What is Work?

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Submitted by damien on

It’s been seventeen months now since we left a secure job (with great benefits) in a bad economy to strike out on our own. Of course we didn’t just leave the job. We left the country we were living in (the U.S.) to return to our native home of Canada, to a part of the country where we don't speak the language. After living for eleven years in the United States, moving back to Canada basically meant starting over.

Not just starting over from a financial security standpoint, or a community relationships standpoint, or a language learning standpoint. But also starting over with a whole new work mindset.

In the past, Renee and I lived - in a sense - two fairly distinct lives. Her life was at home, and my life had a split personality: a clear delineation between home and the office. This delineation between home and office (or job) is what the majority of North Americans understand. It is, for the most part, a core principle in our modern culture.

When someone asks you "what do you do for work" what they really mean is "how do you earn your money?". The root of that question is loaded with assumptions, and it is getting increasingly difficult for us to answer without getting deep and philosophical. Why is that? Well, we are becoming much more diversified in our sources of income. If that trend continues the way we are planning, it will be that way now for the rest of our lives.

Working hands

What is work?

The result of our life change has given us a new vision for work and its place in our lives. We aren't completely there yet, but this is the direction we are headed:

  • Work is anything that you put your hands to. Chopping wood, computer programming, sewing, or backpacking.
  • Work flows. It doesn't start abruptly at 8am or become off-limits on the weekend, it is done when it needs to be.
  • Work is seasonal. It changes with the time of day, time of year, or season of life.
Working inside


You may have noticed that I didn't mention anything about money in the above points. That is because it isn't inherent to our new definition. The way we see it, our daily life is a string of activities, some earn income, others don't. Additionally, it may not always be the same activities - or the same people - that earn the money: one day it might be Renee's writing, the next day it might be my programming.

This also allows us to say that just because something doesn't earn money, doesn't mean that it isn't vitally important. Raising and educating kids, cooking meals, these activities are keystones in our life and don't earn us money. So much of what our society does these days revolves around the earning of money at the expense of the important things that don't. We would like to be able to teach our children that earning money is not the only activity of value. That faith in God, pursuing a healthy lifestyle, living below your means, and taking care of family can have as big an impact on the bottom line as pulling in cash.

It is our goal to move away from the idea that any one company, person or activity will be solely responsible for supporting us. In the farming world, that is called a mono-culture, and we all know where those can lead.

Working outside

The Structure of Work

Just because you can't earn all of your livable income from an activity does not mean it should be discounted as not worthy of doing. Conversely, just because you are really good at something and can make lots of money at it doesn't mean that you have to do only that thing.

For us, what is important is that we are doing activities we are passionate about and interested in.

The problem is that most of us are significantly constrained in this manner. We assume we have to have a full time job doing one thing in order to earn our living. Often it isn't necessarily something we are passionate about, but it pays the bills. Once we have that job, we are so busy we don't have the time to pursue the smaller things. This is where we were at in our previous life.

A goal of ours is to be able to have the freedom to string together a series of small pieces that when put together make a whole. Our end goal is flexibility. As we age and grow through our lives, our goals, dreams, and interests change. We want our income-earning work to flow with this reality.

Working home

To continue with the farming analogy, we are aiming for a non-farming version of the family farm. (Renee thinks all these farm analogies are very ironic considering we're not homesteaders.) A livelihood where we can plant projects and see what grows. A place where we can practice organic principles like crop rotation and diversity. A place where we can flow with the seasons. A place where we can do the sowing, weeding, and reaping.



I think that just having this

I think that just having this philosophy, summed up nicely in your post here, is going to help you keep going on this journey. Your path may wander and change course, but this is a nice way to state what you're doing now.

Great post. I liked it so

Great post. I liked it so much I posted a link to it on FB. My family has sort of gone this direction but not quite as intentionally or completely. We live in the mountains in Colorado in a small rural community. Both my husband and I are self employed, but our two kids go to a local school. I am afraid I really don't have the patience for home schooling, but cheers to you for making it work. I do as much as I can to supplement my kids experiences with outdoor adventures, astronomy club, etc. And we gave up TV back in April. I think that has been a great improvement. I do wish, however, that my husband could work less and do more with the rest of us. He works ALL the time and rarely is able or willing to join us for any of the fun things we do. I know he and the kids would benefit so much from spending more time together that it makes me sad. So I continue to try to include him, but often it seems like he wants to be on his own. I wish we could get on the same page like the two of you. You are truly an inspiration.

From another family who's

From another family who's gone this direction... Best thing we've ever done.

I especially agree with the blurring of the word "work" to encompass whatever tasks and projects are most important, rather than what happens to bring money. We do lots of unpaid work (in the home and on the computer and in the woods) that we consider more important than much of the paid work. But we don't make the distinction most of the time. We arrange enough paid work to meet our needs, but otherwise don't prioritize it over anything else.

