Joel Sumner Smith

Product Manager @Gatsby focused on developer experience.
Analogical thinker in an analytical world.

Letters

On Working

“Measure the days you have left. / Do just that labour which marries / your heart to your right hand” Omeros, Derek Walcott

I was pretty stupid when I first read Walcott’s poem. I might have been only 21 or 22, but regardless of my naivety, these particular lines really struck. They struck me so hard that I couldn’t finish a run for weeks. Pounding away on a treadmill in my college’s gym, I’d say to myself “Does this work marry your right hand to your heart?” Of course, the answer was always “No.”

The good thing about poetry, though, is that it’s memorable. It sticks around in your mind on account of things like rhythm, rhyme, and remarkable imagery. And so for me, luckily, these lines stuck around longer than my short-term naivety about their meaning.

As I grew out of that youthful version of myself, I’ve recalled and thought about these particular lines more than once. Carrying them with me, I came to the realization that Walcott provided, for me, a simple metric for the work that I do on a daily basis, what we might call my career or even vocation. And in the arc of my life, that mattered quite a bit.

A big part of growing out of that youthful self was getting my first attempt at a career completely wrong. I started off my adult life as a high-school English teacher, one whose head was full of noble ideas and classical texts. But if you’ve ever seen the inside of a high school English classroom, especially the one where I was teaching, these were not the right tools for job. I adapted, of course: I learned to speak the right language, learned to meet my students where they were, learned to give administrators just the right amount of attention. But it still wasn’t clicking.

The real disconnect, as I soon discovered, was between my passion and the actual work I was doing. I spent almost all of my free time exploring other ambitions that were, at best, tangential to my day job: technology, writing, reading, even building. I was clearly not interested in what I was doing. My work, in Walcott’s words, was not that kind that “marries your right hand to your heart.” My work was divorced from my heart. Something had to give.

In retrospect, it was stashing those lines of poetry away that really lead me to do anything about my apparent career mistake. Knowing that our days measured—always shorter than we suppose—I listened to my own discontent and began looking for a career that would reunite my heart with the work of my hands. And that’s a move I would make again, every time.

© 2020, Joel Sumner Smith