Finding Meaning In Work
The drone of the air conditioner resonates above me, sighing its incessant, lifeless hum into the corridor and adjacent offices. The reverberation of the ancient metal contraption creates a monotonous tune that infiltrates the psyches of the building’s denizens like smog through a cracked window. Pixelated screens illuminate expressionless faces attached to kyphotic bodies hunching in their chairs. At a glance, these glowing entities look more like lifeless corporeal husks than living, breathing human beings; their minds seemingly dissociated entirely from their physical bodies as they click away in a technological abyss. My back and neck ache as I remember the presence of my own body.
I get up, stretch half-heartedly, and make my way down the long, bleak hall to a unisex restroom. My venture is more of an attempt to escape from boredom and the reality of my present situation than a biological urgency. The white, grimy walls and multiple electronic protrusions create a prison-like aura in which I have voluntarily incarcerated myself. I pass another inhabitant of the building.
The exchange feels shallow and meaningless. The interaction seems like a way to deal with the awkwardness of encountering another person rather than a lighthearted exchange of goodwill and humanity.
“Is this what work is? When did we subscribe ourselves to a life of office-dwelling and robotic exchanges?”
I can’t help but muse over these questions as I wash my hands and make the trek back to my somber office. My job is comfortable. I make a nice salary. I have pleasant days and have met plenty of nice people. Why then do I feel a sense of dread every time I swipe my badge and open the access-restricted door that guards the building like an obedient watchdog? Why do I feel like something is missing?
I sit back at my desk and mentally prepare myself for another hour of staring into a screen void of significance. As I begin my descent into the realm of emails and code, my brain stumbles upon an even more perplexing and perhaps dismal question.
Am I alone with these feelings?
Work is a fascinating phenomenon. Culture and society have dictated that one must produce measurable value to humanity in order to receive recompense for one’s contributions. This, in turn, enables us to attain provisions necessary for survival as well as material possessions and services that allow for pleasure, comfort, and fulfillment.
Work plays a unique role in each and every one of our lives. We need work in order to survive in the modern world and provide for ourselves and others. A large portion of our lives, assuming the status-quo remains relatively the same for the foreseeable future, will be spent working. If this remains true, what can we do to get the most out of work? Why do I and so many others feel like something is missing each time we clock in or sit down in front of a luminescent screen? Isn’t the American dream just about making money, buying a nice house, having a few kids, and dying without making too much of a fuss?
I think the world and human needs are evolving faster than the current work environment.
While I do not profess to be a history buff, my understanding is that over the course of recorded human history much of the nature of work has been focused on survival. It wasn’t until recently that society has grown to a point where we now face the challenge of incorporating meaning into work.
Meaning can be different for everyone but the idea is the same: we want our time on this earth to contribute to something greater than ourselves. This could be the rearing of children, helping others, contributing to the progression of humanity, leaving a legacy, and so on. Meaning is essential for us as humans because it allows us to create a purpose for life. Having a life purpose makes the experience of life more exciting and bearable than the humble truth that we are born, we experience consciousness for a little while, and we die. Keep in mind this is my interpretation. I have no intention to discuss existentialism, religion, the theory of what happens after we die, or anything like that in this article.
I’m a fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs because it suggests that our needs evolve. The need for survival, when met, has the capacity to transition into the need for meaning. This theory of evolving needs illustrates the complexity of human beings and suggests that the higher the needs of a society rank on this pyramid, the more advanced the society is. I believe that we are reaching a point in society that is starting to progress into the top three tiers of needs.
I don’t think work can address all of these needs (especially sexual intimacy, although you never know…), but I do believe that work can address the majority of them. I think it’s worth pondering, especially as society continues to advance, how we can incorporate the top-tiered needs into work.
Before I go on, I want to emphasize that your present situation dictates a lot of what your needs are and thus impacts how work is able to satisfy them. If you’re struggling to meet the essentials of safety or physiological, your needs for esteem and self-actualization will probably not take priority. Any occupation or work condition may suffice under this premise, at least for the duration of time you find yourself inadequately able to satisfy these requirements.
I recognize that not everyone has the opportunity, or fortune, or whatever you want to call it, to focus on fulfilling the needs towards the top of Maslow’s pyramid. While I think this is something that should be looked into and addressed, I can only speak to my experience and the experience of my contemporaries when it comes to examining the current status of work. My hope is that we can expand the experience of work for everyone and provide depth and meaning to each and every individual that enters the realm of employment.
