In Defense of Meaningful Work

Joe Keohane’s recent essay in the New Republic, In Praise of Meaningless Work, warns against those who advocate a quest for meaning in professional life. Yet, Keohane seems to have a difficult time avoiding such advocacy himself. “I am a meaningful work guy right down to the ground,” he writes, “and I fully support anyone’s quest to obtain work that matters to them.”

The Power of Ambiguity

How can Keohane simultaneously search for meaningful work in his own life and decry efforts to cultivate meaning in other people’s professional life? Part of his anxiety may come from the ambiguity inherent in the authentic pursuit of deeper significance. When the knights of the Round Table began their quest for the Holy Grail, they had no idea where they were going, and purposefully sought out the thickest, darkest parts of the forest, where no paths were to be found — the place where Dante Alighieri began his journey into the Inferno: In the middle of the journey of life, I awoke in a dark forest. The straight path had been lost.

In order to seek deeply, we first must acknowledge that we are lost.

Keohane observes of the growing movement to reinvest professional culture with a dedication to the search for meaning that, “No one can seem to clearly define what it is.” He is clearly unnerved by this ambiguity, and seems to regard the meaning movement’s lack of clear definition of purpose as a shortcoming.

What Keohane overlooks is that, while quantitative systems depend upon clear definitions at the outset, the qualitative search for meaning is thwarted by the narrow scope which clarity requires. The qualitative approach begins with an open mind about such matters as definitions, sacrificing initial clarity in favor of the ability to respond to discoveries in the unknown territory ahead of us as we move forward.

The quest for meaning cannot begin without an acknowledgement of mystery. Unlike Big Data, which seeks one great algorithm to explain and predict everything, the movement in search for deep meaning understands that meaning is subjective, and therefore pluralistic. A path of meaning in the workplace that is discovered by one professional will not serve everyone. Inquiry into deep meaning seeks to describe the significant landmarks on the terrain of experience through which many paths may be taken.

The Legend Of The Fall

Is work in our time inherently devoid of meaning?

Another aspect of Keohane’s conflicted feelings about the development of systems of meaning in the workplace appears to come from his embrace of a tale at the core of our modern mythology: A story of the fall of culture, caused by industrialization. This is a fable that was famously told by sociologist Max Weber, who declared that the world, which had once been full of magic, mystery, and myth, had been disenchanted by the industrialization of society.

Keohane retells this modernist folktale as he seeks to dispell the idea that it is possible for people today to find meaning in their work. He writes,

“Our forebears didn’t have to look quite so far to find the point of their labor. For primitive man it was easy: you hunted; you ate what you killed; you spent the rest of your time trying not to get eaten by something else. The Puritans saw how hard God worked to create the world, and they toiled with comparable avidity in order to keep him happy. The blacksmith smithed, the farmer farmed, the tanner tanned, the pirate pirated. It wasn’t until Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford effectively replaced the artisan economy with assembly lines and so-called scientific management in the early twentieth century that the tug of war between companies who treat workers like numbers and workers who insist on being treated like people began in earnest.”

As Keohane weaves his story about the disenchantment of work, we see a redrafting of the themes of the fable of the Garden of Eden. In this story, people once lived in easy harmony with their environment, and didn’t struggle with deeper questions about their identities. Only after the fall, with a knowledge of the division of work and play, did people comprehend the meaning that they had lost, and pine for its restoration.

History, anthropology, and the humanities tell us that this legend of an industrial fall from grace in work doesn’t match our actual human past. Hunter-gatherers were not innocent noble savages living with an easy, carefree relationship with their work. Their myth and rituals reflect an anxious need to create systems of meaning in a world where the fruits of human labor could spoil without apparent reason. Farming people struggled with the heavy yoke of agricultural empires and developed new systems of meaning to deal with the strain. Puritans wrestled with notions of grace dispensed at the whim of an angry deity, and were plagued with concerns about whether spiritual advancement could come through work at all.

