At one time I lived very close to the Field Museum of Chicago; I had a membership and spent a good deal of time there. One evening, about ten minutes before closing, I noticed that workmen had begun preparing the first floor for an evening event. I had a panoramic view from where I stood at the second floor balcony, and what I saw has stuck with me ever since.
What I saw was a lone man setting up tables and chairs – simple work, the kind that any teenager could do. But what I watched this man do was every bit as beautiful as dance. He moved with integrity, with precision, and with intent. He carefully spaced the tables in a precise geometry, he moved every chair with efficiency. This was more than just work; it was also art. This man knew that he was doing his job well, and, perhaps most importantly, heenjoyed doing it well.
I was transfixed by it all, and I stood there until the guards asked me to leave. And even then, I moved very slowly until I lost sight of him.
There is real beauty in doing a job well, even a simple job. It is our great loss that this form of beauty is never mentioned in public these days – double-sad, because at one time, such beautywas acknowledged.
This brings us to an obvious question: What happened? How did we lose the beauty and dignity of work? I’ll answer that in a moment, but first I want to explain what I mean by “theproductive class.”
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The productive class includes all those people who are engaged in improving life upon Earth: The people who build and repair our cars, our houses, and our computers. The people who provide us with air conditioning, electricity, plumbing, and food. The people who make, clean, and repair our clothing. The people who treat our sicknesses and wounds.
If you can drive around town and point out places where you repaired things, or delivered things, or fed people, or made human life better in any of a thousand ways, you are a producer.
If you survive and persist at the expense of others, on the other hand, you are not a producer.
But if you are a producer, there is an inherent dignity in what you do. You are actively making the world better. You are directly creating benefit for yourself and for other human beings. What you do every day is morally virtuous and worthy of respect. And you should never let anyone tell you otherwise.
And, it’s worth pointing out: Money is not a measure of your worth. In a perfect world, that might be true, but this isn’t a perfect world. In our time, morality and money don’t always travel together.
Money is certainly useful, and getting it should matter to you, but merely having money is no measure of your dignity or your value as a producer. Actively improving the world, however – producing – is a proper measure of dignity.