Can work save us?

The average person spends 90,360 hours of their life at work—many of which they don’t enjoy. Meanwhile, globalization and robots are threatening our ability to earn a living. But what if our distaste for work is misguided, and the loss of some jobs will help us find a better—and more important—kind of work?

Can work save us?

My grandfather was only happy when he worked. It’s probably good that he felt that way. Farming in the early – mid 1900s wasn’t easy—and Finland’s short growing seasons were unforgiving. When the frost cleared (sometimes as late as May) he and my grandmother tended the farm. His winters were spent at logging camps near Lapland, where most work was done by men and horses—no machines.

My dad’s recollections of those times are generally positive—but they’re also hard. Babies stayed in the crib, or outside in basinets, as fields were tended to. Kids didn’t go to school if there was work to do. Meals were simple, but consistent, largely comprised of potatoes, gravy, and bread. Many of us take for granted how plentiful and easy food is to access. I think it was quite different then, as some remembered those harder times. (In the 1860s, 15% of the Finnish population died as a result of a devastating, naturally-caused famine.)

Life—and work—has changed dramatically since then. Farming has become more efficient, with only 1% of the U.S.’s population being farm families. I don’t know many farmers, nor factory workers. We sit inside, in warm, comfortable spaces, and do work that once would have seemed more like play. Our conditions have undoubtedly improved. But, in spite of our many advancements, it’s difficult to argue that some things didn’t get worse.

“…for the rich countries, the best of capitalism is over. For the poor ones—now experiencing the glitter and haze of industrialisation—it will be over by 2060.”

Paul Mason

The collapse from convenience

Although few wish to suffer the outside elements and life’s hardships, convenience is an equally lethal force. This statement may seem contrarian, but you know it’s also accurate. Our climate-controlled, “Have it your way,” “Buy now with 1-Click®” culture comes with its own set of problems.

While some populations still suffer from hunger and malnutrition, others are impacted by a new scourge of comfort-related illness. Calorie-dense diets, high in industrially synthesized fats, coupled with sedentary lifestyles (sitting at work, in the car, and on the couch) introduce a plague of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments.

An example of the far reaching effects of our appetite for consumption This laysan albatross chick was accidentally fed plastic by its parents and died as a result. Such incidents are a byproduct of the a massive, toxic plastic soup in the ocean—comprised principally of land-based waste from North America and Asia. Photo: Duncan Wright

Collecting scrap phones E-waste represents 2% of the trash in America’s landfills, but equals 70% of overall toxic waste. 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed worldwide every year. A large amount of that which is labeled as “e-waste” can be recycled or made available for reuse; yet, only only 12.5% of e-waste is currently recycled. Facts about e-waste courtesy of DoSomething.org. Photo: Fairphone

Severe air pollution in Anyang, China. Photo: China’s rapid industrialization is a powerful force of change, but not without consequences. Chronic air pollution is so severe that schools are sometimes closed, privately owned cars must stay off roads, and businesses must curb production. Photo: V.T. Polywoda

“Governments are not helpless in the face of technological change and market forces. If politicians stop obsessing with GDP, and focus on delivering for all their citizens and not just a wealthy few, a better future is possible for everyone.”

Winnie Byanyima

The good life isn’t equally distributed. Although globalization drives worldwide incomes towards convergence, there are still dramatic gaps in wealth. In sub-Saharan Africa 40% of people live in absolute poverty. Closer to home we see middle-class families no longer constitute the majority, in the United States. Meanwhile, 8 people (6 of whom are American) collectively possess more than half the world. Yet, for all their wealth, those who have more are not happier as a result of their good fortune. A study co-funded by the Gates Foundation, “portrays the ultrarich as lost souls burdened by the fears, worries and family distortions of too much money.

The nightly news—or perpetual Facebook/Twitter feed—does little to reassure us. Around the world, we see a rise in nationalism and regressive policies. In spite of economic prosperity in so much of the world, vast populations are displaced by complex wars. Of these, it’s difficult to even understand what’s occurring or which group is funding these varied rogue states.

The Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than it’s been in 64 years—largely due to risk of nuclear apocalypse and climate change. This year, we hit a new record: Our atmosphere’s ratio of CO2 molecules to other molecules recently—and permanently—exceeded 400 ppm (350 ppm is considered a safe level). Meanwhile, President Trump’s administration aims to double-down on its nuclear arsenal, while simultaneously slashing the EPA and obliterating climate science funding.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you wonder if everyone’s gone mad.

The Keeling Curve, Full record. The Keeling Curve, Full record. Image: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

How carbon dioxide moves around the planet. Image: NASA/YouTube

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The reptilian brain set free

I’m an atheist. Well, somedays. On others I’m agnostic. You could safely call me a “none,” which means I’m not affiliated with any religion. I belong to a group that is undergoing significant growth. In the U.S. nones comprise nearly 24% of the population. In North America and most of Europe nones are considered the second largest “religious group” (which seems like a paradox). I should also note that this rise in secularism isn’t evenly distributed. Religion’s grasp is strengthening in places like sub-Saharan Africa and China.

I feared God, briefly. Upon begging to go to a local camp with super-boffo water slides, the camp counsellors scared the Jesus into us. They even put on a magic show in which they dramatically burned bits of paper—to illustrate the imminent peril of a godless soul. My dalliance with Christianity was short lived, but fed a lifelong distrust of organized religion. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that a religious populace has something nones don’t: purpose.

The absence of God leaves a substantial void. One might think to fill this emptiness with humanism or some other altruistic belief. Instead, we chose ourselves. More accurately, we chose to indulge our lizard brain. This is the oldest part of our brains, and is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing-up, and fornication. Put another way: We chose to be Homer Simpson.

The lizard brain Although most of us our capable of higher level reasoning, we often fall back on our reptilian brain—in spite of the adverse consequences. Image: Shah Training

Customers go bonkers on Black Friday Rampant consumption has its own special unofficial holiday, Black Friday. The day’s chaos sometimes spills into violence, so far wracking up 10 deaths and 105 injuries.

We chose to indulge our egos, appetites, and base desires—but we didn’t do so alone. Shrewd advertising folks realized that rational appeals didn’t persuade as convincingly as emotional ones. So, they upped their game. Soon, ads didn’t just proclaim a product’s virtues. The new generation of ads emphasized the void in our lives, and claimed their product could fill it. A soda, a song, or some serving spoons. Whatever needed to be sold was made to seem like that one puzzle piece missing from your soul.

“Although we feel we are free, in reality, we—like the politicians—have become the slaves of our own desires.”

Adam Curtis

These things were false solutions, though. Compounding the problem, they tended to make your life even worse. Think about the treadmill you bought to get in shape. Turns out, it’s a drag to use. So, you don’t. Instead, it sits in the corner of your basement collecting dust. In buying this thing, you made yourself a little poorer. Additionally, when you see the thing, it taunts you for your lack of willpower—leaving you guilty and defeated.

Although the things we pursue hardly ever satisfy, we’re a trusting sort. As such, we continue to pursue possessions, achievements, and status, with hopes that the next solution is the right one. And as technology and logistics improve, this cycle runs increasingly faster. This time, it’s an iWatch. The next time, it’s a fancy-shmancy juicer. Then, it’s a training device that turns stomach exercises into a game. After that, it’s a self-help book on minimalism—so you can find purpose by getting rid of all the shit that didn’t give you purpose.

Ours is a fast culture, and we’re adapting to fit into it. This isn’t natural, though, and when our fast culture doesn’t give us equally fast feedback, we tend to think something’s amiss. This is why you see so many bounce from one career/pursuit to the next. If one option doesn’t yield immediate returns, he/she figures something’s wrong, and moves on to the next great promise. This is time consuming, though, and who wants to wait?

