How meaningful is the work you do?
Our newly released census results show that Nairobi keeps growing. With nearly 4.4 million people, this is one huge collection of humans. Not on the global scale, of course; there are several megacities with more than 20 million people; one of those may breach 40 million soon.
Revered scientist James Lovelock thinks we follow the development of insect colonies in this regard. In his new book, Novacene, he points out that ‘there are obvious similarities between the tower of a termite nest and tall blocks of offices and flats that spring up in our contemporary cities…these human nests, like the termites’ towers, are often admirable architectural and engineering constructions.’
But what does each individual termite do in there? The typical one spends a lifetime ‘gathering mud, mixing it with shit and sticking the smelly bundle into gaps in the walls of the nest…passing a contemporary office tower, it is hard to ignore the termite analogy – in glass boxes everybody is doing exactly the same thing, not mixing shit but staring at computer screens.’
I read that paragraph and laughed out loud. I have spent much of my life in those glass towers in various cities, observing workers. I am not as sure as Dr Lovelock that all those workers are not just ‘mixing shit.’
The work we do is such an important part of our lives. Next to our closest relationships, it is perhaps the most important impact we have during our brief experience. I believe fervently in the nobility of work. I even subtitled my book (The Bigger Deal) ‘Work Your Way to a Life of Meaning.’
Good work done well is undoubtedly a source of meaning in life. Good work gives us a daily rhythm and purpose; it allows us to contribute something to the world around us; it gives us the gift of mastery and personal growth; it keep us busy in the face of an existence that often seems absurd.
And yet. How much of the work that we do in our glass towers, and that is done in the towers that surround us, is good work rather than just the mixing of waste that the good scientist refers to?
Good work is work that creates things of utility to put into the world; work that is valued by those who do it and those who receive it; work that is done with good heart and intention; work that brings beauty into the world or protects the beauty that is already there; work that eases the burdens of others, and gives them power and hope; work that advances our knowledge and understanding.
It is work that is worth doing, even though it takes up that most precious thing, our time alive.
How many of us can say that about our work?
Years ago, I abandoned my own seemingly highfalutin’ and well-paid work to strike out on my own. I certainly managed to find the good work that would become my life’s work; but I had a different realisation as well: that any work I created for others must also be work of meaning.
Every thoughtful person should sometimes pause and look around at one’s colleagues and coworkers, and wonder: what are all these people doing? Is it enough just that they earn a living? Do they do any good, useful, meaningful work? Or are they just passing the time? What if they stopped doing their work – would anything change? What would give more meaning to what they do – what we all do? What are we all really here for?
Most people have no time for such questions, perpetually busy as they are escaping poverty by creating mediocre products, selling bad things, tricking gullible customers, or just slaving away doing something utterly mundane and repetitive with no higher purpose simply so that they can survive this life and so that someone else can take home a pile of money.
If you are someone with the power of employment in your grasp, please use this power thoughtfully. Give out gifts, not just jobs: the gifts of meaning, of contribution, of dignity. Too many of us are just creating jobs not fit for humans, jobs that we hope will be done by machines someday soon. We want mindless automatons, not humans in search of meaning. This is such a waste of human life and potential.
Nonetheless some humans are devoting their work to the study of work. I will introduce you to one such person next week, right here.
(Sunday Nation, 17 November 2019)
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