“Never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.”
― Stephen Hawking
No matter how fun your career is, there will come a day, eventually, when your job is a job. A day when you won’t want to work, but circumstances demand you have to. For instance… I love writing, but there are some days I resent the hell out of the computer screen because I have to sit down at this blank ass screen and write.
Because of this, many people say picking a job you’re passionate about is a surefire way to end up miserable. Since passion is fleeting and ephemeral, they say, you should pursue career paths that offer you growth, such as opportunities to learn new skills or grow your income over time.
In my humble opinion, this advice misses the point. Having a career you are passionate about does not mean loving your job every day. In fact, having a career you’re passionate about doesn’t even necessarily mean you enjoy your job most days.
What fuels passion about your work isn’t whether you enjoy the day-to-day labor, it’s about whether your work brings you meaning.
Meaning Is What Matters
Back in the day — I mean, way back in the day, three thousand years ago in Greece and Rome — work was viewed as something men did for meaning. Work provided a wage and entertainment, but the primary purpose of work was fulfillment. Not fulfillment of a spiritual purpose, like Moses journeying across the desert, but something more mundane: the sort of fulfillment a loving wife and children provided, the fulfillment of a life well-lived. These ancient philosophers wove this belief into a philosophy called Stoicism which is now practiced by scads of eager devotees.
If our jobs don’t pay what we want, or the conditions are unpleasant, we’re suffering, but we’re not morally bereft. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl demonstrated humans can endure mighty suffering if we have a purpose, but the same person without a purpose can endure very little.
The key difference is between pleasure and meaning. The relatively short half-life of a digital nomad’s career is a great example of this. Most digital nomads pursue that career so they can be location-independent and spent their time as a globetrotter. This is pleasurable but not necessarily meaningful. As a result, most globetrotters quit after a few years. They settle somewhere, start a family, and take up meaningful work.
Unlike mere pleasure, meaning can motivate you for life. If great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala have taught us anything, it’s that meaning can motivate you through a hell of a lot of otherwise distinctly unpleasurable work. Meaningful work will motivate you well past when others quit.
Being an online writer brings me a great deal of meaning. It hasn’t panned out to be the dream of passive income and globetrotting I hoped it would be, but it’s still a great job. Knowing I tangibly improve the lives of my readers has turned out to be more important than the ability to buy a plane ticket.
Whether or not work is meaningful is not necessarily connected to the nature of the work. It’s easy to find meaning as a civil rights worker. But you can find meaning in long-haul trucking for Wal-Mart, too. The shipping may not necessarily be meaningful on its own, but if that trucker takes pride in providing for his wife and children, he may find plenty of meaning. Even a disgruntled truck driver can take pride in supporting his family.
In Doing Good Better, author MacAskill describes people who ‘work to donate,’ or, take up the most lucrative jobs they can find in order to donate large amounts of the money they make to charity. They trade their labor at big banks and corporations for dollars they then use to support work in developing nations.
Meaning and The Great Resignation
If the Great Resignation is any indication, most people right now do not enjoy their work whatsoever. But what’s making work so miserable isn’t simply the lack of pay or the conditions. It’s the meaninglessness of it all. Few people find meaning in serving food to rich overweight Americans, shipping their online purchases, or otherwise supporting our unequal and consumerist society. Even essential workers like nurses and supporting staff are resigning when faced with a bureaucracy that is impossible to navigate and failing to adequately support them in the midst of a pandemic.
As employers consider how they can convince people to work at their business, consider how you offer potential employees meaning. Is the work your company does actually making the world a better place? Or is your company merely one among many that exist to make a buck?
The careers that people are passionate about over the long haul are not the most fun or exciting careers, but the careers that enable people to truly make a difference in the world.
If you want to wake up every day excited for work, feeling blessed by the universe, don’t pick work because of great benefits. Pick work based on how much meaning you find in it.
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