Pavlovian Conditioning Most of us feel a little rush of dopamine when we hear that friendly email notification chime. This sort of stimulus is habit forming, and leads us to feel flat in its absence. Image: Boogie Blog

Addiction runs rampant when people need some kind of reassurance that they’re doing things right. Once again, fast culture is there to “help,” with a different form of addiction for whatever you might need. Arguably, there has never been an easier time to be an addict. Fast culture is closely coupled with binge culture. We watch TV programs in marathon sessions. We gorge ourselves at buffets. We shop ’til we drop. We drink. And we are workaholics—who don’t know what we’re actually working toward.

Add in gamification, and there’s a whole new world of addiction to be had. Collecting badges, climbing leaderboards, checking in, viewing notifications, and reacting to “outrage porn” (content that’s engineered to elicit a response, in spite of its lack of newsworthiness). Every tweet you check, like you get, and selfie you post, you’re succumbing to a pursuit of empty highs. You say you’re on Twitter because it’s good for your career. Truth is, you’re on it because you’re addicted.

“We are engineered in such a way that as long as an experience hits the right buttons, our brains will release the neurotransmitter dopamine. We’ll get a flood of dopamine that makes us feel wonderful in the short term, though in the long term you build a tolerance and want more.”

Adam Alter

We’re all wrong about work

“Uh—oh. Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays.” That term: “a case of the Mondays” keeps making everyone crazy in Mike Judge’s film Office Space. That film, and many other comic strips, TV programs, and bumper stickers share one theme: work sucks.

Sounds like someone has a case of the Mondays.

A lot of people think they hate work. I say they’re mistaken, because they worship false idols. They chase status, power, and material compensation. Admittedly, everyone has to pay for the rent. That said, there’s a point at which sustenance and basic comforts are covered—and anything more offers diminishing returns.

When you react negatively to work, it isn’t really about the work. It’s about an outdated factory model that still defines the way most of us work. We have a clear start time and are expected to work a set number of hours—regardless of efficiency. The value (or lack of value) of our contributions is often not properly compensated out of well-intentioned, yet flawed, notions of fairness.

Factory thinking leads us to think of people like products: mostly the same, and often interchangeable. This same thinking leads management to pay as little as they can—and, similarly, some workers doing as little as they can. The motive for contributing more is diminished when one doesn’t share in the rewards. And when treated like a cog, most people start to act like cogs: simply putting in their time, while dreaming about a retirement that might not even happen.

Workers in the Fuse Factory—late 1800s Early factory workers typically worked 10 – 18 hours a day, 6 days a week. Throughout the 19th century a series of acts improved working conditions for factory workers. Photo: National Maritime Museum Reproduction

The “Super Desk” Clive Wilkinson’s 330-metre-long “super-table” for Barbarian Group is certainly beautiful. That said, many argue that the open concept office is detrimental to workers’ efficiency. Photo: Dezeen

Leaders aren’t (for the most part) stupid. They understand that there are better ways to motivate people, and that some contribute vastly more than others. That said, changing how businesses work is difficult—especially for those that operate at scale. New, flexible, and egalitarian approaches work well in companies with only 2 or 3 people. Once organizations get larger than that, though, they beg for structure. You need consistent pay grades. You need policies. You need dress codes, time sheets, and holiday calendars.

So, if your operation can’t offer more freedom and flexibility, what do you do? You fake it. You remove the cubicles, and offer an “open concept” office. People find these difficult to work in, but such approaches appear more fun and liberating. You add ping-pong tables, slides, and video games into your space. These typically go unused, but are helpful when recruiting young people. You introduce team building events like scavenger hunts, room escape parties, and paintball excursions. These look great on the company website, but many workers look upon them as “forced fun,” which they’d rather avoid.

The challenge with all of these initiatives is that they’re not rooted in fundamental needs. They’re varnish. They’re gimmicks. They’re chocolate on broccoli. You can pour on all the chocolate you’d like, but if no one wants the broccoli, the chocolate won’t create any lasting meaning or value. Without purpose, there aren’t enough gimmicks in the world to make people care about their work.

