Wasting Ourselves on Work

I have some ideas about work that are pretty far out there for an American. In the United States, we prize work so highly that we put up with all kinds of BS in order to make more money, show our worth, and earn particular titles. It is true that we need to work and earn money to live comfortable lives, but the extent to which we chase money and status is far beyond what is really necessary for us to be comfortable and this pushes the work we do in strange ways. We elevate the importance of our careers and often judge ourselves and others first by the jobs we have. When we meet a new person, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do?” meaning, what is your job. We don’t ask what someone likes to do for fun, what hobbies someone has, or where someone last vacation. Instead we ask about their job so that we can compare ourselves to them and get a feel for the kind of person we are speaking to.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “A good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy.” We are going to spend about 80,000 hours of our life working. The time we spend earning money can be time that we spend engaging with something just for the purpose of earning a living, but it can also be time we spend trying to make the world a better place. We can push for ever greater responsibility in our job, ever higher salaries, and more impressive titles, but we don’t need to. Seneca would argue that to the extent possible for each of us, we should try to do the most meaningful work with the time, skills, and abilities that each of us have. This can be a daunting and paralyzing thought today, which is unfortunate, but it is something that many of us can consider as we move forward.

 

At some point I think most of us set out to make a difference and to do something more on the noble side of work. However, we often settle into careers we don’t really like, work in settings and for bosses we don’t enjoy, and push ourselves in our careers at the expense of our family, happiness, time, and sometimes sanity. At a certain point, once we have a high enough salary, I think our goals and motivations shift from doing meaningful work and making enough for comfortable living to trying to impress others and show how valuable we are. This is equivalent of being busy for the sake of being busy, or worse, being busy for the purpose of impressing other people.

 

We won’t all have the ability to do the most meaningful work on earth, and I understand how scary it can be to step away from a good paying yet boring or meaningless career to take on something meaningful but low paying and unstable. I know that as our income rises our satisfaction with life will also rise, yet we should be considerate and aware of our trade-offs in search of more money, and we should be honest with ourselves about our motivations for the work we do. When we can, we should try to make a difference and do the best with our skills, time, and ability and avoid having a career or trying to climb a ladder just to show off to those around us.

Thinking About Meaning

A challenge for me over the last few months is thinking about building a meaningful life and a career within that life. I am at a stage in life where it feels that a lot of doors are open for me in terms of a career trajectory, and choosing one direction is scary because I don’t want to close out better opportunities than where I decide to point myself, and I don’t know exactly which direction is indeed going to feel the most meaningful and fulfilling.

 

I have come to understand that in many ways what we choose as our ultimate goal is less important than the effort we put into achieving that goal. Colin Wright puts it this way in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “The journey itself is meaningful. The goal is important, but the act of working toward it, even when painful or disheartening, is meaningful by association.” I want to have a solid and inspirational goal to work toward, but I also recognize that the effort toward the goal will teach me unexpected lessons, will create new avenues for opportunity, and can be what helps my life be fulfilling.

 

As I move forward, I am trying hard to identify problems that I have a skill set that I can apply to those problems. My hope is that I will identify a goal where my abilities can help contribute something positive to mitigate a serious problem to at least a marginal extent. With a solid trajectory, I believe I can find satisfaction by continuously  engaging in habits and processes that help me work toward that goal. I am frustrated that I cannot see my path forward as clearly as I can see where I have come from, but I am confident that meaningful action will open the right doors for me.

 

I think that my thoughts on fulfillment are something that should be shared more broadly in society. We seem to find meaning in things that don’t really exist and we don’t really seem to know what we mean when we say we want to have meaning in our lives. Finding meaning in a spiritual sense is not something that resonates with me, and is not something we should expect to resonate with everyone on the planet. Finding meaning in material goods is problematic for a whole host of reasons, and ultimately seems to leave a void in our lives. Identifying goals that in one way or another make the world a better place and trying to work daily to improve the world by pursuing our goal appears to be a robust way of at the very least creating fulfillment in our lives. Finding absolute meaning in our goal may still be difficult or impossible, but hopefully the actions that take us toward that goal will make us feel valuable and useful, and hopefully that will create a sense of fulfillment.

Early in a Career

I recently changed jobs, and a piece of advice that I revisited from Ryan Holiday in his book The Ego is the Enemy has come back to me at a perfect time. Holiday writes, “When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well.”

