Zen or the Art of Making a Living


Zen or the Art of Making a LivingA Practical Guide to Creative Career Design, New York: Penguin Arkana, 1993, New and Updated Edition, 1999 (Quotes are from the Original Edition).

Zen or the Art of Making a Living by Laurence G. Boldt is a highly useful career guide, and at the same time more than a career guide.

Laurence G. Boldt is not just an excellent coach; he also comes over as a wise man. His many years of studying Zen and Taoism left their traces in this extraordinary book, and it’s more than a book—it’s crafted, an art work.  In the present case, Penguin did an excellent editing job. The book is one of the most cherished I have in my library. I read it twice, entirely, and filled out all the worksheets, and still sometimes just look through it to read quotes or contemplate the wonderful reproductions of Japanese and Chinese ink art and calligraphy.

Let me comment a few quotes from the text, so that you can learn appreciating the style Boldt writes in, a style I find easy and inspiring to read.

The central focus, to begin with, in Boldt’s art of career coaching is his definition of work as art. He explains at the onset of the book:

For many who came to me seeking career guidance, a better job (as defined by pay and benefits alone) was not enough. There was a real desire for a broader conception of work—one that would reflect the spiritual as well as the material life of man. My search for such a vision of work let me finally to the notion of work as art, the unique creative expression of the individual./xii

What this book is about can be described as: life, work, love, relationships—and energy! It’s the energy input that lifts you out of a standard life and triggers your quantum leap to a first-hand life. Without energy input, to be honest, you won’t create anything worthwhile in either of these fields. What does that mean, energy input?

It means vision, dedication, commitment, and persistence. This will be all at your disposition at a condition: you must come to consider work as your life’s unique fulfillment or dharma, to use the old expression from the Far East. You will naturally find out that this won’t be the case with any kind of work, when you come with an attitude to ‘just find a job.’ It is the result of an inner journey that gets you in touch with your soul desire which will dictate your true life’s work. It’s up to you of course if you obey to this inner voice, this inner call, as Joseph Campbell put it, or if you refuse to listen.

Very modestly so, Boldt refers to his book as a transition resource book, but I can testify that it’s much more than that:

This book is, of course, a transition resource book and hardly the last word. It provides a technology for applying a love-inspired orientation toward work within the existing economic, educational, and social structures. We might add that these structures do not, for the most part, encourage one to be oneself to serve one’s fellow man in a spirit of love and beauty./xiv

The important detail in this quote is that Boldt speaks of a ‘love-inspired’ orientation toward work, and here we get to the core of his message. It namely shows the reader right at the start that this attitude toward work is not one you find in selfhelp manuals with their quick fixes ‘for getting a job’; actually, none of Boldt’s books is a quick fix manual—fortunately so. The author states that when you just want a job that pays your bills, you are living with a bottomline paradigm that will lead you nowhere. Where there is no vision, the people perish, says the Bible.

Yet, if we are not builders, if our dreams are not given the shape, form, and substance of living reality, then they are nothing more than phantoms and platitudes, the mirages we chase to escape a world we are unwilling to confront and love. The true idealist is no dewy-eyed dreamer, but a committed foot soldier in the cause of his vision./xxii

Ego-bound living with all its limitations is one of the core issues of being jobless, or for going along with a pay-job over decades. What is ego? Let us be careful with jumping to a definition, for it’s not that easy. Let’s try to approach the question by asking what is not ego. Can we say that what we do with passion and love, we do without ego? I think most people would agree with that. Boldt metaphorically depicts the ego as the ‘little king’ in us:

We were promised that we would be little kings, and yet it seems we have so little control over the direction of our lives. The little king is a prisoner of his own freedom—from responsibility and conscience. His inner life is barren and hollow; his humanity, atrophied; his creativity, flat./xxxiii

Today it is common to raise children like little princes and princesses; however, spoiling children is not conducive to bringing out the best in a human. We want to face reality, not standard reality. Children want to grow in autonomy, and not in entanglement with their parents and educators. The more we keep children tight, the more we infantilize them, the more we render them inapt for mastering their lives and careers.

All is set and setting in life, and especially work. All work is imbedded in a culture, and to work in San Francisco is not the same as working in Bangkok or Rome, and it requires different attitudes and experiences. On the other hand, it’s true that international lifestyle standardizes job expectations more and more, and that we are gradually heading into a globalized job environment. In this overall grasp of the globe by international business culture, some values may get lost. Boldt writes:

Today, even art has become commercialized. It has become a tool for profit and, therefore, a means for better controlling the environment, rather than the revelation of deep inner experience./xxxvii

There is a spiritual quest to be felt throughout the book, expressed by the author appealing to his audience to be cautious with applying standard consumer values to their lives. He puts the focus throughout this book on our inner life, our individual values, and our special gifts and talents.

