Purpose and Play

My son’s shoes are now bigger than mine, and I sometimes grab his hoodie for a quick dash outside. I am no longer the mother of a small child. When I see pregnant colleagues in the hallway I bite my tongue so the stories of my own pregnancy and time with my baby don’t spill out – it seems so recent to me, but it was so long ago in baby time. Everything has changed.

Seeing my big boy on the brink of big things (like middle school, heaven help us) makes me think of life stages, and how his passage through the second half of childhood marks my passage, too. When my son graduates from college in ten or so years – one never knows, does one? – I will be free to chose a different professional path if I want to, one that holds risks and rewards I feel I can’t afford now, what with college and retirement to save for. But in ten years, who knows? What do I want to do then?

This week I am reading a book called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. I thought I was reading it to help my son through his next life stage, but I think I’m reading it to help me plan mine. The book is about the rat race that high school and college have become, and the insane pressure upper middle class kids are under to get into a “good” college, meaning one of a hundred or so schools whose names we generally recognize and say “oh, yeah, that’s a good school!” Deresiewicz believes kids would be better served by slowing down, doing less, getting B’s, and going to less competitive schools where they give themselves time and space to learn deeply and figure out what gives them purpose, and then go do that. Sounds good to me.

But wait. I did do that, once upon a time, but am I doing that now? Is my work full of purpose? I felt vaguely uneasy reading that book in bed the night before going back to work after a long weekend, unenthusiastic about the work I’d walk into when I opened my office door the next morning. Does that lack of enthusiasm, that lack of passion in the moment, mean I’ve lost my sense of purpose? Have I somehow lost my path, lost my way?

Maybe not. Last night as I kept reading, Deresiewicz and the sages he quoted reminded me that work, for the most part, will always feel like work. Just because we find meaning and purpose in work doesn’t mean it feels like play. We aren’t doing it wrong just because we don’t always want to do it. This was important for me to read, as I think about whether I want to do what I now do for the next ten years, and then what I want to do after that.

“I want to do work with purpose” is an entirely different thing than “I only want to play.” One is the desire of a grown up, and the other is the wish of a child. For a moment there, reading Deresiewicz’s heady words about passion and purpose I conflated the two.

I can’t yet say what I’ll do ten years from now, when I anticipate my financial and child-rearing responsibilities will shift. But I can begin to plan for it, to think about it, to dream of it. What perhaps I can set aside is the belief that what I do must feel like play, must be enjoyable in each and every moment. Maybe a career is a bit like taking care of a baby: the moment-to-moment can feel like drudgery, but the whole of it is somehow transcendent. It may not be play, but it is full of purpose. And maybe that is enough.

2 thoughts on “Purpose and Play

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  1. Hi Lisa! As always, thank you for your generosity and insight. Another good book for putting things (particularly related to higher education) in perspective is How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims.


    1. Thanks, Rebecca! I actually found Excellent Sheep by reading How to Raise an Adult. I really liked them both – Excellent Sheep seems more philosophical, while How to Raise and Adult inspired me to make my son get off his duff and pour his own milk. Both really wonderful, I thought!


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