At best, the “cool” company is analogous to a retirement home. Although the decoration might placate its residents, it’s still a prison. And, like any other prison, its inmates are negatively affected. They’re tired, they’re stressed, and they’re sedentary. And they’re losing the opportunity to be so.

Victims of the Dhaka Savar building collapse Many in America want both lower priced goods, and the return of high-paying manufacturing jobs. Few recognize the incongruity of these expectations. Lower prices are often made possible through abominable working conditions, as witnessed in the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, in which 1,130 died and 2,500 were injured. Photo: rijans

The end of middle-skill jobs

In spite of Trump’s grandiose promises to bring jobs back to America, such a feat is beyond anyone’s ability. The era of the well-paid middle-skill worker is over. Sure, low-skill jobs still exist, but the hourly rate associated with these is scant—and even these jobs are evaporating. For example, Wendy’s is installing self-serve ordering kiosks in 1,000 stores this year.

Big Pay Jobs advertisement Image: Old Ads are Funny

There are a few key reasons why jobs are disappearing. The cause that most commonly takes the blame is globalization. In spite of any PR or feelings you have to the contrary, a corporation’s only obligation is to its owners/shareholders. Thus, hiring Bangladeshi factory workers at ~80 USD a month is a viable means of slashing costs and maximizing profit—regardless of the social implications for those workers, or the ones left behind.

Beyond the use of global economic imbalances for corporate/personal gain, our new work landscape has math to contend with. There were 2.5 billion people on the planet in 1950. By 2005, there were 6.5, and now there are 7.5. (Models point to growth starting to level out around 2050.) So, there are a lot more people ready and eager to work—and in a digital world, few of them are all that far away—regardless of location.

World population projections Image: United Nations Population Division

Sure, the planet’s burgeoning population will necessitate the production of more things; however, we also know this planet has limits. It simply can’t handle all its inhabitants consuming at the rate of those in developed nations. I digress, though. My point is that the unique benefits experienced by some who lived through the post–World War II economic boom will never be seen again—irrespective of any politician’s promises. Nationalism is a desperate last gasp that’ll quickly collapse under the enormous pressures of globalization.

Although fears of “others” taking jobs are rife, the real threats aren’t principally human. Instead, they’re the result of increasingly streamlined methods, coupled with smarter machinery. In other words: atomization and automation.

You’ve witnessed atomization over the course of your entire life. Take that high-school job you had at a fast food restaurant. Did you make a burger patty, slice a potato, or add together milkshake ingredients? Of course not. Those all came in boxes, ready to grill, deep-fry, or be added to some other contraption. This is symptomatic of atomization. By breaking the process into discrete steps, tasks can be simplified, and completed more efficiently.

Atomization leads to automation, because once a task is sufficiently simplified, automation is inevitable. AI isn’t the distant fantasy many think it to be. Take autonomous (self-driving) cars: some of these are already on the road. By 2020, there will be 10 million of them. This application of AI will save many lives; it’ll also replace nearly 3.4 million truckers and drivers (i.e., Uber, taxi, bus, delivery). Imagine the ramifications to work, when this many people are displaced. A recent Oxford report suggests that nearly half of American jobs could be replaced by automation—within twenty years. Curious about how vulnerable your job is? Check the probability of your job being automated in the next 10 – 20 years.

10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020 10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020. Image: Business Insider

Some areas are more at risk for automation than others. Typically, these are jobs with predictable, physical procedures. Meanwhile, complex jobs with a high number of variables aren’t so easy to automate. This leads to a strange polarization of employment, in which there are lots of high-wage/skill jobs. For example, doctors, engineers, and marketers are in demand. Conversely, there is ample demand in low-pay/skill jobs, like cleaning, food services, security, retail and home health services. However, demand for people in the middle (e.g., clerical, manufacturing, insurance, and information technology) has stagnated—hollowing out the middle. To the delight of some, robots are coming for lawyers’ jobs too.

