Advice From Toni Morrison: "You Are Not Your Work"

Photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.

Not everyone has the honor of including Toni Morrison among their close friends or favorite phone contacts. Fortunately, in the absence of having the Nobel Prize-winning writer on speed dial, you can check out some of her words of wisdom about work in the June 5 issue of The New Yorker.

In "The Work You Do, The Person You Are," Morrison writes about the pride she took in contributing to her family's income from a young age. She earned $2 in exchange for doing housework after school for a well-to-do woman, and Morrison's perspective about her standing in her own household expanded through that work. Making her own money not only enabled her to buy the things she wanted to buy for herself — "movies, candy, paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones" — but it also gave her an elevated sense of purpose and importance. The money she earns goes toward paying off an insurance-policy payment, or to the men who bring their milk and ice. "The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound," she writes.

Eventually, as the demands of Morrison's employer grow (and, it seems, her level of mistreatment), Morrison says that she feels stuck between challenging those requests and possibly getting fired, or telling her mother about her increasing unhappiness and being advised to quit. After she finally lets a few complaints slip to her father, he gives her adult advice instead of the kid-glove treatment. In part: "Go to work. Get your money. And come on home."

Morrison's takeaways from that include: "Whatever the work is, do it well. You make the job; it doesn't make you," and perhaps most importantly, "You are not the work you do; you are the person you are."

It's true that in contrast to the 1940s, when Morrison was growing up, not as many children today are valued in part for the work that they do (and the income they bring in) for their families. However, most working people of any age can probably relate to acute difficulty in separating their work lives from personal ones. On weekdays, Americans typically spend nine hours at work, so it's easier than ever to derive a sense of worth both from the kind of work you do, as well as your ability to do it well. But deriving all of your self-esteem from that one place will hit a fault line at some point.

"Do [the work] well ... for yourself" is about being good at what you do in order to support yourself financially, but it's also about developing the confidence that comes from Morrison's second lesson: Knowing that you bring You to whatever work you do; you are not a human byproduct — a mix of work-derived esteem and end-of-day energy — from the jobs you do. Maintaining your relationships with the communities you have outside of work can help you remember your capability, and your humanity. This lesson is particularly resonant for Black Americans, who would necessarily be seen as sub-human if they defined themselves by the historical work they have done in this country.

I thought of this exact point few years ago after seeing An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; the is an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama about the owners and residents (read: slaves) of a Louisiana plantation. In Jacobs-Jenkins' modernized retelling, which mixes the high register of language at that time with very modern slang, there's a scene in which one character tries to cheer up her friend, a fellow slave, by saying, "You are not your job." It's an incredibly funny/horrifying/poignant moment that obviously challenges the audience to consider the way we talk and learn about enslaved people and their own stories, but it also pushes the audience to think about the way we define work as a whole, and how we allow the nature of work and of certain kinds of jobs to define other people and ourselves.

As Morrison says at the end of her piece, jobs come and go, as do employers with all kinds of personalities, talents, and managerial skills, but you have to be with yourself for a lifetime, whatever job you have. Your own value as a person extends well beyond the clock.