What E’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part

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Over the door of a building that sits close to the Stirling Castle in southern Scotland, hangs a curious stone designed by John Allan, a 19th century architect known for his peculiar designs, as well as including inscriptions in his work.

At the top of this particular piece, Allan had carved a quote typically attributed to Shakespeare: “What e’er thou art, act well thy part.” Below the quotation sits a grid of nine squares, each bearing different symbols and shapes.


The design forms what is called a “magic square.” Each of the symbols represents a numerical value, and no matter which way you add the numbers up, they always total 18. If any of the numbers are moved or replaced with another, the tiles will no longer add up to 18, and the square will lose its “magic.” Each symbol has an irreplaceable part to play in contributing to the whole.

I have a replica of the Stirling stone sitting in my office. It reminds me that whatever part I have to play in my family, community, or work — whether it’s a big role or a seemingly minor one — it’s up to me to carry out my responsibilities the very best I can. The Stirling stone also reminds me that true happiness and fulfillment in life comes not from being recognized, but from beinguseful to the world around me.

For any group or culture to function as it was intended and reach its full potential, everyone must pull their own weight, from those doing the “grunt” work to those at the top of the pile. The idea that you should do your best – even in the small and obscure roles of life —  isn’t a particularly sexy principle, but one much needed in our world.

All Good Work Is Important

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In our modern life, “acting well thy part” in whatever station life finds you in often takes a back seat to the idea of being “passionate” about what you do. According to this popular notion, to find true meaning and fulfillment, you need to work at something you were “made to do.” If your work doesn’t spring from your “deep inner truth” or if it isn’t fun, then it’s not a job worth doing. In general, the type of work that one can be passionate about is thought to be limited to creative, white-collar careers – tech, art, media, and the like. Leave the other boring and mindless work to the poor unenlightened saps, or so the thinking goes.

But as Dirty Jobs TV host Mike Rowe pointed out in a TED talk, all work has value. And any kind of work – even the “dirty” kind – can bring you happiness, even if you’re not passionate about it. The people he worked with on his show, from road kill retrievers to manure cultivators, were the happiest people he had ever met. Why were they so content? Because, as Rowe intoned before each episode, they earned “an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

The folks he interacted with didn’t do “sexy” jobs, but they were satisfied in knowing they had an absolutely essential role in keeping society humming along. Like removing a single tile from the magic square, if you take one of these “dirty” jobs out of the equation, things start to fall apart and society no longer “adds up.”

These folks were more concerned about being useful to society than having an “important,” passion-filled job.

The essential nature of work is not limited to those who use a shovel and a pickaxe. Every job big and small, unique or ordinary, when done well, can add to society and enrich the lives of other people. A waiter can think of himself as just someone who serves food to people, or he can think of himself as someone who gives a pair of harried parents welcome relief and enjoyment on their first date night out in a year. A nurse tech can see himself as just cleaning up after patients, or he can see himself as offering encouragement, positivity, and humor to those who are often in pain. We’ve all experienced the huge gap between those who simply do their job, and those who “act well their part.” The latter carry out their responsibilities, whatever they are, to the best of their ability.

American playwright Channing Pollock expounded on this principle 70 years ago:

“Naturally, all of us “want to do something important, but few of us realize that we are probably doing it in our everyday jobs. We have fallen into the habit of thinking that the only important jobs are the “glamor” jobs, or at least the white-collar jobs — the executive jobs. But the essential work of the world isn’t done by jazz-band leaders and radio and movie stars, or even by bond salesmen and our more than three hundred thousand doctors and lawyers. It is done by the man with the hoe and the hammer, by the women who care for those men and their children and their homes, and by millions of other men and women who range from the teacher’s desk to the more coveted desks littered with phones and push buttons.

We are all workmen, and it seems to me that almost any work well done is important. Our civilization is a complicated machine, and machines wouldn’t be worth much if they were made only of shiny gadgets. There must be grease cups and all sorts of “minor” parts. Take out the smallest of these and you’ll soon find that there’s no such thing as a minor part. In the same way, if your water pipes burst, or your telephone goes wrong, or, passing to still more urgent matters, if you found yourself without food or water, you’d discover the plumber, the lineman, the mechanic and the farmer to be just as important as the general manager or the president of the board. Each has his place, and it takes more than a silk hat or a spotlight or a name on the door to make that place vital.

What it takes chiefly, perhaps, is interest and pride in your work. The fellow with a future isn’t often the one who scorns what he is doing at present. He’s the man who thinks his job is important, and so goes on to ever more important jobs.

Few of us understand what a big job a little job may be. The schoolteacher who started Edison thinking about electricity, or laid the mental cornerstones of any other conspicuously or inconspicuously useful citizen, may have said, “What’s being a schoolma’am? I want to do something important.” My friend, Richard, the carpenter, thinks me a very superior person because I lecture and write articles, but we could do better without lectures and articles, perhaps, than without houses. The English poet, Owen Meredith, reminded us that “we may live without books, but civilized man cannot live without cooks” — and that takes in Mr. Richard.

All good work is important. And loyalty, and kindness, and small helpfulness is important, too. There used to be an elevator man at the Lamb’s Club, in New York, who went far out of his way to be pleasant and useful to its members. When he died, not long ago, one of them told me, “Pat’s funeral was our biggest demonstration of respect since the passing of Victor Herbert.” There’s Edgar, the soda-water clerk who used to be at our corner, and who was so full of neighborly advice and eagerness to be everybody’s friend and handyman that we really mourned him when he moved away. My own personal list of important people would include him, and dozens of other friends who are farmers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.

It isn’t your job that counts, but what you do in your job…When President Roosevelt declared we needed fifty thousand planes for national defense, an authority said the problem was to supply ground crews. We all want to fly, but few of us want to tighten bolts. Yet without men to build and repair planes and men to bring fuel the flyer is as earthbound as they, and it isn’t important whether we have fifty thousand pilots or five.

That realization is vital to ourselves, and to progress and survival. I can ruin any morning’s work by asking, ‘What the use of this in a civilization that may be crumbling about our ears?’ I can make the morning glad, and the work good, by answering ‘Civilization won’t crumble while we all do our jobs. If I write as well and honestly as I can, how do I know whom it may help, or how many? How do I know that mine isn’t one of the most important jobs in the world?’

How do you know yours isn’t too?”

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