Factory workers in the 20th century were by no means the first laborers to suffer from commoditization. As we consider the long, brutal history of workers who were treated like numbers, we Americans should never forget the slaves who were counted as mere fractions of human beings. Not every American’s forbears were so unlucky as Frederick Douglass, whose simple declaration, “I am a man,” was revolutionary, but we all come from long lines of forbears who struggled to see any point in their work.

Despite the assertions of the modernist myth of the disenchantment of the world, we remain fully human. Our struggle to find meaning in our work is different in character than the struggles of our ancestors, because the nature of work, in this age of data, has changed. That there is struggle, however, is not new. It has always been a part of the human experience to wrestle with meaning.

The Heartbreaking Reality of Disenchantment

To say that the tale of the disenchantment of the world is a myth is not to imply that disenchantment has not taken actually taken place. What makes the story mythical is the claim that there was a time, not too long ago, when work was easy, free from the anxieties we know now.

When Joe Keohane claims to have endured disingenuous efforts from managers who said they want to help employees experience meaning in their work, but only really wanted to use claims of a higher calling to demand higher sacrifice from workers, I believe him. When he speaks of these experiences, he does so with the mixture of longing and disgust that is characteristic of heartbreak. He writes:

“I’ve now quit two fairly plum jobs to try my luck in the wilds of self-employment because I had come to feel off-kilter or uninspired. All of which is to say: I am a meaningful work guy right down to the ground, and I fully support anyone’s quest to obtain work that matters to them. But when I see management types become giddy over the prospect of ‘scaling’ meaning and purpose and ‘intervening’ in the lives of their employees to foster compassion and improve outcomes, I see whole sweeping vistas of fresh bullshit opening up.”

Meaning is clearly important to Keohane. He has sacrificed the very practical benefits of professional life that he urges his readers to prioritize, in order to find work that gives him a greater sense of meaning. He’s trying to find meaning in his work, but his trust has been broken by the corporate fraud of pseudo meaning.

Keohane asks, “Will meaning-mongering be the new greenwashing?” He clearly believes this is already the case, telling his readers that, “The broader culture is hopelessly workaholic — not raging against the emptiness of life, but actively emptying it, and filling the hole with more work dressed up as life. The manic drive to make labor meaningful, at least on the part of management, is an acceleration of that process, ultimately less about unlocking human potential, one suspects, than hydrofracking it.

Is the search for meaning really just a tool of exploitation? I admit that I’ve seen my share of glib memos from human resource offices offering seminars that claim to be able to help workers connect with their jobs in a more meaningful way, but have no actual connection to the behavior that management truly expects people to exhibit.

Still, most of the alienation in corporate America that I’ve seen comes from the lack of even an effort to cultivate meaning. The alienation comes when people develop exciting ideas, only to see them shot down for being too “touchy feely”. It comes from the self-censorship that results when corporations only reward quantitative metrics of short-term achievement on the job.

The problem isn’t that corporate leaders are talking about meaning too much. It’s that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. The problem is that corporate leaders are dismissing the idea of meaning as a mere gimmick, as Keohane does.

The Courage To Believe In Work With Meaning Again

I believe that Keohane’s heart is in the right place. I also believe, however, that his heart is aching from the damage that has been done by insincere programs of corporate “meaning-mongering”. What else can explain his advice to his readers, to abandon the quest to finding meaning in work, and instead arrive at their offices determined only to extract as much material value from their jobs as they can?

What is the proper response to such heartache? Keohane urges that, “We should all hope — demand, even — that the workplace of the future will be governed more by respect and sensitivity… But until that day comes, we should embrace not the meaningfulness of work, but its meaninglessness. The cold, unromantic transaction. The part that keeps food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. The part that, theoretically, gives us our nights and weekends.”

This approach of embracing the meaninglessness of work may be framed as an act of resistance to the inhumanity of work, but it isn’t. It’s a surrender to it. The most basic problem with Keohane’s proposal is that it asks us to accept the rules of the game as they have been established by those who seek to use work as a tool of alienation. He wants us to agree to the idea that work in our society is for some reason different from work before the year 1900. He wants us to buy into the idea that our work is inherently meaningless.

