Right Livelihood

By Michael Phillips
The Briarpatch Book (1978)
The Briarpatch Network

Right Livelihood is one of the hottest issues I’ve seen lately. Talks and workshops on the subject are on a “standing room only” basis. I think there has been a significant shift in work values. In the past it was considered reasonable for people to develop a marketable skill and pursue a career that would earn them enough money to do the things they really wanted to do. People worked at their jobs so they could do the things they wanted on weekends, go where they wanted on vacations and in some cases earn enough to retire “early” and then do what they wanted. Now our peers are saying, “That’s nonsense; why should I do something I don’t like 70% of my life so I can do what I want 30%?” They want to combine what they enjoy doing with their livelihood.

The Tough Question
Now that more people are thinking about doing, working at, and being what they want, the really tough question becomes, “What do I want?” The person who goes camping every weekend doesn’t necessarily want to be a forest ranger, nor does the weekend sailor want to be in the merchant marines. Hobbies, interests, and avocations don’t always translate directly into full-time activity. Finding right livelihood is difficult and takes plenty of time, often many years. Right livelihood is a concept found in Buddhism (one of the eight-fold paths), Sufism, and early Christianity. It is part of a whole view, part of being a whole person. It is a fundamental element in the Briarpatch. We want people to enjoy what they are doing fully, and to do it for the intrinsic rewards.

My personal list of the qualities that describe right livelihood are as follows (and are necessarily sketchy): First, it should be an area of great passion. Second, right livelihood is something you can spend your life doing. Third, it should be something that serves the community. And last, it should be totally appropriate to you.

Passion in your work? I list it first as a criterion for right livelihood because it conveys the sense of excitement, joy and fun that being alive is all about. The whole person will feel the passion of life and the excitement of living if it is part of his or her continual day-to-day livelihood. Most of the time right livelihood means you get up and look forward to the day with the same excitement that we feel on vacations. That means hours that fit us, people with whom we feel happy, light, air and humor.

Spend your life doing something? This means the livelihood should have within it the room for your constant curiosity; it must give you room to keep learning, to grow in compassion; and it should offer you challenges that will try you and yet appeal to you time and again. Most livelihoods actually have this potential, whether it is garbage collecting or systems programming, because the range of subtle and delicate refinements is always present; but often it is the coworkers, the prevailing social attitudes of the company’s day-to-day environment that keep this from happening.

Service is a vital quality of right livelihood. You should feel that you are completely serving the community in what you do or you will have a longing as you get older to do something else and may have regrets. You should not be doing one thing and feeling that others, nurses or psychiatrists, do more for people than you. But nearly every livelihood has enormous potential to serve people, and you will be serving people best when you are using your unique skills most fully.

A Challenge
Using your unique skills totally is both a criterion and a challenge because the answer to it will lead to your right livelihood. Many people aren’t sure what their unique skills are or how they can be used in the most fulfilling way. Personal skill inventories and reviews of experience and interests can be helpful, but if you aren’t already certain of what your right livelihood is, you must give yourself the time and space to try many things. Many livelihoods have to be created, and many require long years of apprenticeship and practice. Each of us needs the diligence and sensitivity of an artist in practicing and striving to find the qualities within us that we can uniquely use.