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Where Did Your Right Livelihood Come From? -- By Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

After I was thrown out of journalism school at the University of Missouri (long story involving activism and graphic design gone bad), my 20-year-old self shrugged with relief because I had a double major in history, and more specifically labor history. I had always been drawn to poetry and meaning, especially in how we tracked true to our passions while earning enough to keep the electricity on and some tasty vittles in the fridge.

Although I grew up in a middle class family where I was encouraged to dream big about what I going to do to support myself, I also worked from an early age, starting as a barker for my dad's stand selling plus-size polyester pants and tops at the biggest flea market at the time in the country. At age 14, I was tagging clothes in the evenings and working 12-hour days in all kinds of weather at the Englishtown Auction in central New Jersey. I also accompanied my dad regularly to the garment district of New York City, close to the stamp shop he ran with my grandfather, to buy IRs -- irregulars (slightly damaged clothes) -- for the auction.

Between watching people work long days and a hard life selling everything from kitchen sinks to tube socks to French fries at the auction and watching long lines of immigrant women speed-sewing double-knit polyester pants in too-hot or too-cold factories, I got a glimpse of life that otherwise might have eluded me. When, after a fight with my father, I suddenly had to cover the cost of my college education, I was already primed to apply for dozens of jobs until I had enough minimum wage paychecks to keep me in cheap burritos and substandard housing.

It became increasingly clear to me, especially when studying labor history, how much what we did for a living infused almost every aspect of our lives, whether we brought our work home with us or carried work-related dilemmas to puzzle out in our heads or just were too exhausted to do more than heat up something quick in a microwave and fall asleep on the couch.

All of this stayed with me, and I ended up working for a stretch as a labor journalist, learning even more, among my myriad of jobs (waitress, day laborer, typesetter, nonprofit Jill-of-all-trades, freelance writer, college teacher, and more).

I eventually realized my passions for livelihood reform, poetry, and the living earth actually weren't on opposite ends of some distant triangle. Then again, the older we get, the more we can integrate what we love and see what comes of it. When I developed and coordinated a master's degree in Transformative Language Arts -- educating people on using writing, storytelling, theater and more for social and personal change -- it was immediately clear to me that such study necessitated new ways to envision work.

My life-long flirtation with Buddhism brought me to the term "Right Livelihood," part of the Eightfold Path, which points to doing work that does no harm. More generally, we can understand Right Livelihood as work that builds on our gifts, helps us overcome some of our challenges and work our learning edges, and catalyzes work that serves our communities.

I began designing and facilitating workshops in Right Livelihood -- especially relating to making a living and making a difference in the arts, healing arts, and social change arts -- over 20 years ago. Since that time, I also envisioned a training to help people connect with their passions and callings (speaking of which, Gregg Levoy's book Callings was key to me) beyond my academic program.

After a false start, I launched Your Right Livelihood (YRL) with storyteller and consultant Laura Packer as a project of the Transformative Language Arts Network. But as we developed YRL, it became apparent that we should cast our net wider than just people involved in writing, storytelling, and the like. So we transitioned YRL to an independent project (we still have a partnership with TLAN), and in the last year, after Laura realized her callings were leading her elsewhere, Kathryn Lorenzen joined me in further developing YRL.

Kathryn had been dreaming her own Right Livelihood dream for decades as a coach specializing in creativity as well as career development and transition. She has helped hundreds of people unite with their next, best jobs. Both of us resonate with a calling to help others do the inner and outer work -- the big dreaming, nuts and bolts tasks, strategic planning, deep discernment, and leaps into action -- to make their life's work come true.

And what happened to that 20-year-old would-be journalist (pictured here at work)? The thing about Right Livelihood is that nothing is wasted in our life journeys and all is grist for the mill. What I learned as a labor journalist and from seeing how much work has changed for many of us shows me how vital it is to do work that gives us dignity, meaning, and even joy.

It is my joy to teach Your Right Livelihood with Kathryn and to continually learn more about how our work can lift up our lives and communities.

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1 Comment

Unknown member
Nov 12, 2021

I love this story so much, Caryn! You inspire me daily.

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