My Previous Advice – One of the most difficult tasks for most of us is finding fulfilling (paid) work in our modern economic system. (If you don’t have this problem fine, but many people do.) I addressed this topic previously in my most viewed blog post to date: “Should You Do What You Love?” (It had over 10,000 views, generating many comments on my site and on Reddit. Evidently, it is a topic of interest.) Here was my conclusion:
I agree with Marino that doing our duty, even if it doesn’t make us happy, is admirable. And I agree with Tokumitsu and Hanson that elitists, who often do the most interesting work, fail to value more mundane work. But I think that Linsenmayer makes the most important point. We need a new economic system–one where we can develop our talents and actualize our potential. Most of us are too good for the work we do, not because we are better than others, but because the work available in our current system is not good enough for any of us. (I have written about this previously.)
Still, we do not live in an ideal world. So what practical counsel do we give others, in our current time and place? Unfortunately, my advice is dull and unremarkable, like so much of the available work. For now, the best recommendation is something like: do the least objectionable/most satisfying work available given your options. That we can’t say more reveals the gap between the real and the ideal; it is symptomatic of a flawed society. Perhaps working to change the world so that people can engage in satisfying work is the most meaningful work of all.
More Thoughts – First a disclaimer. I am not an expert on the topic of satisfying work and I lack the time for a thorough investigation of the topic. But social science research must have been done on what work people generally find fulfilling, on the difference between work and leisure activities; on work and its compatibility with personality profiles like the Big 5, and related topics. Those interested should consult this research. With these caveats in place, here are a few reflections.
What is work? – It is activity, usually engaged in for the money which buys the things we need to survive. We typically contrast work with leisure, which is activity or inactivity usually engaged in, not for money, but for enjoyment. Of course what we call work activity or leisure activity might conflict or coincide. We might engage in activities we enjoy and make money in the process—our work and our leisure activities may coincide. Yet they might conflict too. We might enjoy playing golf and hate being a lawyer—engaging in the latter for the sole purpose of making money to engage in the former. But surely most of us in the first world, when confronted with a countless variety of activities in which to engage, can find something we (somewhat) enjoy that also makes money.
Are We Lucky to Have a Job? – This is a tough question. For those in the world who subsist on less than $2 a day—about half the world’s population—any work that paid almost anything would seem to be a blessing. Desperate people might consider themselves lucky to make a few thousand dollars a year picking fruit all day in the hot sun. From the perspective of those in poverty, those who would reject a $100,000 a year job (in US dollars) in good working conditions because it wasn’t satisfying enough, would elicit no sympathy. (They might even consider such individuals entitled.) Nor would those who insist on satisfying work elicit sympathy from full-time workers making the USA minimum wage, which typically involves unfulfilling work. Still, it is hard to tell someone they should be satisfied with work they don’t find satisfying. By all means, if the opportunity presents itself, and you would not hurt yourself or others, accept more fulfilling work.
Is the World Economic System Immoral? – One might advance a stronger argument against working at all—that participating in the world’s economic system is intrinsically immoral. If participating in an economic system they deem unjust violates one’s conscience, then perhaps they shouldn’t do that work. Of course, they have to ask themselves whether they really believe this or whether it is an excuse to avoid doing something they don’t like. But if it is the former, then possibly they shouldn’t violate their conscience.
I say possibly because there are all sorts of reasons to do what you don’t want to do, or even do what you think is immoral. As for doing what you don’t want to, the idea of duty has a long history as a significant concept in moral philosophy that dates back at least to the Stoics. And even if you think the economic system is immoral you might still want to participate in it to feed your family. Surely there is also something immoral about allowing your family to starve, not have adequate nutrition, not live in a good neighborhood or get a good education. Especially when you have the ability to avoid such outcomes.
Moreover, you really don’t know that participating in an imperfect world economic system is immoral. There is substance to the counterargument that participation in the world’s economic system, despite its flaws, has merit. For surely something about that system has contributed positively to the world we now live in. And what kind of world is that? It is one in which more people live longer and more fulfilling lives while doing reasonably satisfying work than at any time in human history. (If you don’t believe this, take your family back to Europe in the Middle Ages or ancient Greece or Rome or the plains of Africa where the average lifespan was vanishingly short, where mothers died in childbirth, children died en masse of disease, and there was little time for high cultural achievements like art, literature, music, philosophy, and science.)
