The freedom from meaningful work
I no longer expect work to be meaningful and I don't think you should either. Which you should be skeptical about, given that how I make a living could be considered "meaningful." Nonetheless, let me try to convince you.
I think of my mental health using a simple model, as a function of meaning and trauma. Basically, I try to do more things that fill up my heart (meaning) and do fewer things that are toxic (trauma). Perhaps that's a simplification, but it's honestly a good enough mental model.
Naturally, I then think about what's meaningful and what's traumatic. Here are some of those things. I don't claim to be a proxy for all humans, but I've found these to be consistent across people:
Things that are meaningful (aka things that fill up my heart)
- Serving others (or at least making their day)
- Accomplishing something challenging
- Learning something new
- Doing the right thing
- Expressing love and emotion
- Trying something that's never been done before
- Faith and spiritual exploration
Things that are traumatic (aka things that are toxic to mental and emotional health)
- Losing friends or loved ones
- Being yelled at
- Being shamed
- Being ostracized
- Being coerced
- Cutthroat competition
- Letting someone down
- Thinking you aren't good enough
Here's the point - the deeds that generate meaning or generate trauma can happen anywhere. Not just at work. Which is to say, meaning and trauma can be generated in any domain of life, whether it's at work, with family, when participating in public life, when with friends, anywhere. There's absolutely no reason we have to couple work and meaning.
Which is to say, to be a sane and happy person you don't have to generate meaning at work, because it can come from many other sources. In actuality, meaning and trauma need not have anything to do with work. They have everything to do with deeds, wherever they occur.
From there, I've thought about what I can control to keep the overall balance of meaning and trauma in my life at a healthy place. I've come to three truths:
- I have a lot of control of how meaningful and traumatic my life is outside of work
- I don't have much control of how meaningful my work is, but I do have some control over how traumatic it is
- If I put boundaries on my work, I can do things to recuperate from the trauma in life that is inevitable
So why not acknowledge work for what it is - important and useful drudgery - and generate meaning in our lives from the deeds that we have more control over?
If you're still not convinced, I can vibe with that. But I'd offer this advice from what I've learned. To borrow from David Foster Wallace - we're swimming through water (the culture of how organizations work) we don't even realize is there. To find more meaning at work most of the advice I see is tantamount to guiding people on how to be better swimmers (i.e., do these 10 things to find more meaning at work). That's crap.
What I think is better advice is acknowledging the water we're in and cleaning it up - changing the culture of how organizations work.
To be honest, I think we can generate a ton of meaning at work (even though I've argued against that strategy in this post) and that we should - especially given how much time we spend there. But I don't think that will ever happen without reimagining how organizations work.
The dominant "operating system" for how organizations function is hierarchal bureaucracy and cutthroat competition (think org charts, moving up the ladder, status meetings, and the like). The way that operation system is built structurally squashes meaning and propagates trauma. In other words, employees should expect that hierarchical bureaucracies, by design, will be traumatic and not-so-meaningful places to work. To add insult to injury, almost nobody likes hierarchal bureaucracy - customers, employees, or innovation-minded executives - and we still use it profusely.
The problem is, nobody has yet figured out an alternative to hierarchical bureaucracy. It's like the whole world is using Windows and nobody has invented Linux, MacOS, iOS, or Android yet. Maybe someone has, but the word hasn't yet gotten out to the masses.
And that, my friends, is why I'm on a mission to imagine alternatives to hierarchical bureaucracy and experiment with new ideas at work at every opportunity I can.
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