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Do you love what you do?
January 31, 2012 9:53 AM   Subscribe

On the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque talks about creating a meaningful life through meaningful work. The idea of meaningful work seems to be talked about a lot in business circles. What does that say about people in "business"?

Does meaningful work involve science (as a scientist, I say YES!), or should we just be looking for a job, and not work?
posted by source.decay (40 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mark me down for "Job". Once I get health insurance and have a small margin for emergencies, then I'll worry about the meaning of what I do.
posted by rebent at 10:02 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


"In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be."
- "Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell
posted by jeffburdges at 10:04 AM on January 31, 2012 [15 favorites]


I am constantly reminded that I'm lucky to even have a job so "meaningful" isn't relevant for me. I suspect I'm not alone in feeling that way.
posted by tommasz at 10:07 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


The ruthless extermination of any kind of spiritual engagement with working life has caused untold misery. This is Marxism 101: the alienation of labour. The only solution is to put the means of production into the hands of the workers. This is where all our technology should aim. Lenin said that communism is soviets + electrification. In our time, it is worker ownership + solar power.
posted by No Robots at 10:08 AM on January 31, 2012 [9 favorites]


This is a problem that would only ever occur to someone who is able to provide themselves, and their families, with above adequate food and shelter.

Even beyond that, Haque is describing an awfully restrictive definition of meaning. Why is leading a quite, simple life inherently not meaningful? What about someone who works in some forgettable job but spends their free time working in the community and touching thousands of lives, yet never achieves recognition? Do children count as something that stands the test of time, or only if they become famous and do 'science'?

I would agree that we- like pretty much every generation, ever- are not all working for the advancement of the human race at every waking moment. I am also not nearly convinced that is a bad thing.
posted by vohk at 10:12 AM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I would agree that we- like pretty much every generation, ever- are not all working for the advancement of the human race at every waking moment. I am also not nearly convinced that is a bad thing.

I would settle for a definition of non-harm: Please do not actively contribute to the destruction of the human race. Unfortunately, unsustainable, destructive, or fraudulent activities comprise much of our economy at the moment.
posted by benzenedream at 10:22 AM on January 31, 2012 [15 favorites]


I'm lucky to even have a job so "meaningful" isn't relevant for me

Or, as someone who spends their life day-dreaming in academia would note, a "job".
posted by jsavimbi at 10:34 AM on January 31, 2012


As I tell my friends repeatedly, when they express this kind of concern....

"Don't Worry, It'll All Be Over Soon".


Also, pre-empting: Metafilter: "Don't Worry, It'll All Be Over Soon".
posted by lalochezia at 10:34 AM on January 31, 2012


One of the many things I find fascinatingly disturbing about Americans is this cute attachment so many of them seem to have to the idea that your job is the primary place you go to find meaning in your life.

On first meeting someone I have only ever been asked the question "And what do you do?" - in the sense of "How do you make your money?" - by Americans. No other nationality. True story.
posted by Decani at 10:37 AM on January 31, 2012 [16 favorites]


It is unsurprising that someone working for the Harvard Buisness Review thinks that the correct way to value a life or a job is throught whether it creates "accomplishments" that "stand the test of excellence", "actually matter" and "stand the test of time".

But its a bad measure to use. To quote Dworkin, who is poetic about this kind of thing:

"Yes, but for some lives, penicillin would not have been discovered so soon and King Lear would never have been written. But if we measure a life’s value by its consequence, all but a few lives would have no value, and the great value of some other lives—of a carpenter who pounded nails into a playhouse on the Thames—would be only accidental. On any plausible view of what is truly wonderful in almost any human life, impact hardly comes into the story at all.

If we want to make sense of a life having meaning, we must take up the Romantic’s analogy. We find it natural to say that an artist gives meaning to his raw materials and that a pianist gives fresh meaning to what he plays. We can think of living well as giving meaning—ethical meaning, if we want a name—to a life. That is the only kind of meaning in life that can stand up to the fact and fear of death.