Now the extent to which these positive transformations were caused by economic systems is debatable—perhaps science and technology played a more important role in driving human history. (I think they did.) But economics, technology, and other elements of culture interact. It is hard to disentangle which have played the most important role in leading to the better world we now live in. But our long journey—from the agricultural revolution, which produced the excess food which allowed for priests, philosophers, artisans, and scientists; to the industrial revolution, which mass-produced the technology that transformed the world; to the current technological revolution, which will transform reality in ways as yet unimaginable—together have produced a better world. And some part of that transformation must have been played by commerce, business, lending, and money. I don’t possess the wherewithal to defend this argument in detail, but these comments should at least plant doubt in the minds of those who assume that the modern economic system is intrinsically immoral. It is easy to be influenced by half-true memes.
Now I am not an apologist for predatory capitalism, the profit motive, or the genocide and slavery which it was and still is associated. I don’t know on balance if it is a good or bad thing. I just know that the truth about such issues is complex. What part does our evolutionary biology play and what part do the various elements of culture play in our imperfect world? Again, I don’t know. But given the complexity of the issue, it would be foolish to not participate in the system as best we can. (There are many ways to do this which I’ll describe below.) In fact, other than opting out of life entirely, it isn’t possible to live disentangled from the world’s economy. Even Thoreau determined to live according to his conscience and often far from the world said, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” He wanted to change the world but had to make peace with it too.
What work is fulfilling? – In my own life reading, writing, thinking, and teaching philosophy were activities that, for the most part, I enjoyed. Of course, nothing is perfect. I had students over the years that I strongly disliked, department chairs who were tyrants, and I’ve read books and taken classes that I wasn’t thrilled about. (Oh, those mandatory medieval philosophy classes—how little I remember you, St. Bonaventure!) Surely many feel similarly about being a physician, nurse, biologist, economist, public policy expert, or psychologist—not perfect jobs in a perfect world, but satisfying nonetheless. And I’m not prejudiced toward white-collar jobs either. There are plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and others who feel the same way—they may not have perfect jobs, but they find satisfaction in the honest work that feeds their families. (One of my graduate student friends who was good at fixing things said he found working with his hands as satisfying as philosophy—and he was the best grad student in our program.) I also found raising my children to be some of the most satisfying work I did. I enjoyed every moment of taking them to gymnastics and football games, playing softball and basketball with them, and of course discussing philosophy with them.
What work is fulling for me? – Obviously, this depends on one’s personality traits, talents, psychology, opportunities, culture, history, genes, and more. I mentioned the Big 5 personality test earlier and I’m sure there is information about one’s personality profile and fulfilling work. (There are multiple books about the connection between one’s Myers-Briggs profile and job satisfaction, but as I understand it, the Big 5 is the more scientific test.)
Again for most of us, if we are reasonably intelligent, physically healthy, and lucky enough to live in a thriving economy and not to have to work for minimum (virtual slave) wages in those economies, then there are a plethora of choices. (Of course, overchoice does make choosing tougher.) In the end, all we can do is look at the available choices—assuming we are lucky enough to have them—and choose. It probably doesn’t matter much what we choose, as long as it is something that contributes ever so slightly to keeping civilization going. (We might experience existential guilt by working, thinking that we are denying others the opportunity, but we must value ourselves too. And we must avoid what the Dalai Lama calls “sloppy sympathy,” feeling bad for others. Such sentiments are worthless. Much better to use your skill, go out in the world, and help someone.)
Playing Our Small Role – In the end, we are small creatures and the universe is big. We can’t change the whole world but we can influence it through our interaction with those closest to us, finding joy in the process. We may not change the world by administering to the sick as doctors or nurses or psychologists, or by installing someone’s dishwasher or cleaning their teeth or keeping their internet running. We may not even change it by caring lovingly for our children. But the recipients of such labors may find your work significant indeed. For they received medical care or had someone to talk to or had their teeth cleaned. Or they met an old friend on the internet. Or they don’t have to go to the laundromat anymore. Or they grew up to be the kind of functioning adult this world so desperately needs because of that loving parental care. These may all be small things, but if they are not important, nothing is.
Perhaps then it is the sum total of our labors that make us large. Our labors are not always sexy, but they are necessary to bring about a better future. All those mothers who cared for children and fathers who worked to support them, all those plumbers and doctors and nurses and teachers and firefighters doing their little part in the cosmic dance. All of them recognize what Victor Frankl taught, that productive work is a constitutive element of a meaningful life.