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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In Defense of “Do What You Love”

The Journey Begins

I remember walking along the edge of a suburban ditch surrounded by heat-scorched grass, my mother at my side.  We were discussing my discontent and scattered ambitions.

I threw out the cock-eyed possibility of someday moving to Boston and becoming a writer.  The idea seemed far-fetched, romantic even.  I imagined cobble-stoned streets, warm coffee shops, and perhaps falling in love with something, someone on a chilly night in Fenway Park.

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Sunset in Boston

None of those things happened, and the realities of East Coast living are radically different than I envisioned.  But I’m here.

I’m an hour and a half from that impossibly far-away place.  I’m writing and working, but mostly working.  I’m doing something enjoyable and am a happier person.

All my external circumstances have worsened.  I live in a shabby, overcrowded apartment.  The weather is miserably cold.  Middle school boys frustrate me to the point of exhortation daily.  Yet, I feel confident, buoyant even, about my path.

Alas, there are haters.

Recently, a scathing article received widespread recognition for its oppositional stance towards the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) movement.

Apart from the logical fallacies (hasty generalizations, straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks on Steve Jobs, and false dilemmas), the article’s portrayal of DWYLers as privileged and socially callous has motivated me to present a counter argument based on my own experiences.

Below are seven reasons that DWYL is at worst an innocuous, nebulous statement and at best a transformative message.

1.  Some people are miserable without meaning in their work

“We need to replace our youthful ideas of transcendence with the hard work of committing to the end of a way of life in which our work is not in line with our values.”  Michael Stone

A year ago, I returned from a perspective-altering trip to New Zealand.  Abuzz with energy and a more broad, daring view of the world, I was ready to make things happen.

Beautiful, right?

Beautiful, right?

Except things didn’t happen.  Not good things at least.

This drive to seek the best was born of pure intentions and great naivety.  I thought that moving towards greater financial security would positively transform me.

Instead, it granted me a first-hand account of the soul-sucking corporate world.

I interviewed for a shiny new job and expressed excitement to be part of the “dynamic” energy industry.  I only meant it in a theoretical, strictly tangible sense.  I had no deep-seated interest and passion, just a recognition of its societal stature.

In the office tower across the street, I see pacing lawyers and accountants.  Printer to desk.  Printer to desk.  That was me.  I sat in a windowless office, yearned for lunch.  I walked through a labyrinth of tunnels depriving thousands of professionals of sunlight or noises emanating from anything other than cash registers and computer mice. I ate lunch. I walked, dissatisfied, back to that same lonely spot each day.

I want more than a job.  I want a vocation.  I want to be proud of who I am and be one with my job, interests, and personality.

Success, judged by money, title, or power, is noise distracting from the deep, ignored truth that many are dying slow, painless deaths high up in towers across the US.

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_53.183.jpg  Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_53.183.jpg Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

2.  Money for lower-wage workers becomes more obtainable when privileged people opt out of high-paying, stable jobs.

If DWYL is truly an upper-class phenomenon, then those spots would necessarily be filled by a lower wage worker.  Wouldn’t that create more opportunity?

3.  The “DWYL” path requires hard work, sacrifice, and vulnerability

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of.  If you find you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”  F Scott Fitzgerald

I had never seen Hartford, didn’t know a single person that had even visited the place, but I was confident something in that tiny city would change my life.

After 27 hours on the road, I arrived in Hartford.  Even though it was July, the sky was steel-grey and rainy.  A depression settled in upon realization that I had no one to help me move and knew no one in the entire state.

I carried my possessions inside amid the rain and wind.  I felt foreign and isolated.  Eventually, I got my things inside and settled into a bare and uninspiring apartment.  The furniture was sparse and nondescript, much like what I had seen so far of Hartford.

My first day in Hartford was wretched.  The optimism I felt days earlier vanished.  I entered my self-imposed purgatory.  My voluntary exile would force me to come to grips with who I was, who I wanted to be.

