it’s what earned me a position in federal service.
The world would be a very different place if we followed our hearts and not our paychecks.
I think I like that world more.