What is Meaningful Work?
It only takes a walk through a shopping mall or a movie theater to see how low the bar for greatness has been set in our modern times. You can generally count on the assumption that anything that’s popular among a mass audience is at best entertaining and at worst resoundingly stupid. It’s been like this throughout mankind’s history. That doesn’t mean you should avoid stuff that’s popular; it just means that you should be skeptical of certain concepts that are commonly accepted as truth.
One popular concept that I absolutely abhor is the concept of “wasted time”. It’s this belief that life should be geared towards productivity. It’s the precise attitude that the meditative mind seeks to rid itself of. Life is life. There is no distinction between work and life for those who are living mindfully. What people commonly refer to as ‘wasted time’ is usually just a scapegoat for the sense of purposelessness that results from doing too much meaningless work.
In order to debunk the popular concept of wasted time, I’m going to rely on elucidating the absurdity of another popular concept: retirement. Wasted time is perceived as time that isn’t being used for productive ends. In modern times, wasting time has pretty much become synonymous with “leisure”. People believe that time not spent optimizing is time wasted. Some people are willing to put their lives, families and well-beings on the line just to retire early, working 100-hour weeks at insane jobs so they can hoard enough cash to quit at 30 or 40. What then? This sort of Faustian bargain makes me cringe. No one should have to feel pressured to trade the most important years of their lives for a paycheck. It is a literal selling of the soul.
People feel guilty when they are not working and guilty for not contributing. When they are working, they feel a certain alienation because most jobs are certainly not done for passion. They’re done to make a living. The idea of wasted time emerges from the perpetual cycle of guilt and shame experienced by many modern workers.
The first question to ask here is: what are we optimizing for? Many people are only worried about wasting time because it takes away from their ability to make a living, which in turn prevents them from eventually being able to retire.
And so, the next question to ask is: what is retirement? If I’m not mistaken, retirement is simply spending the last 20–30 years of one’s life (the years one is usually least vibrant in health) ‘wasting time’. The shame that one experiences from doing meaningless work eventually manifests in the rebellious desire to do nothing for the remaining decades of one’s life. This is the source of the midlife crisis. It’s the source of the disappointing retirement.
And so, we’re back where we started. As always, modern priorities are completely ass-backwards. People slave away their most vibrant years eschewing leisure so that the most decrepit years can be spent lounging around! Often times, this lounging is done on a $500/day hospital bed. Stress contributes to bad habits, which contribute to early death.
I ask you to reconsider this concept of wasted time. You should not feel guilt for your leisure if you are going to value work so significantly. It’s precisely the value of work that should make us proud of our leisure and comfortable with it. Similarly, we should work with the knowledge that our work is our life. There is no distinction. Everyone needs to pay the bills, but not at the expense of life. It’s always possible to reorient your circumstances and find value in both work and leisure. Sometimes all this requires is more gratitude and humility— realizing that living in a big house or driving a fancy car isn’t worth an early grave or an ungrateful life.
Ruminating on all of this has led me to the simple conclusion that many people are hard-wired for fear. They are fearful of what could happen if they decide to combine work and life and work hard to find a way to live meaningfully. Mindfulness is hard work, after all. Applied to professional life, mindfulness helps people reorient themselves towards a live that feels truly meaningful. Over time, this diminishes guilt about leisure and shame about work. The two blend into one another seamlessly. The ideal life thus becomes a life of meaningful work and grateful leisure.