Does all that strike you as silly? Just sentimental? When you do something smaller well—play a tune or a part or a hand, throw dignity a curve or a compliment, make a chair or a sonnet or love—your satisfaction is complete in itself. Those are achievements within life. Why can’t a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays?

We value human lives well lived not for the completed narrative, as if fiction would do as well, but because they too embody a performance: a rising to the challenge of having a life to lead. The final value of our lives is adverbial, not adjectival. It the value of the performance, not anything that is left when the performance is subtracted. It is the value of a brilliant dance or dive when the memories have faded and the ripples died away."
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [21 favorites]


I wasted a lot of time (and money getting a SECOND degree I wasn't going to use) thinking I needed to have a "career". I bought into the American idea that your work had to be important and meaningful and fulfill not only your monetary needs but your emotional ones as well. I was depressed because I had never felt any kind of "calling" to do anything and sought from work only to bring home an adequate paycheck. All I knew was that I liked jobs where I went in at 8, left at 5, did my work in between, and didn't give the place a moment's thought when I wasn't there. I finally encountered a psychologist (psychiatrist? I don't know) who assured me that this was not only perfectly fine but probably pretty admirable, and instead of telling me to get another degree or follow my bliss or some shit, she prescribed Celexa and that's done the trick ever since.

I don't hate my job, nor do I adore it, and I don't define myself by it. It's what I do during the day that allows me to have Legos and a house and a dog and a wife and stuff and do the things I enjoy doing. They get some database junk done, I get the other 128 hours a week. (I know I'm very fortunate to have even this job, and I'm thankful.)
posted by Legomancer at 10:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


The idea that business leaders can do "meaningful" work immediately morphs in my brain into "trappings of 'meaningfulness' held up as status symbols in a world where increasing numbers of employees do meaningless work, where said trappings become increasingly expensive, rare and unobtainable".

I may be a tad cynical in that respect.
posted by LN at 10:48 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I get it, and god knows, I've asked myself the question if what I do is meaningful enough times.

But it's still filed under "FIRST WORLD PROBLEM".
posted by MuffinMan at 10:53 AM on January 31, 2012


The idea of meaningful work seems to be talked about a lot in business circles. What does that say about people in "business"?

It means they are very good at detecting what people are looking for but not so great at providing it. Which is exactly what "co-opting" is all about.
posted by DU at 11:00 AM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is fascinating. I read through these viewpoints and comments and I'm struck by how true all of them feel. Personally, I think I've worked in all four quadrants of the unhappy/happy with job and job did/did not add value graph. I suspect it's a more complicated graph than that.

I've also seen people who I suspect are deeply unhappy and who throw themselves into their jobs, and look condescendingly upon those people who don't "add value". I think when you make a six figure income, you have to rationalize that you're worth those extra digits, even (especially) when you're not and it's really just a product of luck that you got that position. And there are people who work dead-end jobs who really are unhappy because they feel they aren't.

It's a balance for everyone and I think it changes all the time. Ideally, everyone should at least give a little bit of thought to how their work impacts the world at large, but expecting everyone to slave purely towards the god of Progress isn't feasible either.

And of course, it's a first world problem right now, but if you believe that the unemployment rate is going to stay this high (I believe it might) then we're just going to have this same discussion 50 years from now about our leisure time.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 11:09 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


All I knew was that I liked jobs where I went in at 8, left at 5, did my work in between, and didn't give the place a moment's thought when I wasn't there. I finally encountered a psychologist (psychiatrist? I don't know) who assured me that this was not only perfectly fine but probably pretty admirable

Hell yeah!
posted by Hoopo at 11:10 AM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


I do gameplay prototyping and voiceover editing on Bioshock: Infinite. Which means my job oscillates between being balls-out fun (even if my prototypes inevitably get replaced by a real implementation) and feeling like I'm Doing Something Worthwhile (even if that something involves whittling down tens of thousands of line reads), respectively.

