If you had asked a serf 400 years ago if they found their work fulfilling, they would have looked at you in confusion; the necessity of work was absolute, the type of work was non-negotiable, and toil was considered a part of the process; a type of thinking which backgrounded Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, and to which we are to some extent rebelling.
In this current historical juncture, we look to work not only for basic survival but also for the fulfilment of wishes, dreams and desires. Survival now guaranteed, we want to find meaning.
There is already an implied problem. We think of meaning as something found, as opposed to, for instance, created/cultivated/adopted. Finding ‘meaning’ is a fallacy implying that meaning is some sort of quality existing in the ether, waiting for us to pluck it like ripened fruit.
We could (and perhaps, should) instead say we wish to find what is meaningful for me. But, such a proposition hinges on something very important: we must know ourselves.
This is the first and arguably, most difficult step in finding meaningful work. If we do not know ourselves, what gratifies, inspires and moves; and contrarily, what irritates, demoralises and defeats; then finding meaningful work will be nearly impossible. Instead, we could start by writing a list of things we like a don’t like or free-associating from something we do; but, what we first must do is start investigating ourselves, and move out into the world from this point.
Upon understanding what elates and deflates us, we run into the implied next problem: it is nearly impossible to find a job perfectly suited to us. If there are jobs which satisfy our every desire, those with these jobs are great at keeping secrets. The likelihood of finding such jobs is slim, if not infinitesimal. Upon finding what we like and dislike, we are called upon to adjust ourselves to reality as it stands. Knowing we will not find work that satisfies every aspect of our personality, we may at least find one which can stimulate as many parts of ourselves as possible.
For example, you are a talented digital artist who wishes to inspire and move people; however, you cannot survive selling prints of your work on Instagram. So, you get a job working as a graphic designer for a multinational firm. While you might not inspire people (and move them only to purchase a new commodity), you are at least speaking to an important aspect of your personality; that is, the desire to create digital art. You might, contrarily, get a job as a digital artist for fringe festivals, and while you may still need to create within the parametres of somebody else’s expectations, you can still produce digital art which inspires and moves. The point is that you can’t have everything, but you can negotiate and adjust your expectations to achieve a satisfying sense of fulfilment.
But, perhaps, the option for satisfying a sufficient number of aspects of personality is out of reach, another option is, rather than expecting more from work, we can expect less from it. If we use a smaller glass, we need a lot less water to fill it. Rather than expecting work to be emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and economically satisfying, we could settle for maybe just two, or even one. If we could sufficiently lower our expectations of what we want from work, it wouldn’t be as hard to find work ‘fulfilling’. After all, if we went into work only expecting a paycheck and nothing more, we would be considerably less afflicted with pangs of doubt and disappointment about the state of our soul. But, a silent finger point appears here. That is, maybe the problem is not that work fails to fulfil us spiritually, but instead, we feel our life is spiritually unfulfilled generally, and look to work to fulfil it.
For example, if we want to be an artist, a consolation, a helper; we could satisfy these dreams by becoming a content writer, a psychologist, a disability support worker. Alternatively, we could work our 9-5 job (with no expectations for anything more than a paycheck), and in our time outside of work write a philosophy blog, help out at soup kitchens, help an elderly neighbour with their gardening.
Perhaps the issue is not that work fails to meet our expectations, but rather, we expect so much from work. If we could take work in its proper context, we would see it is only one part of life, and as such, expecting it to satisfy all of our desires as foolish, overly-optimistic and dangerous. We would benefit from putting far less significance on work, and more on everything we do outside it.