What’s the purpose of work?
Is it to earn a paycheque? To find purpose? To amuse you, fulfill you, challenge you?
A century ago people would have found that question strange. Most were just looking for a way to put food on the table. Remember Bob Cratchit from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? He labored under Scrooge’s critical eye not because clerking brought him intellectual stimulation or gave him fulfillment, but because he needed that meager income to support his family–including Tiny Tim.
With starvation and nakedness far down on our list of worries today, work has taken on new importance. Our basic needs are met with relative ease, compared to generations past, so we can now take a step back and ask, how do I want to spend my time? Considering that if we work full-time, we spend 40 of our 112 waking hours a week at work, we want to make sure they’re well spent. It’s not enough to earn a paycheque anymore; you have to be fulfilled.
Last week, in this column, I was looking at why this urge to “follow our passions” in work can be misguided, and this week I’d like to continue that conversation. Could it be that we’ve put expectations on work that work was never supposed to have?
Work is roughly 1/3 of your waking hours. Yes, that’s a lot, but that means that 2/3 of your waking hours are not spent at work. Why is it, then, that work needs to fulfill us?
Perhaps it’s because the things that traditionally fulfilled us–family and faith in Bob Cratchit’s case–are no longer as central to our lives. In the latest census, for example, 28% of households are now single households–only one person living in them. That’s a threefold increase over fifty years. And with marriage rates dropping, and fewer people having children, the idea that family will bring us the biggest joy in our lives is seen as naïve, and somewhat immature. “Take control of your own life; don’t rely on other people!” is the rallying cry we hear from our culture.
What about purpose? In generations past, purpose came from community, from doing one’s duty, from understanding one’s Creator and one’s part in the world. Now that more and more Canadians do not consider themselves people of faith, and Facebook has become our main community, our ability to find purpose outside of work has been minimized.
Yet can a mere job live up to that hype? As Cal Newport said in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, thinking that work must fulfill you results in people hopping from job to job, career to career, chronically dissatisfied, because ultimately a career can’t satisfy our need for purpose.
Newport instead suggests simply getting good at something–anything–that other people will pay for. It’s not about finding some existential fulfillment in your job; it’s about the sheer joy of mastering something and feeling productive, a joy that perhaps we have forgotten–and begun to belittle. If you love to paint, for instance, that does not mean you’re selling out if you get a job in a factory. You still have the other 2/3 of your life to paint; just get good at something that can support your painting.
Newport’s right, but I think Bob Cratchit was, too. Ultimately a job is the vehicle that feeds the rest of your life; it does not need to be your whole life. Find something you enjoy doing and get really good at it, and then spend the other 2/3 of your life chasing what you truly love full steam. A job can only do so much; it’s up to you to do the rest.
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