How to Do Work That Matters

Most of us have a deep desire to do work that matters. We want to create something that makes the world more beautiful, more just, more joyful. We want to leave a mark on the world. We want to know that our lives have mattered.

Yet most of our work falls short. Our work is not even worth noticing, let alone capable of changing the world. We begin to grow frustrated at our inability to produce anything worthwhile.

We begin to despair that our lives will really matter.

fallen leaf

Leaf, by Niggle

J.R.R. Tolkien knew these frustrations well. He spent sixteen years writing the first volume of The Lords of the Rings. Then halfway through the second volume, he stalled for over a year. For a long while, he despaired that he would ever finish his master work. He worried that his great vision of Middle Earth would never live in the imaginations of others. Tolkien eventually exorcised his despair by writing about it in a short, brilliant story called “Leaf, by Niggle.”

Niggle was a painter. He wasn’t a very good painter, but he tried hard to create beauty. He was very good at painting leaves, but what he really wanted to paint was a whole tree. He had in his mind an image of a grand tree, multi-branched and deep-rooted in a sunlit landscape. This image inspired Niggle to begin his great picture, his masterpiece.

Unfortunately, Niggle had a needy neighbor, Parish, with a lame leg. Parish didn’t appreciate Niggle’s painting, and Niggle often had to help Parish out. Niggle resented Parish’s interruptions, but he helped his neighbor anyway. He also hosted frequent visitors, though his vision haunted him all through their stay. Because of the interruptions, in the end Niggle’s masterpiece amounted to a single leaf, a single perfect leaf on an enormous, blank canvas.

Doing Work That Matters

Niggle’s situation is very familiar to us, and we can learn several lessons from him about doing work that matters:

1. Have a great vision. Though Niggle never finishes his great tree, his vision that inspires his work. His great lifework was a perfect leaf. This was a far smaller work than he intended, but it was made possible by his enormous vision. By aiming for perfection on a grand scale, Niggle managed to paint perfection on a tiny scale. Niggle’s great vision empowers all his work, even though he never realizes its entirety.

What is your great vision? Is it a book, a painting, an institution? Do you seek to make the world more beautiful, more holy, more just? Thomas Chalmers once said, “No matter how large your vision, it is still too small.” Imagine your masterpiece, and make the canvas so big that you’ll need a ladder to paint it all.

2. Be interruptible. Niggle doesn’t realize it at first, but Parish’s interruptions shape Niggle into a better painter. Every time Niggle helps his neighbor, he is being sculpted. Serving his neighbor strengthens Niggle’s love and empathy. Later in the story Niggle is able to continue his work, and he finds that his knowledge and memory of Parish helps him complete his masterwork. In short, Niggle becomes a better painter by allowing his painting to be interrupted.  His artistic vision is sharper because he sees his neighbor when he creates.  What’s more, the interruptions shape Niggle into a better human, reminding him that he has work to do as a neighbor not just as a painter.

How about you? Do you see interruptions as the enemy or the ally of your great work? Do you respond to interruptions with frustration or gratitude?

3. Paint the tree, but be content with a leaf. At first, Niggle despairs that his life’s work amounts to nothing but a single leaf. So much time and vision wasted! Later in the story, however, Niggle’s understanding of his work changes. Seeing his perfect leaf in its proper setting, he lifts his arms and exclaims, “It’s a gift!” He realizes that the leaf he painted had been given to him by another. Though he had a greater vision, all he had been given was a leaf. So, he turned around and gave what he had been given to others. And he was content.

In all of our work, we must aim for the tree, but be content with a leaf or two. Doing work that matters in this world means giving to others what we were given. The vision is a gift, and so is the leaf. Because they are gifts, we are grateful. Because they are gifts, we use them to bless others.

What About Your Work?

Tolkien’s story has a lot more to say about work and many other things. I recommend you read it sometime. In the meantime, take a minute and think through your own work.

  1. What is your great vision, your great tree?
  2. How do interruptions (neighbors, family, work, health) actually help you pursue your master work?
  3. Do you receive your work as a gift? Do you give your work away as a gift?

How did you answer these questions? Feel free to share some or all of your answers in the comments below.