Analyzing work activities rather than occupations is the most accurate way to examine the technical feasibility of automation. Image: McKinsey&Company

Fear of globalization is wonky, in that it exhibits an irrational protectionism based on geography. The imperative for global economic convergence are inarguable. Put plainly: Why do you and I deserve better opportunities/lives than our counterparts living elsewhere? Fear of atomization and automation is similarly ill-placed. I compare it to lamenting the loss of ditch digging jobs to trenchers. This change is inevitable and demands that we change with it.

Increased global efficiency through technology advances and access to resources has served us well. As a society, we never would have achieved what we have, without deploying ourselves and our tools intelligently. For a long time, mundane work was plentiful because we were poorly leveraged. Now that we can better distribute tasks, and offload work to machines, we’re freed to pursue new—and more interesting—challenges and opportunities.

Jobs as we know them are over. Which means the exciting part of work is just beginning.

“You cross the threshold of job-replacement of certain activities all sort of at once. So, you know, warehouse work, driving, room cleanup, there’s quite a few things that are meaningful job categories that, certainly in the next 20 years (will go away).”

Bill Gates

Beware of that which seems absolute

When I left for art school, my path looked risky. High-school guidance counsellors didn’t know what to say. Some suggested a career accounting because it was “safe.” My dad once recommended that I go into forestry (I wasn’t interested in forests, but he considered it a steady industry). Mostly. I think my parents hoped I’d finish my 4 years, and pursue a teaching certificate. This was all fine advice, but it failed to take the future into account.

Navigating the next industrial revolution Image: World Economic Forum

It was 1991, and few even knew what a designer was. I bet none had heard of the internet. And if I would have told people that one day 20-somethings would run some of the world’s most influential businesses? They would have laughed at me. While those changes were substantial, the rate of change will only accelerate. Look back 100 years, and you’ll see a consistent pattern of this hastening. Ray Kurzweil argues that this rate of change isn’t linear, but rather exponential, which leaves us ill-equipped to understand the sorts of changes that are imminent.

If I had to place a bet, I’d say that 10 years from now, we’ll look back at current ideas of jobs as parochial and almost unimaginable. Our working experiences already point to this sort of change, but when you’re living in it, such change seems to happen gradually.

“The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative, or supervisory roles remaining.”

Stephen Hawking

The newspaper I worked at in the early ’90s once employed around 140 people. Now, it limps along with ~35 full-time staff. Most of my friends don’t work standard 9-to-5 jobs. I work from home. I initially considered this novel, but I find that many of my colleagues (typically men) do the same thing—in part to lower daycare expenses. Location is also less defined. I know folks who run their consultancies from all corners of the world. I work with startups that are fully distributed—and have no fixed office. I don’t remember my last in-person meeting.

When I started my career everyone had a job. Now, there are all kinds of varying set-ups ranging from consultancies and freelancers, to hired-guns, collaboratives, and hobbies that turned into profitable businesses. By 2020, one in every two American workers will do freelance work, in some capacity. When I think about that figure for a moment, I can imagine a scenario in which a 9-to-5 job is a rarity.

Dismantling the Prince George Citizen. My first job was in this space, and I remember when it was bustling with activity. When I left, ~17 years ago, giving up my “safe” job seemed reckless. Photo: Wendy Ramsey

A new religion

If God doesn’t exist, and consumerism isn’t the solution, what’s next? I say it’s us—and we get to that us, through work (in spite of the rise of the machines). If you do believe in God, this all likely sounds a bit crass and self-involved. It’s not though. In fact, I believe that the values I espouse are similar to those of the non-secular world. The difference is that these values are informed by what we personally see as moral, instead of what an institution states.

What do today’s workers lack that even free lunches, retreats, and good chairs won’t fix? Purpose. Without purpose, we’re lost. It’s not more money we seek. It’s not a better car. It’s not an iPhone. It’s not a corner office. And it’s most certainly not power over others. None of these things—that we so commonly glorify—offer the lasting fulfillment we hope for.

