Great work means loving what you do

Published 11:15 pm Monday, September 4, 2017

By Erin Smith

Have you ever heard of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin? Sadly, probably not. This English-American astrophysicist, born in 1900, was the first person to earn a doctorate in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard. In 1925, she found that stars were made primarily of hydrogen, illuminating for the first time the chemical composition of the cosmos.

You read that right. A female astrophysicist revealed the composition of the universe. Her thesis “Stellar Atmospheres” was described by astronomer Otto Struve as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.”

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Her trailblazing discoveries led to our understanding of nuclear reactors. And yet, she was denied professorship status because she was a woman. She was vastly underpaid in comparison to her Harvard peers, who were all male. She could barely afford housing and food.

Yet she was tremendously happy. Being a scientist was not only what she did, it was who she was. She did great work because she loved what she did.

When asked what advice she would give other young women who wanted to pursue careers in traditionally-male dominated areas, she said:

“Do not undertake a career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.”

How are we to interpret her words? The cynical view might be that we’ve learned nothing in a century, as women still struggle to make 70 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The more enlightened interpretation suggests there are riches greater than money, that we might choose our careers because nothing else will satisfy us.

Like Cecilia, I agree we should appreciate our life’s work based on all the dividends it pays. Success is not solely measured using a monetary yardstick.

Several close friends sent their children off to college this month. It seems that many kids are being asked to choose their major as entering freshmen. How do you decide what you want to do with your life? How to make the right decision in such an unsure economy? They surely have nightmares of walking off the stage at graduation directly into the unemployment line.

My friend, a career advisor at the University of Kentucky, tells me many college students pick their major simply to secure a job that enables them to pay off their college debt as quickly as possible. So they go to college, amassing a mountain of debt and take jobs that they don’t enjoy purely to pay down that debt.

This saddens me. I wonder if these kids will be slaving at those same jobs 20 years from now, dreading Monday mornings and joylessly punching the time clock. If making money is paramount, they will spend their lives doing things they don’t like doing to afford things that don’t fulfill them.

Though this cycle is fairly common, perhaps there is a better way. I’m suggesting it’s equally important for people to figure out what they love. The world reveals to us what we love by what we spend time on.

Cecilia was a scientist; she needed to learn about the cosmos in the same way she needed to breathe. She would have gladly spent her time staring through her telescope for free. We can only do truly great work when we love what we do.

Do you love what you do? If money were no object, what would you do? Would you write or travel or bake or sew? Would you spend all of your time with children or the elderly or animals or trees? Would you start a non-profit that makes a difference?

Of course money can’t be ignored, but financial pressures shouldn’t dictate your choices. Your career should ultimately lead to financial security, but if financial security is the defining motivator, it’s unlikely you’ll end up doing great work.

We can follow our interests and passions without knowing to which vocational path it might lead. I could have never predicted that my major (education) and masters (library science) would lead to running a successful small business.

But what if you can’t quit your job? Many people simply can’t. How can you find joy in what you’re already doing? Small shifts in attitude can make the difference in your loving your days, rather than simply tolerating them.

Cecilia writes, “No other mortal has made my intellectual decisions for me. I may have been underpaid, I may have occupied subordinate positions for many years, but my source of inspiration has always been direct. The reward … is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience.”

We all have the opportunity to experience this, as no one else sees the world as uniquely as we see it. Cecilia loved what she did, so she did great work. And she was tremendously happy doing it. While she never became rich, she did marry a dashing Russian astronomer. Then she outranked him, when she became Harvard’s first female professor and, in 1956, the first woman to hold a department chair. Dividends, indeed.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. She wants everyone to make friends with meditation, eat real food, move their bodies and hit the pillow a little earlier. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at or play along at