Soon thereafter, I experienced the rigor of teaching.  Put it this way:  If a boss demanded that you prepare several hours of presentations each day, warned you of his propensity to get up and make strange sounds and occasionally disrespect you in front of the entire meeting, and then asked you to measure and evaluate his performance each day, you would quit on the spot.  Teachers don’t.

Each day time assails me.  My afternoons dissipate, my hair ripples with a tornado current.  Time knocks me out until I awake staggering back to the teacher’s offices wondering what in God’s name happened.

Now I understand why young teachers are reticent to go out on Friday evenings, their brains cooked from overstimulation.  Loud, inarticulate noises.  The impossible stench of a prepubescent sans Old Spice.  The constant movement.  You have to be so damn vigilant.

I love it though.

I do miss home.  I do miss my family and friends.  Sometimes, I even miss the quiet office environment.

I don’t miss comfort.  I don’t miss being insulated from change.  I don’t miss wasting time at a job I could never grow to like.  I don’t miss the days and nights that drove me to getting in a car and driving thousands of miles to a job paying pennies on the dollar.

4.  For many, DWYL entails helping others and performing services that benefit the same people Miya Tokumitsu claims DWYL undermines

” Civilization is going to end if we continue to drown in the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

I do not desire money or prestige. I just want to say I did something worthwhile.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been inspired by the downtrodden.  I remember my Dad’s annual Company Christmas Party.  Each year they hosted the Harbor Light Choir, composed entirely of former inmates.  The soul and gratefulness they brought to each song brought a tear to my eye every time.  Seeing people in the lowest socioeconomic bracket impart optimism and hope to privileged businessmen left me awestruck.

For me, greatness is selfless dedication to the community.  I’ll be making nearly nothing this year, working investment banker hours.  Why?  Because I will be proud of my accomplishments.

5.  DWYL is not a binary system.  Almost no one has a job consisting entirely of things they love.  

DWYL is based on seeking an enjoyable vocation.

No, it won’t be perfect.  And, yes, there are popular bastardizations of the idea.  Yes, Tim Ferriss, I’m looking at you.

The DWYL movement is not prescribing a single love for all, just as the gay marriage movement does not denigrate heterosexuals marrying partners they deem unsuitable.  As varied as people’s life partners are, a person’s career ambitions can be similarly varied.  The beauty of the free-market is that there’s room for screw-ups, one-night stands (e.g. summer jobs) and even divorces.  And, just as everybody can’t marry a supermodel or genius or doctor, everyone will not find a perfect fit.  Still, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging others to search.

Tokumitsu’s argument leaves no room for nuanced wants and needs.  Some will love jobs that others hate.  Some will do a job they hate to have time for their passion.

Sure, I won’t be a full-time writer next year (or even a part-time one!), but I am confident I’m moving towards my vocation.

6.  Waiting until you’re older and more stable is risky

 “The most dangerous risk of all– The risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” – Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle

People will say, “That’s good you’re doing that while you’re young.”  As if you must cease pursuing enjoyable employment upon reaching a certain age.  Thereafter, you must attend to the serious business of being miserable day in and day out.

What will freedom mean to you the day you reach your arbitrary financial goal?  Will your desire to be free be squashed by the familiarity and routine of oppression?  Will your wings be clipped and your heart disconnected from the legs and arms that move you?

Freedom stares you in the face.  Go be somebody.  Don’t wait for some fat guy in a pin-striped suit to cut you a check.  Screw it.  If you love clowns, work for the circus (besides, clown enthusiasts are creepy and have trouble finding gainful employment anyways), and if you love baseball, coach it.

Each minute you spend daydreaming about what you should or could be doing is a slap in the face of the old man (or woman, but I don’t believe in slapping old women) you’ll eventually become.

7.  America was founded on people searching for a better life.  Why should this stop upon reaching a certain socioeconomic status?

The greatest American triumph; the autonomy to determine your station in life.

Never settle for second-best.  Never settle for a life you don’t want to wake up to.

This is the premise our ancestors arrived with.  That is what emancipation was about.  That is what civil rights were about.  That is what the GI bill was about.

I pray the freedom to pursue a better life never vanishes.

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