The Hedonic Treadmill Although many pursue happiness, The Hedonic Treadmill states that regardless of the event, you’ll return to your baseline happiness level. As such, purpose can serve as a stabilizing force, as it leaves you less likely to be swayed by fleeting emotions. Image: Positive Psychology Program

Purpose is elusive, but mostly because we frame it around ourselves—as individuals. The absolute truth is that no matter who you are, nor what you possess, can fill the void you feel. It might seem paradoxical, but the only way to heal yourself is to start with someone else.

A few weeks ago, I found a broken phone. I brought it home, thinking I could find its owner, or recycle it. Upon charging it, I was able to contact its owner. She came to our house that same evening to collect it. At first she seemed hesitant. Once she saw the phone she lit up, and explained, “Oh my God—you have no idea what this means to me! My mom died, and that phone has my last photos of her on it!” She tried to pay me, but I wouldn’t accept any money. Her joy was overwhelming and contagious. She then gave me a hug. I’m not typically a “hugger,” but for the rest of that day I felt like a million bucks.

This is a stupid little story. I only share it with you, because it points at a fundamental truth I know you’ve experienced, in some way. You remember a time when you did something small for someone else, and his/her response made you feel wonderful. There was no money or fame in it, but it left you feeling inexplicably good. This is the curious part about kind acts: they pay back in triplicate.

When I say religion, I do so somewhat cheekily. I don’t propose building a new church, or singing any hymns. (Although if someone can pull off the water into wine trick, I’m open to suggestions.) What I really mean is that we all need to change our belief set to people and matters that… well… matter.

“Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Robert F. Kennedy

All the time in the world

Ask some friends what they’d do if money weren’t an issue. Most will talk about moving to a beach, somewhere warm. This is a fine fantasy, and somedays I share it (especially when we’re in the middle of a rainy November). That said, this fantasy isn’t perfect.

Pleasure only works when there’s something to contrast it against. For example, holidays are a wonderful treat, but aren’t as refreshing when extended over long periods. Sure, you think you can spend a year on a beach, doing nothing, but after two weeks, I bet you’d be imagining what else you might do.

Dauphin, Manitoba In the late 1970’s, residents of Dauphin, Manitoba were selected to take part in the “Mincome” project, which ensured basic incomes. The objective was to determine whether added funds would diminish participant’s motivation to work (it didn’t). Although the experiment was mostly forgotten about, recent interest in basic incomes has brought new attention to the project. Photo: Dauphin Economic Development

Interesting people always find something to do. There are countless books to read, adventures to be had, and experiences to partake in. That said, these things tend to center around the self. I’m reading those books. I’m having those adventures. I’m experiencing those wonderful things. All of this is great—but maybe this world isn’t just about me.

Back at the newspaper, I once worked at, there was an older fellow named Ross. I hardly knew him, but noticed that he never looked happy. He and his coworkers talked a lot about retirement. This was their goal: to be done with work. Eventually, the day came, and Ross was free to retire. I often saw him, walking around town. I remember how lost he seemed. Maybe I projected this read on him, but I don’t think so. To me, it appeared that the “promised land” brought Ross little peace, and few answers.

When things have been a certain way for a long time, it becomes difficult to imagine them changing. In fact, notions of such change are often laughed-off as unrealistic. That said, one needn’t look far to realize that jobs are no longer assured, the way they once were. Meanwhile, as a post-job reality becomes increasingly viable, through basic income (which is being tested in places like Finland, The Netherlands, Brazil, India, Canada, twice, and others —and researched at Ycombinator), we all face Ross’ question: With nothing but time, what do we do?

Helena Woodworkers Guild October Meeting Dave Carlson, Chris Yavah, Tim Carney, Mike Flanagan, Matt Vanderwater, Bruce Ewal and James Lucht are members of the Helena Woodworkers Guild. They find enjoyment in an activity that to others looks like work. Photo: withthegrain

Why work matters

Most of us spend more time at work than with our families. That should be cause for concern, but I think we all like having something to do. So, regardless of how much we love those around us, we need other ways to occupy our time. In fact, this is the question we should ask our children, instead of what job they want: How do you want to spend your life? You only get one (supposedly), and once it’s done, it’s done. So what’s worthy of these years in front of you?

