The Meaning of Work

6/23/2019 - Monocle Journal

Anyone who grew up in the 1990s is familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s spoken song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”. The song takes the form of a graduation speech set to a mellow background melody, and the speaker dispenses advice to an imaginary class of people who are about to enter the workforce. The most important point: “Wear sunscreen.”

It is common practice for speeches given at graduation ceremonies to contain deeply profound and philosophical insights about work and life, passed on from an older and wiser role model who wishes to steer a new generation of young minds away from the perils that await them in the real world. The simple instruction to always wear sunscreen is humorous in contrast, reminding us not to take life too seriously, but it also becomes a shorthand for the rest of his advice. Through the rest of the song, he urges listeners to think critically about what really matters in life – being respectful and considerate, staying close with your family, travelling and taking care of your health – and in doing so, he encourages people to think about the ways in which they can make their lives more meaningful.

It is no coincidence that a speech meant to inspire people about to begin their working lives, ultimately becomes a speech about the meaning of life in general. A large proportion of our lives is spent either preparing for work – through our studies and training – or at work as we pursue careers, income and the means to support families. If we are in any way introspective about our role in the universe, it seems self-evident that our work should be considered seminal in our search for meaning in life. And yet for many of us, work is something that we do without much introspection – a part of our lives we carry out on auto-pilot. We wake up every day and follow our morning routines, curse our way through traffic, and arrive at the office. We work hard and relentlessly, competing with our colleagues and friends for promotions, bonuses or reputation. If we are wise, we save and ultimately plan for retirement. We pursue this path with almost single-minded determination – our attention only partially diverted by the desire for love and children and the achievement of other, secondary goals. And if we are successful, it never occurs to us to question this path. We look upon those who are not successful, or who choose a different path, as esoteric at best, or with scorn and pity at worst. We subscribe completely to the idea of economic growth and the theory of the rising tide, believing that our professional pursuits are benefiting not only ourselves but our communities and countries as well. We give charitably to those less fortunate than ourselves in a struggle to obfuscate our sense of inner greed – yet this greed itself is ontologically propped up by the underlying sentiment of capitalism. We simply accept that this is how the world works and may even turn to religion or politics to give ourselves a sense of higher purpose, for we believe it is unlikely that we will find it in the work that we devote so much of our lives to. We essentially separate work from our true sense of self.

In approaching work in this way, we significantly disinvest ourselves from the possibility of personal growth through our work. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, understood and described this in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), written after his experience of being imprisoned in Auschwitz. Frankl maintained – following his experiences during the Holocaust – that the search for meaning in life is the primary human driver. He identified three pathways for creating meaning: by creating something or accomplishing something significant, by loving or caring for someone or something, and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering in life. He identified work not as an afterthought, but as a crucial pillar for creating meaning in life – one equally as valuable as loving another person, serving a god, championing a political cause or surviving great hardship. So powerful is the role of work in our lives that he warned that if we do not find meaning in our work we may become psychologically barren, seeking to numb the anxiety, anger and hopelessness that results from a life without meaning through pointless or potentially destructive choices.

We are inundated by the tools of modern culture that place very little value on mindfulness when it comes to introspective reflection on our lives in general, and on our work in particular. These tools encourage us to measure our success in life in terms of “likes” and our impact on society by “pageviews”, promoting the use of trivial metrics to gauge our value in the world. We treat work as a necessary evil that we must endure to pursue all the other passions and pleasures we believe will make our lives meaningful, failing to realise the intrinsic power that work holds for crafting a purposeful existence. And by maintaining a division between work and the rest of our lives, we set ourselves up to fail. Frankl reminds us in another of his significant works, The Doctor and the Soul, that “the job at which one works is not what counts, but rather the manner in which one does the work. It does not lie within the occupation, but always within us, whether those elements of our existence (particularly creative values, uniqueness of human experience, and self-transcendence) are expressed in the work and thus make life meaningful.” There is an urgent need to change our approach to work, to see it as a central part of what gives us meaning. Frankl’s message is clear: without making our work experience meaningful we cannot achieve a meaningful life.


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