In terms of actual quality of life? The work is not the important thing. The absolute most important thing is that everyone I actually have to talk to on any given day is both smart and super-committed to their craft. It's not "just a job" for anyone I work with - creating fantastic art or sound design is just fundamental to their core identities - which reduces the occurrence of drama and bullshit by orders of magnitude. That's always been primary motivator for me when it comes to that daily decision about actually getting out of bed and going to work, and I suspect this is true of many or even most people.
posted by Ryvar at 11:12 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


http://vimeo.com/35829872

On January 27, 2012, science writer and marine biologist Kevin Zelnio started the Twitter hashtag #IamScience, encouraging scientists to share their individual stories about their traditional or unconventional paths that brought them to where they are today. The response was overwhelming, with hundreds of tweets pouring in over just a few days.
posted by monospace at 11:41 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I get it, and god knows, I've asked myself the question if what I do is meaningful enough times.

But it's still filed under "FIRST WORLD PROBLEM".


Then there's my friend Gangi Setty in AP, India who gave up a secure position as a teacher to start a nursery and provide low cost and sometimes free trees to help local farmers and to regreen his valley. Seems to me like meaningful work can also be a third world problem.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 11:52 AM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


What does that say about people in "business"?

It says they've found some new names for workaholism - it's now called "meaning" and "passion".

Here's a video of a SXSW panel on the future of careers, with Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit), Scott Belsky (Behance) and Chris Hoyt ("revolutionizing" recruiting at Pepsi).

Ohanian says "If you can use some of those hours you normally spend vegging out in front of the TV getting to work on something you really care about, there's no reason not to... If you and your cofounders are thinking about a particular problem all day, every day, this is what you think about in the shower, you're thinking about it a hundred times more than the smartest people at Google."

But the best part is from Chris Hoyt: "When you find something that you're truly passionate about, you really make that time to build, in your own hours or your late hours... My job doesn't stop at 5 o'clock, I get home around 6 o'clock and I've got a wife and a family, and it's family time, but once they're in bed, my heart has me back online and pushing new things and checking out new challenges and how do we push things forward. And I think it's finding that balance. If you're really lucky, you end up in the job that you get to do it all day, then do your family stuff then do it again."

Especially in the context of startups, the idea of meaning, changing the world, making a difference are obviously useful. These ideas are powerful and motivate people to make enormous sacrifices to try to achieve them when the risks of failure is high. Venture capitalists don't know what the next big thing is, so they need as many people as possible starting companies and trying a bunch of different things. They need something to motivate them to do that because it doesn't make sense financially.

Basically, you need to get people to believe there are more important things than money to get them to make you a ton of money.

People feel like a cog in a machine when they don't care about the goals of the machine. If workplaces were organized democratically, more workers would feel connected to the goals of the organization instead of subordinated to them, and feel that their small contribution mattered, even if they didn't exactly love doing it.

They can put in their 8 hours, then go home to their families and feel good about their work. That seems like a much better idea than telling people to go out and find what they're passionate about so they can become workaholics.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:03 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Mark me down for "Job". Once I get health insurance and have a small margin for emergencies, then I'll worry about the meaning of what I do.

Almost more than anything, I think this comment describes is the big class divide of America: Those who get to choose what they want to do with their lives vs. those who are lucky to find jobs (or scared to quit their shitty jobs because they'll lose their health insurance).

After first and foremost providing for my family, I care much more about "doing no harm" and "not compromising any personal principles" ... "contributing something meaningful" comes in somewhere down the line.