Keohane asks us to invest and support the standard model in American working culture, which holds that everything worthwhile in life takes place between 5:00 PM Friday evening and 9:00 AM Monday morning. He writes, “Maybe the problem isn’t meaningless work. Most modern work, like it or not, is inherently meaningless beyond the paycheck. (Have you seen what people do for a living?) No, the problem is that work has so monopolized our lives that there are ever fewer opportunities to find meaning outside of the office.”

It is, of course, this same standard model of working culture that is used to justify the relentless pushing of employees to the margins of endurance that Keohane rightly finds so objectionable. Keohane tells us, as corporate managers do, that to expect to find meaning at work is foolishness. He tells us that our pay should be all we expect from work, and that the literal fulfillment of obligations should be all that we give to work. It is an arrangement of work in which no larger sacrifice, and no larger significance, is to be found.

What Keohane suggests is exactly the kind of arrangement that we would expect to find between a commodity and its owner. In Keohane’s scheme, we are asked to become exactly what is expected of us. We are to occupy our corporate positions without offering anything different than what would be offered by any other corporate citizen. In exchange, we are treated as interchangeable, indistinguishable parts in a great machine.

It should come as no surprise that the corporate machines that are populated by such interchangeable, indistinguishable citizens should manufacture products and services that are interchangeable and indistinguishable from those of their competitors. We are living in an age of the diminishment of branding, when many once-true brands have diminished into little more than familiar brand names. As the human effort of achieving insight into and maintaining relationships with customers is being replaced with automated, data-driven systems, the corporations that treat their employees as commodities are offering the same approach to customers, who respond with an emotional detachment of their own. Thus, entire categories of the marketplace are becoming bound in predictable, accountable, ROI-justifiable chains of commodification that hold back both our economic growth and our emotional fulfillment, all the way from production to consumption.

Increasingly, citizens of corporate America find security in their commodification. Though there is little opportunity for any commodity to break out and exceed expectations, at least there is relative protection, of the sort that once reassured managers who lived by the dictum that “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Then again, where is IBM today?

The Business Romantic

Is to be a Romantic in business to be a fraud?

Joe Keohane derides the advice of Tim Leberecht, author of The Business Romantic, writing, “I see Leberecht’s advice for people who do not love their jobs, writ large across the land: ‘Pretend to be a Business Romantic,’ he proposes, ‘fake it until you make it!’

Anyone who has actually read The Business Romantic understands that these words are taken out of context. The full quote from Leberecht’s book is this: “PRETEND TO BE A BUSINESS ROMANTIC — Want to be a superhero for a day? Be a Business Romantic! Step into the shoes and psyche of your alter ego and embody and enact the Business Romantic’s Rules of Enchantment, just for fun, just for a week. Or even just for a day. Be a hermit, a rebel, a contrarian, a poet. Be a stranger to yourself. Masks transform us, and yes, you can fake it until you become it!”

When Leberecht suggests to people that they “pretend to be a Business Romantic”, he is not proposing that people who hate their jobs should simply pretend to adopt a Romantic pose in order to please their managers in a simpering manner. He is suggesting that people who want to have professional lives of greater meaning should summon the courage to try on the role of a Romantic even if they aren’t sure that they can pull it off. He is asking the disenchanted citizens of the business world to be the change they want to see in their corporations. Leberecht is not asking us to conform to vapid corporate guidelines, but to rebel by becoming genuine Romantics, with all the passion and individuality that this implies.

Most corporations don’t make it easy for true Romantics. On the other hand, people who give in to the shuffling conformity of mediocrity in the workplace don’t make it easy on themselves.

Leberecht asks us to believe that we are more than commodities.

Keohane counters by telling us that this renewed confidence is absurd, and that we should simply get used to the idea of trying to be happy two days out of every seven.

To me, the pursuit of meaning through work, despite all the obstacles that professional culture creates to thwart this quest, is the obvious choice.