 

Our tendency as successful young graduates, something Holiday addresses directly, is to want to prove ourselves. To prove that we were worthy of being hired over all the other candidates. To show that we are awesome and can handle the spotlight and the opportunity given to us. Our urge is to take on the biggest project, the most important client, and to do something truly impressive to show that we are great. The problem for us young people, is that we really don’t have much experience and what we learned in the classroom may not be directly applicable or up to date by the time we get into the swing of a job.

 

Holiday suggests that instead of being so focused on proving ourselves and trying to make a big impact by doing something visible and possibly beyond our ability, we should instead look to serve those who have already been in successful in their roles at our new organization. He writes, “It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. … Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.” The benefit to this strategy, according to Holiday, is that it puts you in a place and mindset where you are more focused on learning and growth than on individual achievement.

 

When you try to prove yourself early on, you risk doing too much, insulting others who can assist you on your journey, and failing to learn from the mistakes of others. When we make egotistical power grabs others will notice. If we allow our ambition to run faster than our skills and experience, we risk putting ourselves in places where we need assistance and need the buy in from those around us, and if we do this early in our career before we have  developed relationships and proven that we are deserving of help and assistance, we may find ourselves isolated. Helping others shows us where opportunities and trends lie, and it also builds allies for the future when we hit our own rough patches. Working to assist others early on doesn’t mean that we won’t have opportunities to do great and meaningful work, but rather that the work and effort we put in will align with the goals and objectives of others, helping the organization as a whole be more productive and effective, ultimately creating bigger wins and more success for us and others. We can still step up to take on big projects, but by making it about someone else and helping someone else succeed as opposed to making ourselves look worthy and impressive, we are likely to have more support and to have more guidance to make our success more likely.

Our Careers

A real challenge for many people today is understanding how we should think about our careers and the jobs we do. Growing up we are told to go to college and to get a great job where we don’t have to work too hard. Along the way we watch people take jobs that sound important and impressive and often without realizing it, we develop an understanding that having a  job is less about earning a living and more about standing out and finding something that fulfills us and gives us meaning.

 

This pressure and drive toward a career that is about more than just earning money feels like a relatively new phenomenon to me, though I’m sure people have been confronting these challenges for ages. When I look around I see that young people today must balance the need to make money with pressure to become important and reflect their status through their career. At the same time, their position must appear to be desirable, interesting, and lucrative.

 

What is often lost, is that the career is not the sole factor in determining whether an individual is successful, and it is not the only factor in determining whether someone is happy. Senator Cory Booker’s mother gave him this advice on this the day he officially became a senator. In his book United, Booker shares what his mother told him on the day that he stepped into one of the most impressive and easily ego inflating careers in the country, “Don’t get carried away with all of this … Remember,  the title doesn’t make the man, the man must make the title.”

 

We must remember that having a fancy title and having a job that sounds important will not lead to happiness and will not lead to us becoming the person we always imagined ourselves to be. Stepping back and recognizing that our drive for fancy job titles is simply a desire to build our own ego and become carried away in thoughts of our own greatness will help us step back from the career drive that blindly shapes the direction of so many people’s lives. In a recent episode of the Rationaly Speaking Podcast, Julai Galef’s guest Robert Wright shared a similar thought. Speaking about leftover parts of human nature in our brain, Wright stated,

 

“The other thing I’d say is that some of the things are valuable to people. Like, they facilitate social climbing … But that presupposes that social climbing is itself good for you. That’s an argument you could have. …

 

And so it might encourage questioning, “Well, why the relentless pursuit of social status?” I mean I understand why I have it. Status got genes into the next generation, so I have the thirst for that … That doesn’t mean, if upon examination I decide that the quest for status, especially again, in a modern environment that may be different from the one we are designed for, if I decide that that’s actually not making me happy anyway, then some of these illusions are actually not even useful.”

 

Wright directly addresses social climbing as a status marker that developed when we lived in tribes as a way to help us pass our genes along. We live with a drive for status and today status is represented in our careers and rewarded financially. Wright’s argument, and the sentiment that Booker’s mother shared, is that simply having a title does not lead to argument or reflect that we are somehow better than others, it just raises our status which can be damaging if our ego becomes too inflated.

 

We may not be able to escape the reality that people today judge each other based on the work they do, but we can always remember that what is important is how we do that work, how we live our lives outside of work, and whether we are a well rounded and balanced individual in our time within and outside of our career. Simply having a title or being lucky enough to have a good job does not define who we are as a person or give our lives meaning. It is our actions and our intent that matter.