Doing work that matters: Letting values drive how you earn your living… and love your life.

September 27, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton leadership speakerAbout a year and a half ago I made a decision that changed my life, both professionally and personally. I made a decision to “do work that matters”; and more specifically, to ONLY “do work that matters”. That is a pretty fuzzy concept and people close to me did not hesitate to let me know.

A good friend with a shrewd business sense who has a high-level position in corporate Calgary put the screws to me by saying, “That’s all well and good, but how do you plan to get ‘work that matters’? Shouldn’t you really define what that means before you decide that you are going to do that and only that? Besides, you are an entrepreneur. Sometimes you have to do work that pays the bills.”

I knew that for too long, I had done work that pays the bills.  Modesty aside, I have a fair number of employable skills, including office skills, technical skills and writing and editing skills. I have also spent almost two decades teaching and facilitating. Then there is the research work… But something shifted. I felt compelled to stop focussing on the skills I have, and start focussing on the values I hold.

I also knew she was right about defining what “work that matters” means. So I asked myself, “What matters?” Here is my answer:

  • Doing work that relates specifically to education, leadership, community and literacy.
  • Working with others to create transformative change for the better.
  • Building capacity in others, helping them grow and realize their potential.
  • Using a strength-based, asset-based approach in all my work.
  • Working with like-minded, highly capable people who share similar values.

The last one turned out to be the most important. Not long after I declared that doing strength-based work matters deeply to me, I was asked to do a project focussed on a Needs Assessment. That is really a fancy term for, “Help us figure out what we need.” The idea is that after the needs have been identified, that you can go about meeting the needs.

A strength-based approach says, “Let’s start by assessing what we already have. Let’s start with the question, what is working well?”

This kind of thinking turns everything on its head. When you insist on examining what is already working well and conducting an inventory all your assets, the result is strangely powerful. The conversation shifts away from what is lacking, what is wrong, what problems there are to be fixed and how terrible things are, to a conversation deeply rooted in strength, resilience and hope.

I started having conversations with friends and colleagues about using strength-based approaches at work, at home and in just about any situation. At first, the conversations were difficult and awkward. I felt like people thought I was naive and out of touch with the real work. I kept reading and educating myself on the notion of asset-based approaches to work, community, leadership and education.

I started partnering with others who were interested in doing similar kinds of work. We began looking at Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for projects that we thought were a precise fit with both our technical skills and our values, in terms of using a strength-based approach to our work.

I can’t give exact details yet because we have not signed the contract yet, but I got word this week that I will get to lead a team of consultants on a major project that fits with all the values that I outlined just over a year ago. The work is amazing. The people we will get to work with are visionaries. The possibility for change is high.

We have all the technical skills we need to do the job. That was not enough though. What ultimately landed us the contract was our clear emphasis on our values. We put a stake in the ground and said, “This is who we are and what we stand for!” Every single one of the values I outlined above come into play for this project.

I think I have finally figured out that a combination of excellent technical skills, solid experience and unapologetic declaration of values is really what allows a person to love the work they do… and do work that matters.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Social Media in a Family Literacy Program (Slides)

September 25, 2012

I noticed the other day that I never posted the slides from this presentation that I did last year at the annual conference of the Centre for Family Literacy, so I am posting them now. (Better late than never!)

Social media in a family literacy program from Sarah Eaton

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Why do we make our students write essays?

September 13, 2012

Recently a friend sent me a link to a website called I have written about services like this in an earlier blog post. This site is a regular paper mill, with a twist.

They mock the entire educational system. Here’s a screen shot from their “About Us” page:

In case you can’t read that, the juicy bits say that education is…

“a scam, a charade. Professors can only stay in business if they force students to write essays, within their disciplines, that will do nothing to contribute to their own education or edification… the system spit the professor out the same way it will spit out any student who cannot write his or her own paper on the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern, or any other mundane matter you might be asked to write about. That’s the endgame – that’s why we’re here.”

That got me thinking, why do we have students write essays? Is it really because that’s how the system “spit us out” and now we are doing the same to our students? Well, for some instructors, there may be an element of truth there. Some academics and teachers think that things should be done the way they have always been done because that it the tradition.

But really, that’s not good enough.

To me, we don’t ask students to write papers because that’s part of the “scam” of the system, or because our students have to go through what we went through in order to be initiated into the hallowed halls of the university.

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

Why? Because when you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever. You may need to convince someone that you actually know what you are talking about. You may need to show someone (your boss, for example?) you can string together ideas with some semblance of logic and coherency.

I did a post a while back on the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey that showed that 2% of Canadian-born university graduates scored at the lowest levels of prose literacy. In other words, 2% of folks who are born in this country and who make it through University can barely identify or decode words and numbers. Most seven-year olds can do that. (Check out this post on what the literacy levels of IALSS are.)

If we are focussing on having students write on a particular subject, we are missing the mark. (Pardon the pun). Not only is it more about learning to write well than it is about expounding on any given subject, it is also about learning to take pride in your own work and creation. It is about going through the entire process of creating a piece of research writing from beginning to end.

It’s also not about a grade. If the focus is just on getting a good grade and not on learning, heck, why wouldn’t students use these services?

What would happen if we said to our students, “OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.”

How would that change what we do as teachers?

How would it change our students’ view of their assignments?

We don’t make our students write papers so they can learn about “the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern”. We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process.

If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) Please visit my speaking page, too.

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