"Meaningful" is a tough one to nail down. We are all pretty trivial.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's hard to argue with someone who is urging us to find and do meaningful work. But did anyone else here think his piece sucked? I mean, he's basing his epiphany that work should be meaningful on overheard conversations? That's pretty stupid; he has no idea how meaningful people's work is, based on an overheard conversation.
posted by jayder at 12:08 PM on January 31, 2012


It's something you'd expect from an adolescent ... "man, I was listening to some adults talking, and they were talking about such boring stuff! When I'm an adult I'm going to make sure I only do cool stuff!"
posted by jayder at 12:10 PM on January 31, 2012


It says they've found some new names for workaholism - it's now called "meaning" and "passion".

The rhetoric of "meaning" comes to the fore now because
1. Most people can't have "meaningful" work under capitalism as it's presently constituted - seriously, the folks harvesting tomatoes and washing diapers in the retirement home and scrubbing the toilets at the mall and working the check-out at Target? And as white collar work gets deskilled, it becomes less possible to locate meaning or even interest there too. It is natural that the system should defend itself by encouraging the individual search for "meaning" through work.

2. More people are skeptical about business in general because of the economic crisis. Ergo, business people - who don't want to feel loathed - want a justification for what they do. Presto, "meaning"!!!

3. Individualism - if you're not happy, it's your own fault, because you should be out finding your passion, which will also make you a living....so if you're poor it's your fault too because you're not passionate enough about your passion.

4. Fear - we're afraid because the economy is in crisis, so we want some kind of assurance that work is good, work is great, we may have to put in sixty hours a week with no benefits but that's okay because we're "passionate".

5. Fragmentation of other types of meaning. Now, I don't worry too much about meaning at work (I like my job just fine; it's the best one I've ever had by a long chalk, but I don't really feel that it represents my best contribution to the world) because I'm lucky to live in a city and be part of several tight-knit communities. My meaning comes from what I do there, how I'm recognized there, even when I fuck up there.

6. The erosion by work of time for actual meaning-creation. Work sixty hours a week at a shitty job, live in some godawful suburb because that's where the land is cheap, commute an hour each way, see your wages lose value....you won't have a lot of time for anything else meaningful either, probably not even cooking or exercise, so you'll tell yourself that you have "meaning" in your work because the alternative isn't very great.

7. Constant propaganda from out-of-touch elites. Sure, if I had a basically pleasant job where I made important decisions and used my favorite skills all day and got a fat paycheck and a lot of respect for it, I would be totally stoked. I'm totally stoked when I do something in my non-work life that I enjoy and then get praised for. But these risible people who are curators or diplomats or whatever because they're from some fancy background...they honestly believe that they have found "meaning" in their work because they themselves are special, ultra-perceptive snowflakes, and all we need to do to be like them is to get our heads right.
posted by Frowner at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2012 [17 favorites]


Most people can't have "meaningful" work under capitalism as it's presently constituted - seriously, the folks harvesting tomatoes and washing diapers in the retirement home and scrubbing the toilets at the mall and working the check-out at Target?

I agree with you in general, but of those 4 examples, the first 3 are pretty much as "meaningful" as it gets - picking food, nursing, and cleaning toilets? All essential. (It's why sanitation has always had an appeal for me.)

That's the other weird thing about this conversation. The most essential jobs (food production, health care, sanitation, janitorial, education) are compensated very poorly and left for our poorest, most uneducated citizens.

One of the many things I find fascinatingly disturbing about Americans is this cute attachment so many of them seem to have to the idea that your job is the primary place you go to find meaning in your life.

See Frowner's #6. It's the only place many people go, period.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


A coauthor recently observed "Capitalism was remarkably effective at convincing people to do things the didn't want to do. Too bad several thousand years of civilization made people want to do the things that needed doing."

There are various metrics of success like money, winning, leading, intellectual challenge, impacting others, physical activity, etc., generally you lose on some when you gain on others, choose wisely.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:06 PM on January 31, 2012


Most people can't have "meaningful" work under capitalism as it's presently constituted - seriously, the folks harvesting tomatoes and washing diapers in the retirement home and scrubbing the toilets at the mall and working the check-out at Target? And as white collar work gets deskilled, it becomes less possible to locate meaning or even interest there too.