To many, this is an impossible question. It’s even more impossible when you’re 17 years old. However, there is a trick to answering this question. It’s found in putting aside what one wants, and instead asking what problem he/she might like to solve. The response might be to rid the world of diseases. Or, it could be to make elderly people’s lives less miserable. Alternatively, it might be to fight poverty in one’s hometown.

You’ll note that none of these are particularly simple problems to solve. Actually, you might even need an army of workers to make a dent in these problems. That’s why work is so bloody important. Working all day to cover a car payment is no good for you, your neighbours, or the planet. It’s a catastrophic misuse of the time on this planet that you are blessed with.

“If there isn’t a job for every citizen, then what does it mean to be a citizen?”

Ngaire Woods

Pondering purpose is a luxury of the haves. Have-nots’ purpose is infinitely clearer: survival. However, once basic needs like food and shelter are met, the question, “why?” becomes more significant. The tough part with this question is that asking it often leads us to the same conclusion: we don’t know—and the reasons we currently have for working aren’t very good ones. The issue then is whether one retreats back into habit, or changes according to what he/she has learned.

Craig Keilburger at age 12 When Craig Keilburger was 12, he saw a photo of Iqbal Masih, a murdered 12-year-old former Pakistani child slave. Realizing that except for the happenstance of birth, he could have been Iqbal, Craig chose to do something. Along with his brother Marc he created Free The Children: a charity that aims to free children and their families from poverty and exploitation. Photo: Wikipedia

My wife helps refugees access programming that prepares them for life in their new homes. She has difficult days at work, but her greater purpose mitigates such lows. My friend Eric focuses his design work and writing on environmentally sustainable methods. Meanwhile, Alex is imagining what the planet’s future might be. Given all the money in the world, I think all of them would continue to do what they do—albeit with added influence/agency.

Purpose in work can be big, like in the examples above. It doesn’t need to be, though. I know people who left desk jobs for carpentry, because they wanted to make real things people could use—instead of just responding to email. I think the important part isn’t purely in autonomy, or in what one does-it’s in the opportunity to, in some way, impact others.

Work is one answer

So, if I haven’t been explicit enough for your liking, I’ll reiterate: You don’t hate work; you hate meaningless work. You hate meetings that serve no purpose. You hate policies that restrain you from doing your best. You hate when your boss asks you to complete tasks that don’t add up to anything.

On Saturday mornings, though, when you get to coach your kids’ soccer team, you’re amped. When a new opportunity arises, and your boss leaves it in your hands, you get excited by the possibilities. You have fun adding facts and disputing dubious points on Wikipedia. And, when you start working on that car you’re restoring in the garage, time seems to fly. These might be shitty examples that mean nothing to you—so, substitute them with your own. My notion still holds: We all enjoy activities that are in many ways similar to work.

Work isn’t the problem. Meaningless work is a problem. Work in which you have no say is a problem. And, work you’re not suited for (or suck at) is a problem. However, if you are competent, afforded room to act, and know why you’re doing it, work can be incredibly fulfilling.

Author Dan Pink argues that the key to motivation is tied to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives. Mastery is the impulse to continually improve at something that matters. Purpose is the yearning to do work that is in the service of something larger than ourselves.

So, I want you to put your faith in purposeful work. I’m not asking you to save the world or cure cancer (although we’d all be grateful if you did). I want you to ask yourself what contribution you can make to the people and planet around you. I want you to commit to a life of service.

Purposeful work reframes our ideas about success. Instead of chasing an award, a fatter pay check, or a shinier car, it re-calibrates you to think about matters of importance. I’m talking about issues that change lives for the better—not some phoney aspirations advertising tricked you with.

