What is meaningful work?

The most important “I Must” statement on my list is to be “meaningfully employed.”  But what is meaningful employment?

Sometimes it is easier to state what something is not before defining something.  Let’s discuss what meaning is not.

Meaning is not value.  Meaning cannot be sold or traded.  Meaning cannot be gifted.

Way out in West Texas, a Prada store replica sits disconnected from the consumerist culture it’s normally associated with.  It’s a conspicuous reminder that Prada has monetary value, but Prada itself does not mean anything outside of its’ normal context.

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When applied to work, the question becomes, ‘If the meaning of your work lies in the ability to subsequently acquire goods for oneself or others, is the work itself meaningful?.’  To answer this question, I apply the West Texas highway test.  If dropped off on a lonely, deserted highway in West Texas without any ability to trade your work, would the work still feel worthwhile?  If the answer is no, then the work you do is likely valuable but does not contain much personal meaning.

Meaning is also not happiness.

Happiness is comfort.  Happiness is pleasure and passivity.

Meaning is discomfort.  Meaning is an exhausting construction process.  Meaning hurts like the aching pains of a teenager’s knees.

We make meaning.  We feel happy.

Raising kids, or so people say, is the most convincing argument for a split between happiness and meaning.  Parents consistently report feeling less happy after having kids, but report significantly more meaning in their life.  Once again, meaning is an uncomfortable growth process.  Happiness is a passive, blissful state.

Ok, so what is meaningful work?  After reading carefully (see links at the end of the article), I am aware of a consensus.  Meaningful work is both personal and connected to a far-reaching purpose.  It is both intrinsically motivating and in service of the greater good.  I would argue that, strictly when defining meaningful work, it is less important whether what you are doing actually has a net positive impact.  What matters is whether we believe that our work is both personally meaningful and benefits others.  We’ll never know the net positive or negative impact of our actions.  The best we can do is pursue work that we believe to have a positive impact.

Raskolnikov, the complex central character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has the abstract notion that murdering a pawnbroker who, in his judgment, harms many people would be a crime ultimately benefitting humanity.  Raskolnikov supports his idea analytically but, upon enacting his plan, descends into psychosis.  His ideas become increasingly nihilistic as he dissociates from society.  This is an extreme example, but the point is that abstract calculations of your net impact (payment of taxes contributing towards infrastructure, groundbreaking research advancing a far-off cure, etc.) is not enough for work, or life itself, to hold meaning.  Supporting others financially does usually hold meaning, but the “others” are people you know or interact with.  At the novel’s conclusion, Raskolnikov, through realization of his love for another, knows he is ready to re-enter society.  Dostoyevsky aptly concludes that for Raskolnikov, “Life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind.”  Raskolnikov finally believed in something and belief, not abstract notions of “the greater good”, is the foundation of meaning.

Ultimately, determination of whether work is meaningful or not is personal.  You must be convinced it satisfies two stringent criteria:  

  1. The work must engage you personally (West Texas highway test)
  2. You must believe in the power of your work to positively impact others

 

LINKS:  If you want to read more about meaningful work.

  1. NY Times Opinion- Millennial Searchers
  2. http://www.workingself.com/work/what-is-meaningful-work
  3. Lab for the Study of Meaning

 

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