Words of Tomorrow
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Words of Tomorrow

The Folly of Looking for Meaning in Your Job

And how much better it is to look inside of yourself

By MARTIN REZNY

The fact that what Conrad Shaw is talking about is a valid concern is what I find very concerning, and I guess it’s time to address it. Defining your personal value or the meaning of your life in terms of what kind of job you’re doing is asking for trouble, to put it mildly. The most straightforward way of illustrating the main problem with this common western idea is, well, the Way (as in Taoism). Apart from Wes Cecil’s lecture about Lao Tzu, I think Osho’s interpretation of The Useless Tree parable is the most succinct:

And the disciples went and inquired of people, and the people said, “That tree is useless! First, it’s wood is such that you can’t make anything out of it — no furniture can be made out of it. Secondly, its wood is such that you cannot use it even as fuel, it creates so much smoke, and such a bitter smoke, that people start weeping and crying, tears start rolling down their cheeks. Its leaves are so bitter that no animal is ready to eat them. It is a useless tree!

That’s why it has not been cut.”

The Curse of Usefulness

Doing a job is being used, and being used means to be damaged or gradually destroyed in the process. Often, this leads to a straightforward physical or mental wasting away, but even in the absence of that, what inevitably gets interfered with is the integrity of your Tao. It sounds esoteric to many people, but it’s really quite simple — the Tao of stone is to be a stone in its unmoving and rigid stoniness, not to be ground to dust; the Tao of you is to be you in the absence of being manipulated by others.

Your utility may be the chief concern of others, but it’s not healthy for you to make it your own concern, especially if it subsumes all others. If, without a job, you lack any reason to get out of the bed in the morning, then your “you” is effectively gone. While many people may consider it normal (since it’s frequent), it is pathological, as it takes psychological (or physical) violence of one kind or another to suppress or destroy one’s intrinsic motivations and turn one into a self-policing servant of someone else.

As someone who has been supremely useful my whole life, someone who’s Tao ironically is to be inherently useful, I have to expend a lot of energy to subvert the constant attempts of others to turn me into their personal robot, especially if their use of me would be damaging to other people. I’m therefore in a unique position to make the Taoist argument, as I’m not arguing for doing nothing or from a position of laziness. I like doing hard work, that I choose. There’s nothing wrong with having a mission.

A job is such an unhealthy social construct precisely because it’s not built around intrinsic motivation. One may happen to get a job doing what they wanted to do anyway, but in most cases, a job is supposed to get one money that presumably will allow them to do what they want to do, later, maybe. More likely though, a job is something that most people do or else bad things will happen to them. Or be done to them. A job is at best a necessary evil, it’s an incredibly masochistic basis for defining your personal identity.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Beat Them by Not Joining Them Anyway

I’ve read recently a number of analyses for and against universal basic income, and some of the most common arguments presented against it from the human point of view were that some people prefer to be dictated what to do and that work is important for example to initiate relationships with people, that many people even find romantic partners in the workplace. I certainly know it can happen, as my parents have met at work.

However, one has to ask what would have likely happened in the absence of mandatory work and the lifelong indoctrination of people into believing that this is the normal way that things should be happening. Looking back at my life, I was mostly shielded from indoctrination of any kind, as my parents may have grown up in a communist dictatorship, but were not practicing it at home. Same with religion — they do have beliefs, but they weren’t forcing them on me and my sister. I’m also mostly self-taught.

Consequently, I have never been given any unexamined beliefs. What I have been given or discovered on my own was freedom of thought and critical thinking, and if you really think about it, what is expected of most of us in life work-wise isn’t particularly natural. What I found natural was learning because knowledge and understanding are good, not to get a job. Helping people because that’s the right thing to do, not for profit. Doing what’s the best use of my time after all things are considered, not because some boss or owner says so. And working effectively, not ritually just to work.

Fortunately for me, as long as I’m not free to not have a job, the one I have now is one of the rare ones where management is responsive to reason and free of any malice. But that’s an exception, an anomaly, at best a preview of the hopefully not very distant future when people collectively refuse to do jobs that are any worse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about how hard the work is, it’s not about asking to do nothing. It’s about reclaiming the concept of work as personal expression, a free work.

Taking a Long, Hard Look at the Value of Work

One of the most ubiquitous unexamined beliefs is that work has inherent value. Of course, even a brief thought about this notion should uncover that it should matter what it is you’re working on. The work of an overseer of a death camp or some parasitical scammer is not only not valuable, but the more of it gets done, the more value it actually destroys. However, that’s only the beginning of the problems with the idea that as long as someone is working, they must be a good person, or a bad one if idle.

In the ancient past, people who didn’t contribute in a useful way may have endangered others, but that’s no longer the case. Today, it’s usually the “contributing” people who are endangering others, while the meaning of “contribution” has been warped. Many of the most important things you can do for other human beings and by extension the society today are those that you cannot expect to be paid for, as they’re not considered to be jobs. Just ask women about how much work it is to care for other people.

And this addresses the “but where would you meet people” argument. There are infinite opportunities to engage with people in order to provide some value for them, as long as you have the time and means to do so, or in other words, freedom. Sadly, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have the means, and if you do have a job, you don’t have the time. It’s really quite insidiously designed. Once you’re free, you can teach others, play with them, care for them, help with their chores and projects, or in other words, have a social life. People around you don’t have to be your colleagues.

The truth is that the value of work is at best conditional, and “job” doesn’t equate “work” anyway. Moving toward an economic utopia in the future has to include an education, or at least parental guidance, that gives the ability to people to consider critically what it is that they’re doing, and the strength of character to have a point at which they would say “no” to what shouldn’t be done. In fact, people should probably not be pushed into any career until they can get up in the morning with goals of their own. As we’re not living in such a world right now, you still have to do what you have to do.

I only suggest trying it with the emphasis on “you”, rather than “have to”.

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A home for weird ideas, future visions, and mad ramblings. Open for submissions from anyone with something to say about where we’re headed or the nature of time or history. If you want to get added as an author, contact me via my Twitter handle @Nartimar.

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Martin Rezny

Martin Rezny

An independent Czech thinker, speaker, writer, and creator.

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