The meaning of work
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” ― Allen Saunders
Work is work, right?
And (right now) it’s nothing more than a vehicle to fuel our economic lives.
Unfortunately, it’s still built around an outdated model, namely the industrial complex.
If there’s a shift in work and work patterns, it’s not so you’d notice it: most people still expect to leave education and get a job, despite the fact that their heroes are entrepreneurs who started out with nothing more than an idea.
Historically, you might think this modality the norm. It’s not. It’s recent.
The pivot came with the industrial revolution with the promise of security of tenure and greater financial prosperity.
And then we worked and worked until there was nothing left. No soul; no purpose; no life.
Worst still, we were brainwashed to believe that this was the only way to be for fear of an early demise!
To an extent, I get it. I understand how the allure of ‘new’ was better than old: if your life was lived off the land, it was short and hard and anything that offered economic prosperity was bound to look more attractive.
At some stage, though, the industrial complex began to decay — and it’s likely to be in freefall pretty soon. Think AI, machine learning and too many many people pursuing too few jobs.
What will fill the gap remains to be seen. (I’ve no doubt machines will fill the void and what work remains will either be highly skilled or boring as hell.)
In all this, no one has really considered the ‘meaning’ of work. If they have, it’s mostly from an academic perspective or with a view to going it alone — a small business, even of one, is better than working for the man…or so the story goes. (And yes, there are some wonderfully romantic success stories of workers morphing into bosses, morphing into Titans, morphing into billionaires but, even allowing for the late upsurge in China, it still represents a tiny proportion of the whole.)
It’s arguable that work was never meant to be interesting let alone spiritual. I mean, imagine yourself as an employer: you pay for labour; labour is provided in return. That seems like a decent bargain, doesn’t it?
In a sense, this misses the point; namely, we’re creative beings. And work, even that which is lauded as purposeful, rarely touches our soul.
Look at your life.
When you were a kid you played and reveled in the mystery of the moment. You wouldn’t have expressed it that way but work was reserved for adults. As you grew up, you were conditioned to believe that economic labour = work = life. It’s conjecture but I doubt whether many of your teachers invited a more beautiful question than, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” What if they’d asked, “What would you do with your life if money was no object?”
And those impressions kept coming until you reached a stage where you felt the only thing to do was get a job. But, at what stage did you entertain the question, “What’s the meaning of work?”
What, you mean you never questioned how you’d live the rest of you life, give or take time off for good behaviour? (If you’ve never read a Scott Adams cartoon, I’m sure you’ll find some amusement in what he says.)
If it’s any consolation, neither did I until I was 43.
I know there are exceptions — mostly the artisans who are willing to put in the heavy lifting to get good at what they do (i.e. 10,000 hours) — but the link between soul and role has been lost in the need to get ahead.
Don’t believe me?
Ask any teenager what they want to do when they grow up and most want to make mega bucks for the least effort, leaving as much time as possible for leisure. (Most don’t know, mind you!)
Prima facie there’s nothing wrong with this lifestyle but we all know that ‘jobs’ like that don’t exist. Even the small business owner, who thinks he’ll get back his/her life from the drudgery of work, ends up working for a lunatic — him/herself. Rather than working on the business and growing it 10,000 times its original size, they end up ‘doing it, doing it, doing it’ and not much else (see “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael E. Gerber). They’re not entrepreneurs but self-employed technicians.
With this backdrop, is it any wonder that people are so disillusioned with life? I mean, as nice as it is to talk about a work/life balance, the truth is there’s too much work (of the wrong type), and no time left to properly enjoy life.
I suspect by this stage you’re a bit weary of me pointing out the bleeding obvious. What you want is answers. Better still you want someone to take charge of your life and make it better. And, yes, I’m quite serious. I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me they hate what they do. They’d rather be doing anything but work, even though they’ve no idea what or how they might re-engineer their life for the better.
If we go back to the beginning and examine our creative roots, you’ll see a pattern. The things we enjoyed we enjoyed for their own sake. We didn’t think about why we enjoyed them. We just enjoyed them.
In my case, I liked drawing and karate.
What about you?
Do you remember those few things that absorbed your attention to such an extent that you never worried about the time spent, the trophies won or pleasing anyone?
Possibly I’m simplifying things to make my point, but what I’m asking you to look at is a time in your life where you didn’t do a lot of head scratching about your craft. You were in the moment doing your sh*t because you loved it.
At some stage, you might have lost interest in your calling or more likely you were talked out of it but I’m quite sure there’s something in your past that ignited your inner fire.
There will be a few people where this doesn’t apply but I doubt very much if you were encouraged to consider how a childish interest could be channeled into a proper career. You were told to get a job.
What a waste.
But what if you did reconnect with your inner child?
And it’s nothing to do with what I say.
It’s because you’ve no choice.
No, not the sort of choice you routinely make between this or that, e.g. a cup of tea or coffee, but the sort of choice where you know that if you don’t your life will count for f*ck all.
I know what you’re thinking.
My life is meaningful; I serve my family to the best of my ability; and I’m trying my hardest at work to make a success of things.
And that’s all great. But what it’s not doing is expressing who you are at the most foundational level.
What I’m pointing at is that all of us are possessed of genius. Not the Van Gogh variety but the ability to touch lives through our art.
I’m prepared to go even further.
Your current attention is on the wrong things: TV, social media, conversations that chew the fat, endless socialising, buying stuff you don’t need and only entertaining your view of the world.
Or perhaps another way to look at this, is to ask where your attention is placed moment to moment.
Is it on doing your best work or merely existing?
You may well be settled. And you’ve worked hard to get to this point. That’s great. But what would happen if you lost it all tomorrow, or someone told you that you only had months to live? Would you still feel that you’d done your best work — your genius work — or would you feel that you could have tried a bit harder?
Not that I’m trying to hold my life up as an exemplar — hell, I’m as much up to my neck in the mediocrity as the next person — but all I know is that if I’m not trying to create art (whatever that looks like), I’m not sure what else I’d have to live for. My family? Sure. But the time is fast approaching when it will just be me and Alli at home and what am I going to do then? Wait for my grandchildren to order my life? I don’t think so.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Seth Godin. I hope it helps.
“My philosophy is that it doesn’t pay to go to a conference unless you’re prepared to be vulnerable and meet people, and it doesn’t pay to go to a Q&A session unless you’re willing to sit in the front row. Reading blogs is great, writing one is even better.
There are more chances than ever to attend, but all of them require participation if you expect them to work.
The magic of this new economy is that instead of your work benefitting a fat cat boss with a mansion and a yacht, your work and your learning benefits you and the people you care about.”
Note: In case you’re interested, I’m now on Patreon where you can read more of my work for free or subscribe for a very nominal sum to a few pieces that are created especially for patrons. I also offer coaching on a one on one basis and you can find out about it here.