What is your purposeful work? That’s for you to determine—not me. That said, if I were searching right now, I’d ask myself questions, like: What knowledge do I have to share, and who’d benefit from it most? Is there someone who deserves company, assistance, or support—who’s typically ignored? What does my community need that I’m uniquely able to provide? What injustices (present/past) can I attempt to acknowledge, improve, or repair? What can I contribute to culture that might make others’ lives richer?

This is an incomplete list, but it might get you started. The important point to note is the vast difference between these questions and the ones we typically obsess over. These aren’t about how you look, how important you are, or what others think about you. Instead, they nudge you to start with needs bigger than yourself, and imagine solutions from there.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle In his book Start With Why, and his presentations on the same topic, author Simon Sinek states that leaders must determine purpose before even determining what they’ll do (and how they’ll do it).

Making it happen

The old work model was based on physical output. The difference between one worker and the next was negligible. So, work was measured in time. 40 hours (the now standard workweek, based in part on Henry Ford’s belief that too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity) was exchanged for a set rate of pay. So long as the business model was sound, and variables remained consistent, this arrangement was reasonably solid.

We’re headed for a world where the transaction costs of networking together are near zero, where ordinary people can associate to produce most consumption goods with capital outlays equivalent to a few months’ factory wages, and there’s nothing all the regulations, patents and copyrights on paper can do to stop us.

Kevin Carson

This is no longer the case. As James Altucher notes, “Skills and ideas are the new currency. Not certificates and titles.” Where a stronger worker’s physical output might increase by a couple of factors, a smarter individual’s value might be incalculable. Put differently: Mark Zuckerberg and I can probably stack logs at about the same rate; however, a dollar invested in his ideas him would yield vastly more than a dollar invested in any of mine. This represents a fundamental shift in our ideologies and old beliefs in “hard work.” Value is no longer linked solely to effort. It’s worth noting that Silicon Valley companies earn ten times the revenue of Detroit automakers with one-tenth as many employees.

That said, working hard in and of itself isn’t the point; nor is the acquisition of life “badges” (e.g., a Mercedes parked in the driveway). Capitalism is arguably nearing its end. Further, we can’t keep looking upon work from an individualistic standpoint. Personal success is nothing if it doesn’t in some way benefit those around us, or our surroundings. Such changes require collaboration over shared values and goals. We need to start with service, give more of ourselves, and collaborate with others. Oh yeah, and we need to get used to sharing the credit.

AllReady Codeathon Day 2 underway at the MS Garage. Humanitarian Toolbox brings together developers, designers, testers, and industry professionals who contribute their unique skills in disaster relief aid—with open source software and services. Initiatives like this one serve as a model for how individuals can work collaboratively to address calamitous human/societal challenges. Image: Twitter

Massive, systemic change can’t happen if we’re locked into outmoded or destructive cycles. We can’t always race blindly toward the next meeting, quarterly commitment, or project milestone. Similarly, we need to collectively take measures against the dopamine cycle which has us chasing quick highs that distract us from our more important work. While we’re at it, we ought to take adequate time to refuel (perhaps even in the form of mini-retirements). And more than ever, we need to invest in education—which can both insulate us from automation, and regressive politics that are at odds with common societal interests.

“Rising to this challenge, they took the radical step of requiring that their entire youth population remain in school and continue their education to the ripe old age of 16. This was called the high school movement, and it was a radically expensive thing to do. Not only did they have to invest in the schools, but those kids couldn’t work at their jobs. It also turned out to be one of the best investments the US made in the 20th century.”

David Autor

Big goals and ambitious projects take time—sometimes lifetimes. That requires us to pick a route and stay the course. This also demands good habits and patience. So set a gear you can maintain, and give your work time. Purposeful pursuits hardly ever offer immediate rewards, so align your expectations to match this direction.

Can work save us? Who knows? Probably not all of us, but perhaps some. Although purposeful work isn’t everything, it is most certainly something. And in the absence of many other solutions, I suggest it’s a highly viable option. As Voltaire said, “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”