Erin, We love the way you and

Erin, We love the way you and Hig live your lives. The way you work and live is so inspirational to us. Has been ever since we first read your book a couple years ago. We've looked to your example a lot as we've dreamed up these ideas for family living.

I've looked to your example

I've looked to your example too. I love seeing how things all work out with somewhat older children when I'm lost in the throes of toddlerhood. And we've shamelessly copied/adopted your one day in the woods per week idea. I thought we always spent time outside, but there's something about the rhythm of that carved-out time that works better and allows more. This year we're opening it up to other families as a sort of hiking-playgroup thing as well.

That's awesome to open up one

That's awesome to open up one day a week to a group of people. We've never had much luck with having friends join us. We love hiking with people to build relationships and enjoy the outdoors together (that's why we do it as family!) but we haven't found many takers. We've had more luck since moving to the Gaspé peninsula though. People are just more outdoorsy here in general.

Just started, so we'll see

Just started, so we'll see how much luck we have. We did get a few people last week. We have a fairly easy setup for it here. People are outdoorsy, we're hiking at 3 year old speed (not so intimidating), and we chose Friday, which is the no-preschool day in town. So it's an easy setup for moms of small kids, anyway. Also, we're not doing quite such long (hours or miles) days so far (mostly because of those little kids).

Beautifully said Damien. Love

Beautifully said Damien. Love the farming analogy, it's true on so many levels. One of the scariest parts about doing what you are doing is the part of "farming" that requires... waiting. Especially for those of us in Western Culture. There is this feeling of needing to drive hard and push all the time to make any progress. Yet in finding this different rhythm, you are tapping into, as you said, the different seasons. While there is still some work to be done in "winter", there's nothing actively growing. It's the prep work to be ready for when that growing season comes. Even after the seeds are planted, we can't force them to grow. We nurture them, but must allow them to do so of their own accord.

Making that shift from the push of the hard drive to finding the flow of a new rhythm, requires a letting go. A pulling back and surrender to the process, that can feel like we're moving rapidly backwards, in order to discover the fullness that such a shift has to offer. Takes a lot of courage. Courage that is obviously present in both you and Renee (those are some blessed kids that will be learning from this courageous act).

One way or another, the "payout" will be huge. : )

We hope our kids will grow up

We hope our kids will grow up to feel blessed. Some days, in my truly insecure moments, I worry we must be messing them up! Constantly swimming as we are against the tide. Perhaps they will be that much stronger than I in following their own path.

Renee, don't think that. My

Renee, don't think that. My husband and I are 85% of the way to '0' (all debt but mortgage gone). Once we don't have debt hanging over us our goal is to slowly extricate ourselves from what society considers the 'norm'. We too want a much much more simplified life. Unfortunately we haven't yet figured out how to do that and maintain an income - that's so not the point. What I want to say is your kids are fine, they're well adjusted, and independent (based on your posts). They have a love of nature, the outdoors, and one another. They are miles ahead of other kids physically. All the things we want our daughter to be (she is only 10 months old though). You and your family set the bar for so many. I wish to my very soul that I could do what you do, its not in the cards yet, but once I figure out a way.......once we make that commitment I'm ready. :)

Lovely piece. My mantra the

Lovely piece. My mantra the past year has been "to make the most important, the most important" that means, to the frustration of my dad not working as an attorneyh. I haven't found my niche yet and I know I over think before I do so my new motto is "get to doin'" but for me and my son and our quality of life, I whole heartedly agree with what you've expressed. Thank you

Thanks for this, very well

Thanks for this, very well said. My husband (Damien!) and I are fellow Canadians currently working out the logistics of moving our family from the west coast (where I have a corporate job and he is a stay-at-home dad) to Lunenburg on the east coast where we work for ourselves, all contributing in various ways using our strengths, knowing that it will evolve over time as we figure out what works best for our family at any given stage. So glad to stumble upon your website!


We lived near Lunenburg last summer while living with my parents. Lunenburg is totally a "quality of life" place. We visit my parents fairly often, maybe we'll meet you one year when you have made your move?

Beautiful post! Thanks for

Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing.

I am also at that stage of starting over having left the corporate world (after 14yrs) late last year because I felt it was taking over my life. I tolerated it when I was still single but when I got married and and had a kid, it wasn't cool anymore.

Now I work from home with a job that is entirely different from my real profession but I feel is more 'me'. And though it pays less than what I earn before, I am happier with it as it provides me with more TIME for my family.

Very well put. I love that

Very well put. I love that you made a clear delineation between "work" and "earning money". It was very encouraging to me, personally, who is a work-at-home mom, home schooler, vegetarian meal coordinator, fitness organizer and construction manager who received nary a cent for my 14 hour days.

Hey Damien,

Hey Damien,

Great post and timely. Just returned from 4.5 years overseas and now working to restart life here - a challenge in itself - with a similar aspirations and goals for our family. No one around us understands, but it's good and we are working at breaking old mindsets and establishing new ones around all of this. Anyway, just wanted to write and say thank you.