Yes, people experience work under capitalism as meaningless. But I think that's because capitalism is meaningless - it works to the benefit of a small elite rather than the people. Not because certain types of work are inherently meaningless. Intellectual work is believed to be more meaningful, but only because its products are more varied. Why is variation better than repetition? Because capitalism requires constant innovation, new ideas, new consumer products to generate continued growth.

But as anyone who has ever had a creative block will tell you, the constant demand to do something new can also be oppressive, as much as the constant demand to do things the same way.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:16 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a problem that would only ever occur to someone who is able to provide themselves, and their families, with above adequate food and shelter.

Well, yes, that's the whole point of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:43 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


It says they've found some new names for workaholism - it's now called "meaning" and "passion".

I've known workaholics who were absolutely not passionate, and the times in my career when I was feeling passionate about what I was doing I was advised to take my findings (which were absolutely fascinating to me) nobody seemed to care that I'd just worked a bunch of really long days and solved what was the project killing issue just two weeks earlier. They just knew that had other unfulfilled wants and why hadn't I solved those yet?

After my last rant about how much I liked my job once upon a time and how much joy got squeezed out of it over the years, I got a MeFi Mail from a fellow scientist who pretty much said that he'd be unwilling to go back to work in industry. I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes feel the same way.

But all of this has noting to do with capitalism. Anyone who thinks it is not to your long term competitive advantage to know what it is that you are doing is not a capitalist - they are an idiot. They've just invested a lot of time and money in blurring the distinction. Don't be fooled! Where things really went off the rails was with Fredric Taylor and the idea of Scientific Management. Since then we've been pretty vicious about squeezing the quality (and hence the satisfaction) out of everything we do and hoping that our machines will cover for us. And people are surprised they have workers who don't give a damn. Mathew Crafford talks a lot about this in "Shop Class as Soulcraft" which sounds very "What Color is My Parachute" only more twee but really is mostly about industrial psychology and economic theory, bit really it's just Crawford taking Karl Marx and Fredric Taylor out behind the woodshed and giving both of them a good thrashing.

Personally, I could be perfectly happy making fine furniture in my basement for the rest of my days and could pretty much pull a living wage out of it if I could get something resembling the prices that furniture galleries get for the stuff they're selling. It's not exactly intellectual work, nor is it particularly varied, but when you hear a sort of "pffft" sound as a tenon squeezes the air out of its mortise, it's satisfying in almost exactly the same way as really high correlation coefficients, really low %CV's and data that lines up with your expected values.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:05 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doh. Screwed up an edit. Basically I was advised to simplify my findings to a point at which they would cease to explain the issue, but hopefully no one would think about it too hard. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to cry, vomit or cry vomit.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:08 PM on January 31, 2012


Hah, yeah, I was just going to mention the Maslow. First you need to have the money and health insurance coming in before you can start caring about whether or not you're happy at work.

Unfortunately for me, as far as I can tell, the sort of job that would make me feel meaningful and happy at work does not come with pay or health insurance. The things I am good at are easily expendable in a bad economy. I am trying to do as Legomancer does, and it works to some degree. The job is there to fund your life and your hobbies, not make your soul sing.

But I will admit that...it gets old. And then I start being all First World Problem-y about it and annoying myself. And then I hunt around trying to figure out what would make me happy and still have money/insurance... and get nowhere. And then I realize that I am probably doing the very best that I will ever do, right now, since I'm not willing to starve for my art or whatever, and that dropping my bird in the hand to go after ones in the bush probably means that I'll end up birdless/homeless. I keep trying to settle and be content with what I got, and to some degree I am. And to some degree I'm not. And I can't resolve those sides for SHIT while still having financial/insurance security.

