What does meaningful work really look like?

The other day I saw a great couple of tweets from a user called Madeon, which I repeat here in full:

  • “I think it’s a tired idea to pretend every piece of art is ‘telling a story’ or ‘spreading a message’ like those are the only valid reasons to create”
  • “Can you imagine watching a sunset and being like ‘but what’s the STORY tho, what’s the MESSAGE’”

I love this, as I think he’s touched on a much bigger issue here, a thoroughly modern disease I’m going to summarise as:

Overvaluing output, undervaluing process.

To first explain this in the field his tweets are referring to, it’s plain to see a marked trend in judging art based on the “importance” of the “message” it spreads, rather than the intrinsic qualities of the thing itself.  To give a blunt example, an artwork which is simply yoghurt spread all over a wall to represent, say, the plight of immigrants might be heralded as “great art” by the critics, whilst an exquisitely beautiful painting of a flower, that exists only for its own sake, will be dismissed as trite and meaningless.  The “output” is the important thing, not the thing itself.

One place you see this trend particularly vividly is on the movie review platform Rotten Tomatoes, where movies frequently get “ratioed”, meaning they receive a very high average rating from critics (say 94%), and a very low average rating from the public (say 22%).  This phenomenon is driven in part by the critics being far more focused on the message of a movie than its intrinsic qualities, whilst the public are generally skewed in the opposite direction, hence the disconnect.

Overall I think it’s fair to say that we live in a climate where we’re told that for a piece of art to be worthwhile it must be doing a “job” outside of itself – and that all art which doesn’t strive for this is wasting our time.  There is an increasing lack of value placed on doing something simply because it’s joyful, beautiful, passionate, or any other similar worth which exists within the thing itself.

What’s interesting here is the way that this belief pervades not only art, but other fields too – most notably for our purposes, the field of work.

As you’ll have gathered there is a great deal of desire among people today to find fulfilling or “purposeful” work, and not without good reason.  After all, our work is the thing we spend most of time doing, and whilst there’s an undeniable dignity to grinding through a hated job in order to put food on the table, it’s clearly not the ideal situation.

The issue however comes in what people think fulfilling work actually is.

Ask someone today and the typical answer they’ll give is one focused on the output of the job – in other words whether the organisation they work for does something “important” or for the social good.  By this logic it is fulfilling to work for a charity, the healthcare services, a human rights law firm, or for an uber-purposeful brand, but it is not fulfilling to work for a marketing agency, widget manufacturer, or cigarette brand.

As you can see this is the same logic as employed with art: the focus is on whether the second order effect of the work is good or not.  What you are actually doing (the process) isn’t as important as who you’re doing it for (the output).

As a result of this, people now tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on the place they work, rather than what they actually do for their work moment to moment.  Exaggerating the point slightly, the assumption seems to be that any job at the UN would be preferable to any job at the local paper merchant.  “I don’t care what I do, but I do care where I do it”.

Now just as there is validity in judging a work of art by the message, so too is there validity in judging a job by its output.  I have no doubt that many people do indeed find fulfilment by knowing that their company does something they believe in.  However I do not believe this is the only way of finding fulfilment – nor the most effective.

I’d venture that most people would find more profound (and accessible) fulfilment by focussing on the process of what they do, regardless of the output they’re producing.  The output of most jobs is reality a “Macguffin” – a Hollywood term for a plot device that’s there to give a framework for a movie, but isn’t really what the movie is actually about.

To illustrate this idea, imagine a master carpenter who builds beautiful handmade chairs.  Most people would imagine this to be quite a fulfilling career, but why?  Does he wake up excited every morning because, thanks to him, people are able to sit down?  (i.e. output fulfilment)  Pretty doubtful – most likely he couldn’t care less about what it is the chairs do, they’re just chairs.  What he cares about instead is the fulfilment he gets from the process of making them.  The output is simply a “device” to give him an excuse to engage in the passion of his craft.

Another slightly more everyday example was once found in the advertising industry.  In terms of output, most people would agree that there are few fields more trivial than advertising.  However that didn’t stop it being a desirable profession, since in terms of process, there are few fields more rewarding.  Advertising contains within in such intrinsically joyful elements as:

  • Relationship building
  • Learning about new things
  • Insight generation
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Artistic craft
  • Variable outcomes (i.e. a sense of being a “game”)

…to name but a few.

However today, because of the gradual shift to output focus, advertising has lost this aura.  New graduates are less attracted to it than the were in the past because it’s “trivial”.  And what is more, in a desperate and misguided attempt to inject meaning into the field, agencies have increasingly attempted to focus on doing “purposeful work” (i.e. altruistic output work), which ironically has actually stripped meaning from the process, as it’s smothered creativity.

Sort of proves the point I think.

The bottom line here is this: unless you have an unusual passion for a very particular output, you are much more likely to find meaning in the process of your work than in the results of it.

If you’re an accountant at a lightbulb factory you’re unlikely to magically find fulfilment by switching jobs and going to be an accountant at an NGO.  The real question is whether you enjoy accountancy in the first place, and whether the conditions of job allow you to practice it in a way which gives you satisfaction.

Unfortunately there’s a bit of a catch here of course, and it’s this: in order to know what kind of process truly fulfils you, you need to understand yourself very deeply.  Far more than most of us do.  This is in part why I wrote my last piece.

Most of us never find career fulfilment because don’t know ourselves, and therefore we seek it extrinsically, jumping to more attractive companies and more attractive pay packets (another form of output-focus), but all the while engaging in a process that doesn’t suit us.  Where we should be seeking it is intrinsically; inside ourselves, and within the actions that make up our day-to-day.

So let us ask, what is the behaviour, the ritual, the thought type, the way of being, in which you’re really able to lose yourself and enter a flow state?  What feels like play to you, but wouldn’t to most people?  What is something, no matter how trivial, that you feel you can do to the level of an art?

Because that should be the fabric of your work life.  The rest of it (usually) is vanity.

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