So what can we do assuming our physiological and safety needs are being met?
This is the challenge that I face. Am I alone feeling this way? My gut tells me no. Maybe you, reading this now, feel similarly. You ache to do something that matters and make an impact on others while feeling fulfilled yourself. You desire more than the 9-5 grind; you want to make a difference. You want to discover or enhance your talents, unleash your potential, and achieve greatness in whatever you choose to do. You want to want to go to work. You want to feel engaged, alive, and full. You want to leave a legacy.
If you do feel this way, you’re definitely not alone because I wake up with these longings every single day. Unfortunately, I’m not sure most modern businesses have the answer. I definitely don’t have the answer. Most people lack the self-awareness to even understand themselves well enough to know how work could satisfy their higher needs. Apart from intensive psychotherapy (which still may not offer a fool-proof solution), present institutions do not understand psychology and philosophy well enough to adequately assist and direct people in the spheres of work and meaning.
While there isn’t a solution presently, we can start the discussion and work together to not only bring awareness to the issue but action on behalf of governmental, educational, and corporate institutions. Employee acquisition and retention is a growing concern amongst companies and I believe incorporating meaning into work is going to be a huge competitive advantage for businesses who can successfully implement it in the years to come.
While I admit that I don’t know the answer to this question, I do have a few ideas that may be helpful if you find yourself in a work-induced “meaning vacuum”:
1) Discover meaning in your current job
It’s easy to get preoccupied with the day-to-day activities required of you at work. As a result, it’s also easy to get trapped into a mindset that what you’re doing is insignificant and that it doesn’t make a broader impact. I encourage you to challenge this mindset and think about how your work ties into the bigger picture of your life and your company. What is your company’s mission? How does your job contribute to this mission? How is what you do making a deeper impact on the company and your community? How are your needs being satisfied in your current role? Perhaps there’s a lot of meaning in your work already, you just haven’t discovered it. Take a step back, evaluate what you and your company are doing, and see if you can manufacture some significance for your work.
2) Learn about yourself and your psychology
Become a detective on yourself. Learn about your strengths, your weaknesses, what pisses you off, what motivates you, how your body works, what your goals and values are, why your goals and values are what they are, and so forth. Literally examine the shit out of yourself and the way your mind works. You may find that what you thought you wanted isn’t really what you want, that your current trajectory does not align with your long-term life vision, or that there are aspects of your cognition, personality, and emotional makeup that you’ve been blind to. You may discover that the way society tells you to live is not, in fact, how you want to live. I think self-awareness is key when it comes to finding work that satisfies and fulfills you because it’s essential that you know yourself in order to determine the optimal direction to move in.
3) Seek opportunities
I’m leaving my job at the end of March and moving to Austin with almost no game plan and absolutely no guarantees. This may turn out to be a huge blunder but my intuition tells me otherwise. I encourage you, if you aren’t finding the meaning you’re looking for in your current situation, to be strategic and seek opportunities. This doesn’t mean quit your job tomorrow but it does mean that you need to start being proactive and putting yourself out there to find something that you believe will align better with your talents, values, and goals. Learn about and try out things that interest you. Start a side project. Dip your toe in the pool of possibility. Be courageous, plan ahead, trust your gut, and put yourself in a position to do something that matters to you.
4) Be patient
This one is especially hard for me. We want everything right away and the internet and our consumer culture has done nothing but propagate this ideology. The process of self-discovery and aligning one’s talents with a suitable employment arrangement takes time, especially because society lacks the institutions necessary to expedite this process. Think of all the successful people that you look up to (and success is by no means simply monetary). I doubt they got there overnight and I would wager they put years of effort into themselves and discovering/sharpening their talents and skills in order to get to where they’re at now. Engage in the process of self-discovery and focus on the process rather than the end result. The process itself will give you the best chances of getting to the end results you desire.
Look, no one is entitled to make money doing what they love. Understand that work is not yet at a point where providing meaning is a performance metric for managers. Meaning is highly ambiguous and individual and it will take time to figure out how to satisfy the upper needs of Maslow’s pyramid. I do believe, however, that meaningful work is attainable and I’m going to do everything in my power to discover it for myself and others. If you’re passionate about doing work that provides substance to you and your life, let’s start the discussion and invest effort and energy into discovering and defining meaning within the context of work.