Book Review: Work That Matters and Right Livelihood 2.0 for values that matter more

Work that Matters: Create a livelihood that reflects your Core Intention
Author: Maia Duerr
Publisher: Parallax Press

Disclosure: I was provided the book by the publisher for an honest review. Maia Duerr and I have been friends for almost a decade and she know I’m incapable of not calling something for what it is. 

There are unending lists of books on how to shift, change, pivot from your currently dissatisfied life to one that is enriching (personally and financially). Some are planners that navigate the complex world of job search and selling your talents. Others tie together finding a new career with finding that hidden inner self who can flourish if just given the career shell in which to do so. Very few offer a deep dive into the center of making any change: who you are and the values that shape you. More precisely, few authors have the chops to weave together Buddhist principles of ethical living through Right Livelihood and the demands of our modern craving world. Acknowledging that the 21st century is vastly different from the socio-economic times of the historic Buddha, Maia Duerr crafts what she cheekily calls “Right Livelihood 2.0”(I’m short-forming that to RL 2.0), a way to find a value-congruent path among the challenges of today’s financial and economic potholes.

In Work That Matters, Duerr takes on this challenge with surgical precision and an unblinking gaze. She begins with the reality that we are all averse to change, even if change means realizing our dreams. Astutely, Duerr shines the light on our well-cultivated talent to turn away from anything that results in discomfort. After a chapter of getting to know her and one that lay the framework of “Liberation-based Livelihood”, we dig deep to recognize and uproot our craftiness in deluding ourselves that “here” is better than “there”. Psychologically wise, she names the resistance as it is likely to show up – the five hindrances that masquerade as social media jaunts, diligent house cleaning, re-framing the current situation as “good enough”, and so on.

After setting up the three foundations – self-awareness, resilience, and persistence – Duerr introduces each of the six keys to Liberation-based Livelihood. What impressed me is the amount of time I took on Key 1: Becoming intimate with your Core Intention. This chapter captures the current arc of practice in the secular world of mindfulness: a call to clarify our values and (as I discuss in my own research) to examine closely the incongruence we experience when we are not in alignment with those values. Thich Nhat Hanh, a teacher Duerr and I share in our own practice, teaches that our values are the North Star; the intention is to use them to navigate the waters of our lives, not to live on the star itself. Over the years, I find deeper and deeper meaning in that teaching. The most recent is that our values are not intended to carry us above the world as it is, they are not to segregate us in a holier-than-thou bubble. The dance of our actions carry us close and far from the core intention of our lives and this is where the beauty of change resides.

In Duerr’s teachings, we sense into the experience of the mileage we put in approaching and avoiding this center. The chapters contain several reflection exercises, of which the question “What is your relationship with this key?” will be the most challenging yet most rewarding. In essence, this exercise takes the measure of our congruence with our heart’s center.

In Key 3, Break Through Inertia and Take Action, Duerr ups the challenge. I can sum that up as “quit jerking yourself around.” In other words, get out of your head, you’re not fooling anyone with that perfectionist stance, and be human. Thankfully Duerr is a quite a bit kinder and offers key practices in each chapter that are detailed and incisive.

Key 6, Building Allies and Asking for Help, offers a truly challenging practice in an individualistic and self-centered world where allies can quickly become foes and survival instincts drive selfishness. The reflection exercise can evoke disappointment and sadness as much as gratitude and appreciation. I had to remember that the idea we should be surrounded by hordes of dear and beloved friends is likely a construction of our social media-infused world. Although relationships confer positive effects of good health and wellness, social psychology research shows that while we can hole a circle of about 150 friends (Dunbar’s number) we really only have a handful (maybe only 3-5) of intimate relationships. It becomes a bit tricky then know how to load the demands on our intimates when we need help. So, Duerr’s conceptualization of Key 6 is all the more important to read carefully. She defines connections as allies, not friends, drawing on the word as a derivative of alloy, the capacity of the combination to create a different and stronger material. These are connections that generate new and creative outcomes through support, sharing of resources, and creativity.

In the current environment of uncertainty and toxic, divisive relationships, Duerr’s book is a welcomed resource. We may be facing years of economic challenges and job loss is definitely going to take its toll. The gift – and gist – of Work That Matters is crucial in the face of the truth that we can no longer simply find a job ladder that will carry us to our Cloud Nine. Many of us will be confronted with losing our work and careers. The mission statements of most organizations are crafted to resonate with our ideals. The work on the ground, however, has been and remains vastly different from those ideals. But more of us will be faced with seeing the incongruence between what we believe in and what the organization requires us to believe in. And, there is a reality of survival that keeps many of us frozen in our tracks, unable to consider a change for many important reasons. Even if Duerr’s teachings don’t allow us to break away, perhaps they can help us become stealth ethicists in a world that now desperately needs some.


I attended a talk the other day, given by a hospital Chaplain who spoke about weaving the threads of body and spirit together.  This, he said, is the role of the Chaplain.  It struck me that when we do this we are joining together what “man tore asunder.”  Descartes, Spinoza, and all those heavy hitters of mind-body dualities are well beyond my capacity to weave together in this thread of thought but it is giving me a hint of the challenges about to face me in writing the next section of my thesis.

As I plod through the sections on burnout and spiritual well being, I feel very much like that spider in the picture.  Strands of knotted thoughts secrete out the tips of my fingers sometimes gluing them to the computer keyboard as I frantically try to keep the unrelenting winds of work and other demands from tearing it all apart.  Practice is helping.  Just this one word, just this one sentence.  It helps too that the old habits of academic writing are still lurking around the edges of my awareness.  One day, one hour, one word, one moment – and slowly I’ve come to the end of the dreaded, mind-parching “literature review.”

However, I’ve actually learned some things, acquired some insights to the nature of burnout and the corrosive action of being in organizations that cannot live their mission statements or manifest their values.  That, it turns out, is the realization that precipitates the exhaustion and cynicism we associate with burnout.  Interesting, isn’t it?  An incongruence in values that leads to a physical depletion and the arising of the judgmental mind. And yet, for so long we’ve focused on the physical nature of “work-related” depletion, missing the crucial role of the heart/mind which says, “This, this is not right.”

Is this what faced Siddhartha?  Raised in a life sheltered from the reality of poverty, illness, and death, a royal corporation that enjoyed an ease not available to those outside the palace walls, how did he meet the incongruence between his unquestioned values and what he witnessed on that fateful ride outside?  Was his disillusion and release from the trance of privilege a manifestation of this clash of values?  Did he Occupy Kapilavastu?  Methinks he did – and more!

The mythology of his intense emotional reaction after seeing illness, aging, and death suggests he felt the weariness of unrelenting hedonism and the cynicism of the worth of the path he tread.  I think he felt the rift in a place beyond the simple mind/body fracture point but it would be years before he would experience it.  It was only after determined rejection of the body which brought him to the brink of death that he wove together the threads of body and spirit, heart and mind.  It would take years and many teachers before he would know deep in his being that the most dangerous gap is between his wisdom and his choices.

If the Buddha’s life is an exemplar of ours, there are questions raised from his direct experience of incongruence that are worth asking.  Is this where you are – this place where the threads have been torn from your fingers, spun but not anchored?  Is this where you see most vividly the vastness of the canyon between what you believe in and what you are living?   Is this where you can feel the futility of continuing to feed the delusion that your victimhood is your privilege?

What now?