Most people prefer no work at all to meaningless work, or wasted work, or made work…. If work is meaningless, then life comes close to being meaningless. – Abraham Maslow
As a young idealist in the 1960s, with experience in computer systems analysis and programming, I responded to the culture wars brought on by Vietnam by selling my Porsche 911 and going to work for Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, for room, board and $5 a week. My job was to computerize the union’s membership and benefits program. I advertised in ComputerWorld for programmers for the same salary and "benefits" (surely the cheapest salary rate ever offered), hired several (one who took a leave of absence from IBM) and set about bringing computer efficiencies to the poor.
I was there for more than four years of what was for me, meaningful and fulfilling work, helping the "lowly" help themselves through the power of their own union. And ever since then, it has been important for me to create or work at jobs that meant more than just an ever-increasing paycheck. They needed to have meaning.
In 1972, Studs Terkel published his great book Working. He interviewed about a hundred workers across the United States, and most of them seemed to be aching for meaningful work. There was the cosmetics salesperson who would like to do "something more vital" and make a contribution; the auditor who doesn’t have much to say about his unexciting work: "I could say, Wow, I saw this company yesterday and their balance sheet, wow! There just isn’t much to talk about"; the stockbroker: "I’d like one morning to wake up and go to some work that gave me joy"; the editor: "Most of us are looking for a calling, not a job…jobs are not big enough for people"; the government bureaucrat: "The most frustrating thing for me is to know that what I’m doing does not have a positive impact on others. I don’t see this work as meaning anything." Terkel’s book was another reinforcement for many of us to search for work that mattered.
I’ve come to believe that one reason for the lack of meaningful work is that we’ve lost our direct connections with each other. Each step of greater abstraction, greater size, greater distance, is a step away from meaning. Each step in growing larger – size of company, size of government, size of institution – results in each job becoming more specialized, more abstracted and less meaningful. Each step that expands the distance between family members, between company offices – whether within a building or within a country – or the number of miles a food item travels on the way to market results in a loss of direct connection and another level of meaning eroded away.
As we lose connections and meaning, we lose our values, because values are supported by our direct human connections. Let’s define values as the Golden Rule: doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, which is fundamental to all religions and secular ethics, and is the most basic human value of taking responsibility for others as well as ourselves.
If I’m a farmer in California growing food that will be sold to consumers in Ohio, the "others" that I am "doing unto" are little more than an abstraction in my mind. I’ll never meet them. And it’s quite unlikely they will ever do a thing back unto me, good or bad, because they have no idea who I am or how I’m connected with their food. They may have "demographic significance" for my advertising agency, but beyond that I don’t think about them as individuals, only as a mass. So if I put poisons in their food in order to eradicate weeds in my fields more cheaply and easily than hiring people to hoe them out, what’s the big deal? I will have no knowledge of those who eat my food, and thus no sense of connection with them, however my action affects their personal health, and they will have no knowledge of or connection to the decisions I personally made that affected them. The Golden Rule does not work between demographic profiles or abstractions – only between real people connected directly as neighbors, friends and co-workers, or in direct community trade relationships. Abstractions obscure responsibility.
Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and often considered the father of modern economics, launched the economic doctrine of free enterprise and the free market – now a political religion – as well as the idea of "the invisible hand," which theorizes that if each person makes decisions based on personal self-interest, then the overall economy will work most efficiently for the happiness of all. This is interpreted by many to mean anything goes, greed is good, every person for themselves. But that wasn’t all that Smith said. He also said that for free enterprise to work, there must be widespread adherence to morality. He said that the purpose of government is to defend the poor from the rich, and he opposed publicly traded corporations, because they involve absentee control, which weakens connections and therefore diminishes responsibility.
The ultimate abstraction is the financial spreadsheet, which gives little indication that every change of every number is affecting someone somewhere, positively or negatively. As the company vice president moves that number from this cell to that cell, a thousand invisible people, gathered to watch over his shoulders, cheer or groan. Grumbling is heard, shoulders are gently rubbed, tears softly shed. People’s lives are hanging in the balance as the VP pauses at the keyboard, covering a yawn.
Who will take responsibility for those lives? The autonomy and dignity of a thousand human beings have just been smothered as the computer is turned off and another boring day at the office comes to an end. He was just doing the job he learned so well in college. The CEO was just growing his investors’ capital. The investor was just trying to find a company that would give him the best return on his investment. Who will take responsibility?
Did you see the cartoon in the New Yorker a while back showing a gravestone with the epitaph: "He watched sports"? There’s certainly nothing wrong with watching sports, and I’m not interested in passing judgment on anyone else’s use of time. But it may be interesting to reflect on what others might write on our own tombstones, or what one’s obituary would read if a committee of friends and enemies got together to write it.
For a moment, imagine you can look back at your life from 200 years in the future. Did your work have meaning? Did you and your values count? Did they have even the slightest positive impact on humankind? Or maybe you can take a fantasized out-of-body experience and zoom up a few miles into space and observe yourself going about your daily work. Are you being useful in a meaningful way? Do you like what you see yourself doing? Have you been honored to find, or create, meaningful work?