You are to depend on society for its evaluation of your sanity—measured, not in terms of the ancient wisdom or sacred psychologies, but in terms of normality—the sharing of the society-dominant world view./xliv

Boldt means here that when you want to survive as an individual in a highly labeling society, you must not look at normalcy, but in the contrary at what is unusual, what is exceptional, what is extra-ordinary in the real sense of the word—outside of the ordinary. And you have to mold your self-vision accordingly, because if you envision yourself as an ‘in-fitter’, you are done as a creative individual.

Boldt’s cultural criticism is not a per-se item in the book but it serves to open our critical mind so that we are able to build true autonomy, that we become self-reliant, and acknowledge the value of our individual difference.

The Roman Catholic tradition epitomizes the king model. Early Roman Catholic churches were called Basilicas, or royal houses. The Pope wears a crown and carries a staff; you kneel to kiss his ring. I once saw the Pope entering Saint Peter’s at the Vatican. There he was with all his attendants—being carried slowly down the aisle on a palanquin—the Swiss Guards standing sharply at attention. When at last he sat upon the throne, the entire congregation broke into applause. This is a king. The Pope standing in for King God. The accent in this model is on authority and decrees issues from on high./lii

These images are mediatized and become almost archetypal, and they also become models of behavior, as they are part of our collective unconscious. If you are driven by them, you won’t be able to manifest your creative difference through your life’s work. As long as you play hide-and-seek with yourself, you remain shallow, disinterested, uncommitted, scant and superficial. And if you are like most people, you will not get to do the work you love and love the love you cherish, for your distinction must come prior to your job search, it must come from the whole of your being, not just your so-called ‘professional life’, which is a mask, just like other masks we are all wearing.

Now, what does it mean to look at life the way non-ordinary people look at it? Boldt gives a hint, and his example really is well-put:

To describe Michelangelo’s David as a marble statue of a Hebrew king in his youth gives you the facts, but none of the spirit or emotional power of the work. To say that Don Quixote is the story of a madman wandering about in hallucination strips it of the power, spirit, and art of its message. It is no less ridiculous to reduce your life to a set of facts. You are not your place of birth, your height, weight, or degrees, your résumé, or credit history. You are a being of spirit, emotional power, and intelligence./6

Boldt has a wonderful sense of humor and that makes reading this book such an adventure! To look at art as a soul experience, and from a soul perspective, and not from a material, object-centered perspective is what makes the difference. Boldt explains:

Many today would have us believe that art is for the cultured few—the museum hounds and the wine and cheese set. The implication is that art is too good to be contaminated with the vulgar business of living. While art is safely locked away from the soiling hands of the common man, the greatest vulgarity of all is perpetuated. Art is reduced to an investment commodity. In the name of protection (from the masses), art has become a favorite form of capital speculation. /37

When we see how the business worldview distorts the meaning of life, and of art, we get a feel for taking care of our real values, instead of selling ourselves for pseudo-values. The moment you take the perspective of looking at yourself as a precious and unique individual, you will probably stop taking your life as an assembler-machine of labels, and you will start to reflect upon your uniqueness. And then, Boldt says, you become the hero, after your have shifted your self-vision:

The Hero decides for himself what to focus his attention on (what is important), and in so doing, what the story of his life will be about./50

When you decide for yourself instead of leaving it up to society to decide for you, you take charge of your life, you become response-able for your living experience and all that it involves, including your love life.

Work and love, love and work, are one unit. Boldt emphasizes this over and over in all his books. Love is not that big word without meaning our media suggest it was; it no word, but simply pure meaning. Does your work have meaning for you? Before this can happen, Boldt says, you have to begin asking questions, and not let society ask the questions for you. It’s by asking questions to yourself that you get answers, not by taking over answers from others.

What distinguishes the hero from the rest is that he or she chooses the questions and earnestly seeks them; the rest blindly, and often half-heartedly, follow the conventional questions of their society./91

I shall stop here with this review, but not without mentioning that for Boldt imagination is a very important ingredient in the toolbox you need to build for realizing a meaningful career.

Imagination is not very much stressed as a value in our present educational system, and so we are called upon to develop it against the stream, so to speak, or by recovering our younger self of the past, which surely was a very imaginative child:

Contemplating—seeing through the game—allows you to reclaim your imaginative power. You are free to use your imagination to build a life born out of the impulses of your own creative center. You put your faith in your creative intuitions and capacities rather than in the hope of some future reward or fear of some future punishment. You see your happiness in expressing what you are, not in gaining approval or avoiding its loss./223

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