Category Archives: Work

Finding Work That You Love

Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, argued that we should do the work we love. Here is an excerpt of his main idea:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle…

In the past few days I have encountered four separate articles concerning the question of whether one should (only) do the work they love. Each piece had Jobs’ claims in mind.

In “A Life Beyond Do What You Love,” philosophy professor Gordon Marino argues that doing what we don’t want to do—doing our duty—is more noble and ethical than just doing what we love. He doesn’t take kindly to the physician who quit his practice to skateboard all day. In, “In the Name of Love,”  the historian Miya Tokumitsu says that the “do what you love” ethos is elitist and degrades work not done from personal passion. It neglects that work may develop our talents, be part of our duty, or be necessary for our survival. The socio-economic elite advance the do what you love view, forgetting their lives dependonn others doing supposedly less meaningful work. In, “Never Settle is a Brag,”  the economist and futurist Robin Hanson critiques Jobs’ advice that we shouldn’t settle for unfulfilling work. If everyone followed Jobs’ counsel a lot of needed work would go undone. Note too that the advice works best for the talented, so by advising others to not settle for anything less than work they love, you signal your status. You are bragging. Finally in “Is Do What You Love Elitist?” philosophical blogger Mark Linsenmayer recognizes the flaws in Jobs’ prescriptions but finds in them an obvious truth too—the good life requires that we not be wage slaves in a market economic system. Thus we should change the system so that work can be more satisfying.  

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—it is often not satisfying. (I have written about this previously.) As Marx wrote almost two hundred years ago, most of us are alienated from the work we do, and thus ultimately alienated from ourselves and other people too.

Still we do not live in an ideal world. So what practical counsel do we give people, in our current time and place, regarding work? 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, which is itself 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.

What Is The Point of Money?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 1 2017.)

Wealth is necessary in order to live well, but it is not sufficient. You may have lots of money but live terribly if you have no friends or wisdom. You may have mistaken part of a good life—sufficient wealth to live—with the whole of the good life. For money isn’t an end in itself, it is merely a means to an end.

But let’s suppose that you realize all this. Let’s suppose further that you aren’t materialistic and you want to do good things for the world. Now imagine that you’ve been offered a well-paid position with a good company. We’ll assume your job doesn’t entail you doing anything immoral in the usual sense of the term. (We won’t consider participating in the world’s economic system to be intrinsically immoral.) Let’s further assume that the job isn’t your dream job, so you won’t be “doing what you love.”1 Finally, let’s suppose you are the kind of person who worries that money might corrupt you, or that the job isn’t exactly what you want. What should you do?

My advice would be to take the job. Obviously the job and its benefits—medical and dental insurance, retirement, etc.—help you to live well. But even more importantly for the idealistic, having some modicum of wealth allows you to help others. So while many people aren’t wise and think money is just a means to buy trinkets, the wise realize wealth can also buy freedom and the ability to do good. Money is power that can be used to benefit people—as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet do—or it can hurt people—as Donald Trump and the Koch brothers do.

So when offered a modicum of wealth you are essentially being offered a key that unlocks a door that gives you the chance to effect on the world, to have some power. That power can be used for buying frivolous possessions or for hurting others, but it can also be used for good. And with more power comes the ability to do more good. On the other hand, if you have nothing, you have nothing to give.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the only kind of power is financial. There’s moral and intellectual power too. But the way our world is set up, sometimes that’s just not enough. So I say be adventurous and accept a key if offered it. Go thru the door and you may find more keys that open more doors and perhaps, in some distant time, you will help unlock doors for others.

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  1. I have written previously about whether you should only do what you love.

Feeding Your Family is the Meaning of Life

In response to two recent post, “The Monotony of Work” and “Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech,” I received a perceptive comment from a reader. The commentor (C) is a well-paid software engineer who doesn’t look forward to thirty years of the same work. While thankful for gainful employment and recognizing the role that such works plays in sustaining civilization, what bothers him most is that his intellect is on loan to his employer, rather than being used in a search for truth and wisdom. And if he had a job that afforded this opportunity, he would be willing to make less money. (A better alternative would be to have a guaranteed minimum income to allow people to do what they enjoy.)

