Meaning and Work
Seeking fulfilment with it, from it and everything in between.
What we do for work is the one of the two biggest choices we’ll make in our lives – the other is who will be our intimate partner – so it is best to give it some real thought, but it’s only modern man that has had to contend with the idea of work as any form of meaningful pursuit.
So, what does it mean for work to be meaningful?
Is it by what you do? i.e. meaning with work.
Is it by what you can achieve from the rewards of your work? i.e. meaning from work.
I feel we are always pushed the former, but most do the latter. Think of it this way, I doubt the rubbish man views his job like he’s curing cancer, but he nevertheless plays a crucial and meaningful role in society – with improving the health and saving many lives from safely disposing of our waste products. Now, people rarely consciously think of it like this. We typically view garbage collection as a low-status job, but it’s of tremendous use to us as a society to have our garbage collected.
Speaking of rubbish, Instagram influenzas, sorry, influencers – whose platitudes are as empty as their craniums – like to harp on about signing up to their OnlyFans, I mean, “doing what you love and love what you do”, “follow your passion” and “you can be anything you want to be”, while sipping their mojitos on some tropical island beach flogging some shitty product which is how they afforded to get there in the first place. There’s nothing meaningful in any of this, yet millions lap it up and desire a similar life to it.
As we move away from the psychological immature, devotion to work is a sign of psychological maturity. Note that I said “devotion” to work, not dependent on it. Devotion is about commitment and care, dependence is out of necessity. It may not always be easy to tell, I mean, are you at work for a few extra hours because you are dedicated and want to get the job done properly or are you avoiding being at home with your partner because you’re likely to fight so being busy at work gives you an excuse?
So, if you are not devoted to your work, that is, if you cannot find your calling, then do what is in front of you. This is, in essence, what utilitarianism is about; the greatest good for the greatest number. Make yourself useful, and we have plenty of roles in society which seek to utilise humans for necessary functions. I guarantee no one is passionate about accounting, but you can become good at it and fill a required task – hell, you might even become quite skilled in a specific area and be in high demand. That’s not nothing! It certainly beats floundering away aimlessly like a dead fish on its way to the bottom of the sea.
“‘Civilisation’ is the summary of everything we have ever devised to counteract the harshness and discomforts of our natural condition.” – Alain de Botton
Yet, has “civilisation” become too much for some to bare? A lot of the time I see a number of people who are overstimulated, overworked and generally exhausted from societal pressures surrounding work and meaning. It was always assumed that once we reached “enough” we would devote our time to leisure and other pursuits, that we would be working less hours, although modernity has been anything but – even quite the opposite! You can see this with the “lying flat” movement across parts of Asia, where more and more people are resisting and rejecting the notion of essentially working just to keep going on living. It’s a rat race of ever diminishing returns and these people want their lives to mean more and believe there is more to life.
While meaning sustains life and makes it more satisfying, there is nothing quite like the necessity to make life more bearable (reduce suffering and/or increase pleasure) that truly propels human ingenuity. These needs have generally become more specific and/or sophisticated over time, as to use an old analogy, “the caveman didn’t snuff out the fire because he was too hot.”
Meaning is the desire to have something we create live beyond us, or in another sense (using the words of Alain de Botton, again), “the good tool gives no hint of the frailties of its maker.”
It’s difficult to sustain a life without being “a cog in the machine” so to speak, but it can be done and is immensely satisfying when this is achieved. However, a meaningful life can still be derived by being said cog in said machine; an acceptance of your role and the duty and obligation to it along with the realisation that your life meaning resides outside of your work.
“The pain of modernity is that we have raised expectations without teaching ourselves how we might meet them, to have left ourselves unaided in a painful intermediate zone between expectation and reality.” – Alain de Botton
Ideally, we align what we’re interested in, what we’re good at and what society needs – but we haven’t always done a good job of that, nor educating how to work them out in the first place and it’s far easier said than done. Not all our ideas are great, but they don’t have to be. We must have the courage to not neglect our ideas – even if the majority of them get rejected. We must believe and want to contribute to humanity, but we must have faith and hope in humanity and that it’s worth contributing to. In the service of love do we find meaning in work.
“No matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel, if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.” – Carl Jung