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

 

Big Bend Day 3- Just Don’t Collapse

After 24 draining miles, we still had 8 miles and 1,800 meters to climb.  Blue Creek Path, a winding trail through a dry creek bed, would be our path out.

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After two miles and multiple thoughts of collapsing, my little brother spotted massive caves adorning the rock walls above.  His initial request to scale the wall was not effective.  A combination of thirst and lack of oxygen flow to the brain resulted in an emphatic “hell no”.  After some hankering and a slow restoration of our senses, we agreed to fight the underbrush and make our way up the canyon.  While my older brother prudently hung back, Max and I climbed slippery sediment to a large, dark cave.

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Potential Bear Hibernaculum

We were uneasy as we imagined the animals inhabiting the dark shelter.  In a dim-witted last effort, we pressed on.

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Dark cave, why not?

We found a sprawling empty cave.  The enormity and dark shadows of the ancient room mesmerized us.  We basked in the shade and echoes of the immense caves and then headed back towards the trail.  Max taught me how to slide down slippery rock using my left foot as a rudder and we scooted right down the mountain.

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Hey Max

The next five miles nearly brought all of us to our breaking point.  In a moment of weakness and spite towards the unending upward terrain, I shouted something to the effect of, “make it stop!” and kicked a powerless shrub.  Heat, rocks, and elevation will change a man.

Still, the great expanse of this place captured our imaginations.  The scale and distance of Big Bend alters the way you think about limitations.  Land, rocks unending.  Sky floats forever.  Time stands still at the altar of infinite space.

As we reached the downhill portion of our journey, we reflected on an amazing test of our resolve and the unmatched beauty we witnessed.  We even appreciated the ten-mile section of the hike through the barren desert flats.  We will always grasp the effect of pervasive dirt, wind, and sun on life.  We now fathom the great oppression and beauty of miles of nothing.

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Big Bend Day 2- Sand, sand, cactus, cactus

“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks.  You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.  Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.” Edward Abbey, The Great American Desert 1977

Fast-moving low clouds filled the canyon.  Any fog from our angst-ridden sleep dissipated as we soaked in the mystical display.

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Low clouds over the valley

Around mid morning we reached the basin and entered ten miles of sand and desert that would erode our willpower step by step, grain by grain.

The sun beat down on us for hours and the weight of our water and food began to take its toll on our shoulders and feet.  Eventually, I focused in on my brother’s paws, watching them trample rock after rock.  I hardly looked up and when I did I was dejected by the slow-moving vista.  Miles of harsh flora stood between us and Homer-Wilson Ranch, our resting place for the night.

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I’ll always be a Texan

The only signs of life were an occasional deer track, some baked horse turds, and a large tarantula.  We felt frivolous for worrying about monsters of the forest when we saw so few critters.

By late afternoon, the drudgery of the desert had us disenchanted, openly questioning the use of this thirty-two mile trek.  In travel, and often life, you must pass the point of initial frustration to gather new experience.  We pushed onward for a few miles until we reached Homer-Wilson Ranch.

A spectacular red and orange sunset glistened off the towering canyon walls.  Behind us we saw the distant peaks of the Chisos Mountains stretching far into Mexican territory.  We headed up a hill and watched daylight slowly pale.  We scanned upward and saw the black silhouette of a man with a Cowboy hat striking a contemplative pose atop the cliff.  A perfect caricature of the American West made the long walk worth it, even if the man turned out to be somebody’s humdrum grandpa and not John Wayne.

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Here’s the payoff

Big Bend Part 2- A Dark, Starry Night

We arrived around 3 pm.  My older brother walked to the Park Ranger office to secure a park permit.

Shortly thereafter, I wandered in and stared at an ominous life-sized mountain lion replica.  I read the facts: 139 sightings this year.  I moved over to the book section where my paranoia feasted on a book entitled “Death in Big Bend.”  I read an unfortunate excerpt of a man who caught a mountain lion stalking his campsite.  The man threw rocks in the cat’s direction and shouted profanities.  Why they felt the need to inform us of the man’s profane language was beyond me.  As if rugged pumas have tender sensibilities easily offended by coarse language.

Long story short, the man survived only to strand himself on a lonely icy peak with no way down the following year.  Yes, Big Bend is perilous.  Thirst, mountain lions, and bears are just a sample of the fates that may befall a man.

We drove a few water jugs and some food to a stash point that we aimed to reach the following night.  The stash point was just a bear box atop a canyon gazing over an ocean of desert terrain.

We hit the trail at four pm, well aware that daylight was fast evaporating.  Our joking references to savage puma attacks did not seem as funny when a glance at the map revealed that we would be searching for a safe plot of land in complete darkness, guided only by headlamps and whatever crude judgment we had acquired over a handful of other wilderness hikes.

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Darkness fast approaching

Around six pm we were enshrouded by black and more stars than I cared to count.  Darkness is a different entity here.  The closest full-sized town is at least one hundred miles and Ft. Stockton barely qualifies as a human inhabitation.

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And….curtains

We lurched forward through a canyon bestriding a dry creek bed.  The moon lit the canyon just enough for us to realize that our surroundings looked nearly identical to the big cat exhibits at the zoo.  Giant rocks, light shrubbery, and taller trees dotted the bowl-like enclosure we stubbornly trekked.

Another check of the map revealed that we would need to settle for the first flat spot we found or risk several miles through a shoddily marked desert trail starting at the basin below.  We flailed around the brush until we found an even piece of ground.  We pitched our tent and tied our food to trees some 400 meters away so as to avoid collateral damage from opportunistic creatures.

I hardly slept.  Each rustle, each broken twig, awakened me.  All throughout, my little brother slumbered away.  After what seemed like days, morning light arrived.  We survived and, just as importantly, our food and water stood intact.