I was touched by the sorrow C feels in not being able to spend one’s life reading and learning precisely what one is most interested in and considers most important. I too felt that sorrow long ago and was fortunate enough to be able to pursue, and get modestly paid, for doing philosophy. I also relate to the pain he feels in knowing that he will never be able to know and be all that he want to be—a pain that all seekers of truth feel deeply.

C, who is about to become a father, believes that working to support his child will give more meaning to his work. He thinks that working for his child will be more moral and holy than pursuing “amor intellectualis Dei” (the intellectual love of God), for the latter is, after all, a selfish or hedonistic pursuit. Moreover, C had parents who sacrificed so that he was fed and educated. Thus he feels an obligation to do likewise for his own child. Perhaps then his own child to be able to both seek wisdom and be gainfully employed. As for C himself this probably isn’t possible, as his career demands too much of his psychic energy.

This last question particularly interests me. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously agonized over whether family life or being a philosopher was his better choice. Family life would impinge on the pursuit of truth and vice versa. Kierkegaard would choose philosophy over his love Regine Olsen, but he forever regretted his choice. Many of us face similar choices. I’ve had many students ask me whether they should major in something they loved with few job prospects like philosophy, or whether they should pursue something more financially rewarding but less interesting to them like accounting.

There are no easy answers to such questions. (I have addressed this topic in depth in “Should You Do What You Love?) What I can say is that even if one is lucky enough to pursue and be paid to do what you love—in my case to write, read, teach, and think about philosophy—one will find that there are unpleasant aspects to the job. You have to deal with uninterested or hostile students, dogmatic colleagues, disagreeable deans, unhelpful staff, boring meetings and more. This recognition might lead us to be more accepting of less than perfect jobs.

However C is correct that marriage, family and other outside interests do give us less time to pursue wisdom. Surely without a family and the demands of teaching so many college classes,  nearly 250 in my career, I would have been a more productive philosopher. But would I have been a better one? Would I have gained more wisdom? I doubt it. There is a reason that Buddhist monks considers tasks like washing dishes, planting food, and other mundane tasks as opportunities for Enlightenment. We often find the deepest insights in the most simple things.

All of this reminds me of the words of one of my intellectual heroes, the historian, philosopher, and wisdom lover Will Durant. He says that we cannot definitely answer questions about the meaning of life or how we should live our lives—our minds are too small to entirely comprehend these things. Nonetheless, Durant believes we can say that:

The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be particularly thankful for our fellows; they are a primary reason for loving life.

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to some whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Perhaps this is the best we can do to alleviate C’s worries. It may be a simple answer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a profound one.

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[i] Will Durant, On the meaning of life (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.

The Monotony of Work

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(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 8, 2016.)

I corresponded with an old friend yesterday who was communicating the tedium of his work as a software engineer. He is thankful that he earns a six-figure salary, and he understands that most people in the world would happily trade places with him, but that doesn’t change the fact that a future filled with a lifetime of coding doesn’t excite his probing and restless mind. Minds like his need stimulation and they could contribute so much to the rest of us if they were freed to follow their interests. Moreover, while technology companies pay some of the best wages in the United States, they expect more than 40 hours of work in return, which leaves my friend with less time with his children than he would like.

It is just so hard to know how to balance the responsibility we have for taking care of our kids with our desire to elaborate or express ourselves through our labors—that is to have more meaningful work. Hopefully, we can do both, but the fact is that most of us will have to do things we don’t like in order to survive. I wish it were different.

There is a lot to say about all this and I have written many posts about work on this blog. Rather than rewriting that material, I provide these links in the hope that they might provide my friend some comfort. I’d say that the post “Fulfilling Work,” best expresses my views on the topic.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: What We Really Want From Our Work

A Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”

Karl Marx for Dummies

Rethinking Work

Friendship is Another Reason to Work

Fulfilling Work

Should you “Do What You Love?”

