11 March 2019

What’s the meaning of work?

I believe it is important to occasionally look back and reflect on the things that are important in our lives and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my work. Is the work I’m doing something I’m proud of? Is it just a means to an end - something I do in order to be able to pay my bills? Does it serve a greater good? Or do I do it to give me a purpose?

What I do know is that in the work I do, I’ve always highly valued the concept of ‘freedom’. But as my work has changed, I’ve felt less and less ‘free’.

Work changes, perspective changes

During the last year, the work I do has changed from working on 2-4 projects simultaneously with a typical project lasting between 3-6 months to working on a single project. While I still have my own company, I’ve experienced the transition from being a supplier to becoming a co-worker - from having a customer to having a colleagues.

This comes with changes on multiple levels of course. In many ways, I find it way less stressful. I have a much longer contract as opposed to previously in my career. I don’t experience the same need of always looking ahead, “Just two more months to go, need to start talking to potential clients again”.

But working this long for the same employer also blurs the line between being a supplier, a consultant, an external company, and being a colleague/full-time employee. In all honesty, not much is different except who pays taxes on my salary. More stability, less feeling of ‘freedom’. A handoff for sure.

During the past year, I have probably received less than 5 emails during after hours, including weekends. I realize, that this is a rare occurrence in today’s society and perhaps exceptionally rare if you work in what we refer to as “tech”.

But in reality, it rarely stops. It follows us home on our smartphones, tugging at us during an evening out or in the middle of our children’s bedtime routines. It makes permanent use of valuable cognitive space, and chooses odd hours to pace through our thoughts, shoving aside whatever might have been there before. It colonizes our personal relationships and uses them for its own ends. It becomes our lives if we are not careful. It becomes us. Why do we work so hard?

So while the work does not follow me home through the usual channels (email being the main suspect), it does follow me home on a psychological level and causes similar stresses that many of us experience in relationship to our work.

Let’s look at smartphones as an example. They are often referred to as the reason for our increasing levels of stress and anxiety. But perhaps they are just the tool, not the actual reason for the intrusion in our lives.

So I got an iPhone, and just like that, I signed myself up to check and respond to email wherever, whenever. No pay raise, no new job title, not even a request from my boss. For me, this was a 100% self-inflicted responsibility because I wanted a shiny object. Six years with a distraction-free iPhone

Perhaps it’s not the possibility of checking email through out the day that’s the problem, perhaps it’s just the same thing that drives Instagram, Facebook and any of the other tools - the real root to our stress; our need of validation.

Validation is a necessity?

Our need of validation is the reason we hunt likes, check email (even when we checked it just two minutes ago), and why we work so much. The truth is, many of us work a lot, and perhaps we don’t really understand why. Could we actually be validating ourselves to others, society, or even ourselves? Could our value be defined by our work?

What is less clear to me, and to so many of my peers, is whether we should do so much of it. One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts. Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.

Karl Marx had a different view: that being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realize their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work. Why do we work so hard?

Perhaps the reason many of us struggle with relating to work in a healthy way is that we’re just not engaged in productive work? Or purposeful? And the result is that we’re unable to realize our full potential. Perhaps checking work emails on a Sunday morning is merely a call for purposeful work and we tell ourselves that the work we’re doing is purposeful while we deep down know, it’s not.

Do you feel the work you’re doing is purposeful? How do you cope with managing with work?