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Going to meaningful work

I was reminded of that joke we used to play as kids when our parents tell us to “Wake up!” and we yell back, “I am awake!” and the joke is that if they want us to get out of bed and get ready for school that they should be more specific and in the meantime we’re following all orders to the letter.

As adults now, we are all supposed to “go to work”. And somehow, the act of going to work is enough to satisfy some mystical authority figure that bestows on us our duties. Being unemployed can lead to an existential crisis unless you’ve found the enlightenment in the separation of employment and identity. For the rest of us, we go to work. But of course the mystical authority figure is only going to be tricked for so long before it realizes that you can still lead a meaningless life while employed.

What does it mean to go to meaningful work?

Just like being awake is more than just having your eyes open, going to work should be more than just being at a workplace trading time for money. It should be meaningful. But where does meaning come from? Of course, it comes from ourselves. We put meaning into things, and share our meanings with others, and teach each other how to build meaning out of what is in front of us.

That said, if meaning is created from the act of work, it’s a matter of finding that work which, to us, feels meaningful. I’ve been in many work situations that seemed dreary and dull until I decided to find a way to make it meaningful. The desire for meaning creates a shift in how I work… I pay more attention to the details of work that I find delightful, I find ways to learn something new, I experiment with different ways to do the things that I’ve gotten bored of doing. The actual product of the work may not change, but suddenly it has life.

It also becomes apparent pretty quickly that I don’t have to be at a desk to do meaningful work. A mid-day walk through the park where I tease out a creative idea in my head becomes meaningful work. Reading a book about something that helps me find a new design or idea becomes meaningful work. Conversations become meaningful work. And when I am at a computer, I can design and build with a sense of purpose and meaning that the stereotype of a desk job has no clue ever existed.

When’s the last time you went to meaningful work? How many of us have been meaningfully unemployed for longer than we care to admit? Think about what meaningful work means to you for 10 minutes and see how it changes the way you work immediately into something with a bit more life and spark.

3 Responses to “Going to meaningful work”

  1. Meaningful work is impossible unless you have a dream. I mean, something dramatic. There needs to be a real dragon that you want to slay – be it stopping crime of some sort, exploring new realms, or getting that book on to paper. Something is wrong and it needs fixing. It could be a recurring thing (like fighting crime or pollution) or a one-off, like inventing cheap fusion power.

    I get particularly fired up about the lack of focus people have on the computer. That’s the problem I want to solve. It’s like, entrepenuers and coders are so busy creating new crap (some of it quite wonderful) to fling at people, but there’s no thought given to organizing it all in some sort of sane manner.

    Now, I have several ideas in this field, and actively read about people’s complaints, and am trying to understand the economic environment well enough to not get eaten alive if I choose to go comercial. In the meantime, I make money by writing prototype software (which is like the coolest possible non- “core dream” job ever), and the occasional website (which frankly isn’t interesting at all but nothing “keeps it real” like getting down with PHP, CSS and JavaScript).

    It wasn’t easy realizing this. I have a lot of interests, including physical device design, music, and fiction writing. But nothing inspires me as much as the intersection between technology and psychology, and no problem lights me up as much as that of digital personal organization. Google has endeavored to “organize the world’s information” – who’s mission is it to help me organize my information?

    My sense is that most people exist in a professionally reactive vague fog – they will simply do what needs doing until the pleasure/pain quotients get out of whack. Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. It’s good because it makes for an adaptable workforce (there’s probably some game-theory reason why this is the case). Can you imagine what would happen if 90% of farmers just stopped doing it because they didn’t like it anymore? These people work to live. The family is meaningful, work is something to get through.

    My concern is that, perhaps, my dream will be more meaningful than family. But premature optimization is the root of all evil, as they say.

  2. [...] Going to meaningful work: Just like being awake is more than just having your eyes open, going to work should be more than just being at a workplace trading time for money. It should be meaningful. But where does meaning come from? Of course, it comes from ourselves. We put meaning into things, and share our meanings with others, and teach each other how to build meaning out of what is in front of us. [...]

  3. [...] Going to meaningful work [...]