The Problem of Work-family Conflict in the US

Overworked

Kant: Should We Develop Our Talents?

And I’ll have more on the topic in my next post.

Rethinking Work

(Reprinted as “Rethinking Work: Wasting Half of our Lives is Terrible,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 3, 2015)

Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz published an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times entitled, “Rethinking Work.” The essay begins by noting that a “survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from their jobs.” So 9 out of 10 “workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.” But Why?

Perhaps human are lazy and just dislike work as Adam Smith maintained. This idea has been so influential that today most the structure of the workplace assumes we don’t really want to do our work. Thus workers are monitored to ensure they are actually working, and that they are as efficient and productive as possible. But Schwartz objects that this approach “is making us dissatisfied with our jobs — and it is also making us worse at them. For our sakes, and for the sakes of those who employ us, things need to change.” (No doubt this attitude has also been informed by the Protestant work ethic.)

Schwartz believes that Smith was wrong. First of all, people want more from their work than money; they want challenging, engaging and, most importantly, meaningful work that makes a difference to others and makes us feel better about ourselves. In fact, many people willingly accept less money for such work. Studies show that even workers in low-paying jobs do work without compensation in order to find more meaning on the job.

About 15 years ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues studied custodians in a major academic hospital. Though the custodians’ official job duties never even mentioned other human beings, many of them viewed their work as including doing whatever they could to comfort patients and their families and to assist the professional staff members with patient care. They would joke with patients, calm them down so that nurses could insert IVs, even dance for them. They would help family members of patients find their way around the hospital.

The custodians received no financial compensation for this “extra” work. But this aspect of the job, they said, was what got them out of bed every morning. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” said one. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

Schwartz also cites studies that show how people work harder if they think their work is meaningful. (To be fair, Schwartz doesn’t mention that many work harder for more money too.) So there is a cost to what Karl Marx called alienated labor. “Too often, instead of being able to take pride in what they do, and derive satisfaction from doing it well, workers have little to show for their efforts aside from their pay.”

But is there an increase in efficiency that makes monotonous, unfulfilling worth the loss of satisfaction we might from our work, as Smith thought? Schwartz notes that the evidence doesn’t support this claim. For example, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer’s has “found that workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.” (For more see Pfeffer’s book, The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Similar results were also found by Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer in his book, High Commitment High Performance: How to Build A Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage.)

So when employees like their work, they are happier, and they work better which is better for the company too. But as this is self-evident, Schwartz wonders why we embrace Smith’s view of work. Schwartz answers that Smith’s view creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The world of work is often so gloomy that people do hate it. Even highly skilled professionals like physicians, lawyers or professors may want to do good work, but find that only satisfying the bottom line matters to their employers. They are actively discouraged from spending time with patients, clients, or students. After a while, they start to work only for the money. But this is contrary to our nature.

Studies show that people are less likely to help load a couch into a van when you offer a small payment than when you don’t, because the offer of pay makes their task a commercial transaction rather than a favor to another human being. And people are less likely to agree to have a nuclear waste site in their community when you offer to pay them, because the offer of compensation undermines their sense of civic duty.

If people were always paid to load couches into vans, the notion of a favor would soon vanish. Money does not tap into the essence of human motivation so much as transform it. When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things.

Of course, people do deserve adequate compensation for their work, so things like raising the minimum wage represent social progress. But we should still try to make work satisfying. We can do this by giving people more autonomy and the chance to learn on the job. Most importantly, we need to make work meaningful so that people feel good about doing it. As Schwartz puts it, “Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good. But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.”

Addendum – One can’t read this article without thinking about Karl Marx’s famous work “Alienated Labor.” And one can’t respond adequately to this without at least considering Marx’s insights. That’s what I’ll do in tomorrow’s post.