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How do we make work meaningful? Lead with the heart.

As I’ve released music over the last months, I’ve become aware of my need to express my feelings and thoughts, and my need for others to listen. As I look at the world around me, I see that these creative and communicative impulses are not unique to me. 

In fact, I’ve come to believe that they are universal. As expressive, feeling, thinking creatures, we each have a need to make the contents of our hearts and minds manifest in the world. As social creatures, we each have a need to share these expressions with others, to receive acknowledgment, and to learn about other people’s experiences, so that we might compare and learn from them.

Giving in many forms

As humans, we communicate our feelings and thoughts in creations of many forms: conversations and experiences, paintings and songs, structures to live in and community to live with. When we communicate honestly, the work holds something of our hearts. 

Any kind of work can be heart-led work. It doesn’t matter whether we’re working on minute details or broad plans, whether we’re working with physical materials or people. When we approach our work with generosity and curiosity, our souls may enter into it. When we lead with our hearts, we may each become artists.

As a person and an artist, I feel that I need to put my heart into my work. When someone else receives it and shows me what it means to them, I feel a thrill as the circle of giving becomes complete. 

Resonance

When we make things, we want them to resonate with others: we hope our friend will like our book recommendation, our student will understand the lesson we’re teaching them, our family will enjoy the meal we cooked. We want to be seen. 

When we honestly put ourselves into the work we give, it’s more likely that it will resonate with others. They may recognize a familiar experience, a current situation, or their aspirations for the future. 

What turns a mundane task into heart-led work? What are the obstacles to reaching that level of depth? And should all work be heart-led work?

What makes work heart-led work?

Heart-led work starts with honesty. It is the process of exploring and communicating real thoughts and feelings. It’s a continual process, in which we get closer to the truth as we remove the blindfolds that prevent us from seeing out into the world and into the depths of ourselves. As we understand more about our experiences and practice communicating them, we sharpen our tools for communication, and become better able to share accurately in our chosen medium.

Heart-led work is risky, because it takes time and effort to understand what’s inside of us and communicate it well. We may fail to communicate accurately. Even if we succeed, others may misunderstand or reject our work. Because heart-led work doesn’t always follow comfortable patterns, its reception is uncertain.

Heart-less work

Transactional work, done with less heart, is often necessary to do. It includes work done according to tradition or plans that have been demonstrated to be effective. Systems demand that people within them follow the orders and formulas that work. 

Even in areas where the orders are not specified, it’s tempting to make our work as transactional as we can: it feels predictable and safe, but it doesn’t fully engage our emotions or minds. It allows us to turn on our emotional autopilot and not show ourselves or take risks. 

The path of heart-less work is not usually fulfilling, and in the worst situations can become drudgery to the worker and sterile to the people it’s meant to serve.

One might object that some kinds of work must be done without creativity or heart. The bricks of a building must be laid according to the architect’s plans! The software must be created according to the specifications! In every life, there are inevitable tasks that must be done according to instructions. How can we bring heart-led expression into these situations?

We can look for ways to innovate. The bricklayer might seek perfection in the mix of their mortar or the stroke of their spade. They might look for ways to make the process more efficient. The engineer might seek elegance and simplicity in their code.

We can appreciate the work that has less meaning, and save our energy for the heart-led work that follows: helping a neighbor, connecting with a friend, teaching a colleague. 

Why do heart-led work?

Within the scope of our work, shouldn’t we aim to put our hearts into everything we can? Heart-led creations mean more to us and to the people receiving them. They are the things we value most, the ones that make life worthwhile, the ones we seek contact with and build communities around.