I am awfully tired of having this circular argument going around and around in my brain for the last five years or so. Career counseling and the like haven't found a solution to the problem, I don't want to run my own business because I don't have the brains for it, and...yeah. I give up and settle. Except for that nagging feeling that still won't go away, and here I go on the hamster wheel again.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:11 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I get it, and god knows, I've asked myself the question if what I do is meaningful enough times. But it's still filed under "FIRST WORLD PROBLEM".

I don't think it is a first world problem at all. I've just come back from conducting fieldwork in the Equatorial Pacific (and surrounds). During this time I conducted research in Tokelau, which is perhaps one of the more remote locations in the world. I met so many people there for whom meaningful work is synonymous with family and community living, and who strive to do work that is rewarding, useful and helpful (both for themselves and their community). I had conversations with folks there about balancing their family life and work. I had conversations with other folks about professional frustrations.

Also, it is worth noting, that once you've lived in a 'third world country' you get used to the way things work pretty quickly, and it doesn't seem too different from anything else. Plenty of place in the Pacific are called 'third world', but it doesn't necessarily feel like it when you're living there (even if you are hauling all your water, which is running out day by day).
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:29 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

That's probably not what a bunch of business leaders are talking about when they talk about "meaningful" work, of course.
posted by eviemath at 3:23 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


"One of the many things I find fascinatingly disturbing about Americans is this cute attachment so many of them seem to have to the idea that your job is the primary place you go to find meaning in your life."

I'm American, so I guess I'm biased, but does this perspective really seem totally off-base? We spent 8 hours a day (commonly more) at our jobs, not to mention the time we spend commuting or doing work from home via e-mail. Does it seem so ridiculous that someone might want to have some kind of meaning in the thing they do the majority of their waking hours?
posted by allseeingabstract at 5:03 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does meaningful work involve science (as a scientist, I say YES!)

As a former sort-of-scientist and someone who knows a lot of scientists, I say no. Or at least, not necessarily. Just because scientists like doing science doesn't mean everyone does.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:21 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think it is a first world problem at all

I disagree. Of course people in third world countries can still go out and actively seek meaningful work. The guy who swaps his teaching job for something more meaningful. They're both meaningful jobs. I'm not disputing that.

But the specific examples the author raises - educated, privileged, and all things being relative, well off - professionals looking back on their life's work and wondering if it is meaningful or will stand the test of time.

This is a first world issue.

I've lived in third world countries too, and worked with a lot of colleagues in third world countries.

Very few of them were concerned with how meaningful their work was or were jaded at all about corporate or creative life. In time, perhaps, when their kids or a younger generation looks back on them and wonders why they think they're such hotshots for working in market planning for Whizzo Consumer Products Ltd they might be more inclined to seek more meaning. But overwhelmingly, the sentiment I've encountered time and again is incredible ambition to progress, and a huge sense of pride that they have attained things their parents couldn't or didn't [by the same age].

In contrast to worker bees in the 1st world, I've come across almost zero angst about the whole business of why exactly they came into work and what it was all for.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:50 AM on February 1, 2012


I'm seeking a meaningful job. I dont think I found it in the humanities...
posted by winter_eve at 2:35 AM on February 1, 2012


A couple of thoughts...

A lot of people find meaning enough in providing for their families. In fact where people frame it for themselves as "hard work and sacrifice for the sake of people I love", that's probably far more meaningful and fulfilling than any amount of achievement or working for the sake of intrinsic interest.

The old Maslow hierarchy of needs model is probably fairly useful for understanding what's going on. Things like intrinsic enjoyment, meaningfulness and self-expression mainly come into play once putting food on the table and feeling like you have some status in your community are reasonably well handled.
posted by philipy at 5:36 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't want to work away
Doing just what they all say
Work hard boy and you'll find
One day you'll have a job like mine

Be wise, look ahead
Use your eyes, he said
Be straight, think right
... But I might die tonight!

posted by mrgrimm at 8:16 AM on February 1, 2012




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