A potter’s hands turn a cup or bowl on a potter’s wheel.
A potter’s hands turn a cup or bowl on a potter’s wheel.

Image by Lubos Houska on pixabay

Work, Meaning, and Success

One of the first questions someone in the US is likely to ask and be asked in a social encounter is “What do you do” — meaning, “What do you do for a living?” This might suggest that we regard work as central to our personal identity — the most important thing about us — “Who we are.” Some people think that, without the success of a career, life becomes meaningless.

Is that really the case? Maybe this is a class thing?

Americans do work longer hours and take less vacation than people in other “advanced” economies. Some do so because they love their work, want to excel, and crave professional — not to mention financial — “success.”

Most people work long hours and don’t take much time off because they need to earn money for life’s necessities — to support families and themselves — to avoid the growing specters of homelessness and hunger. Forget about vacations — they only get paid when they work. They actually do work for a living.” Call them the “working class” often the —“working poor” — and that group is growing all the time. A more fortunate but rapidly shrinking percentage of people — aka the “middle class” — earns enough to afford some luxuries, like vacations, modest savings and investment — at least a heavily mortgaged home. Taken together, these social classes — “working,” “working poor” and “middle” — make up the majority of the nation’s workforce and own a minority share of its wealth.

Work, even your “life’s work,” does not always mean a paying job or a career. Americans change jobs, even careers, with increasing frequency. That begs the question: Do they change jobs in an ongoing search for meaningful work or because for them work and a career are not central to a meaningful life? Maybe most people change jobs (or careers) looking for better working conditions, better benefits, or just more money.

The majority of the workforce — 62% in one survey — might cite work as important — after all, economic necessity is important — but they don’t cite work as most important or meaningful. According to one survey, they do cite other things — “time with family . . . outdoor activity . . . time with friends . . . pets . . . music . . . reading . . . and religious faith” — all ahead of work — as “the most important source of meaning” in their lives.

Work is essentially time and effort spent doing something — anything — paid or unpaid. Work is what you do with your time and energy. You could argue that life consists entirely of work and rest. The difference between work and play is really one of semantics and attitude. For some people, play — in whatever form — is their real work.

What actually constitutes meaningful work? Meaning for each of us is what we feel it to be. Meaning is a personal value call. For some of us, meaningful work is what we really want to do — even when it doesn’t pay money at all.

What kinds of work might we find meaningful, even if we can’t earn a living from them? Some people attach great meaning to creative work — drawing and painting, composing and or playing music, writing, photography — any of the arts that grace civilization. Others attach great meaning to playing and also watching sports, savoring the community spirit evoked by the latter. Think of hard-core softball players or actors in community theatre or members of local bands. Others attach great meaning to community participation — of any kind — coming together to celebrate shared interests or values or pursue a collective goal. Others attach great meaning to their spiritual and religious practices — devotion, prayer, yoga, meditation, and good works. Ask any parent, and they are apt to say, “Raising my kids is the most meaningful work I do’— a lifelong pursuit!

You might say that, for each of us, the most meaningful work is whatever we would do — if we didn’t need to work for a living.

What about “success”?

According to the so-called “American Dream” success is usually measured in money and or fame. Beleaguered by that definition, many aspiring artists, athletes — enthusiasts at whatever — see themselves as “failures” in what may well be the most important and meaningful “work” they do. The standard and wise answer to that plight is that “Success comes in the doing.” Do your life’s work for its own sake, for the meaning and pleasure it adds to your life.

For most of us, the most sincere reply to “What do you do?” might well be — “I earn a living at — my day job — and my real work is — the stuff I do to live”

I write—from the perspective of a 30yr career in IT and quantitative process-improvement—about processes and systems—artificial and natural.

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