The Meaning of Life & Purpose of Work
What is the meaning of life? Why am I here and how can I achieve happiness? These questions, I believe, occupy the minds of people the world over. It seems that the more complex society becomes, the more information available, the more lost we are and the greater our striving for meaning. In our desperation for answers, we often turn to ill-suited and unreliable external sources. Some commentators suggest these sources under the guise of “the personal development industry” will be worth skywards of 13 billion by 2022 in the US alone. The very fact that we see industry built around the seeking of self only serves to highlight the growing, not declining sense of desperation. In a space flooded with self-professed experts and gurus, many of whom with little professional training and reliable accreditation, there’s a significant chance that we become further lost down the rabbit hole of information. The Artist’s Manifesto proposes a simple answer, and in today’s article, I’m sharing some thoughts on what is the main theme of the book – purposeful and dedicated daily work.
The Meaning of Life
We seem to have it all. Technology has advanced to exponential extents over the past 150 years to the point where we find ourselves on the brink of widespread automation and mechanisation of work. Intelligent machines are already here, and soon, some suggest by 2035, artificial intelligence and machine technology will carry out many of our traditional working roles in a broad spectrum of industries 1. Human beings as workforce commodities, it seems, are to shortly become defunct.
This will change everything.
The very basis of the global financial system and commercial exchange is structured on the idea that we trade time for money. Governments sell financial packages to foreign investment houses based on the future productivity of their population. Our sense of value and personal worth is hinged on the idea that the harder we work, the more productive we are and therefore the more significance we hold in the eyes of our peers. We gauge our sense of worthiness on our ability to work within the machine and make a valuable contribution to our society. Those who do not work we see as useless and almost less than human. They don’t deserve the luxury of a safe, warm place to live and certainly not the best of medical care. We believe this by virtue of our passive acceptance of the homeless crisis and our state level unwillingness to acknowledge the psychological needs of those on the fringes. We have enough food and resources on the planet to support everyone to a very high standard but we don’t do it. This situation exists in all western industrialised nations to varying degrees.
So when machines are doing the majority of the work, where does that leave our modern ideas of worth and value?
What will the majority do to deserve a reasonable lifestyle?
Who will get to decide what that lifestyle looks like and who qualifies?
How, then, will we fill our days?
I don’t necessarily have an answer to all these questions, but there seem to be solutions available if we are brave and intelligent enough to execute them.
But this notion that we must compete and defeat one another for the spoils is limited, parochial and ultimately damaging…
Survival of The Fittest
A current prime mover of human activity is the idea of survival of the fittest. But it appears to me that a species with this mentality is destined to expire. Survival of the fittest allows us to excuse all kinds of abhorrent behaviour and treatment of both our fellow human being and our environment. The idea that we must compete to survive has been developed and promoted by people we consider the most reliable and trustworthy in society – those who have successfully exploited people and resources for personal and corporate gain. But this notion that we must compete and defeat one another for the spoils is limited, parochial and ultimately damaging. It is a flawed concept that was perhaps bourne from, amongst other works, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection 2. I wonder if Darwin could have foreseen how his theory of evolution was to develop in the minds of people.
The commercially and financially powerful reflect on their material success and suggest that they succeeded because they beat the competition and that you and I can achieve the same if we work hard. They say that competition aids innovation and provides the best model for success for all. Promoters of the competitive capitalist model say it provides jobs and wealth for everyone if we are willing to work hard. But it, unfortunately, does not work that way. Corporate entities manipulate governments and populations through propaganda creating the illusion of an open market. Global wealth is not distributed equally and everyone does not have equal opportunity. Most people do ok by all modern standards of wealth and success, just enough to keep them content and servile to the system. The minorities on the lower edges have no power and little prospects. The minority on the upper edges hold all the power and keep the majority in the middle subdued and content by dangling carrots and selling us shit we don’t need.
The jobs they give us serve a purpose – to increase corporate profit. In our belief in the capitalist system, we take their jobs and pursue the universal goal of wealth and success. Consequently, our daily work has become a means to an end, and that end is to trade hours for cash to pay bills and repay debt, to buy stuff – stuff that is supposed to make us happy.
But it doesn’t
It is a prison without bars. In fact, it’s perhaps the most luxurious prison you could possibly imagine with all the modern conveniences you could ask for
The Paradox of Work
We are perhaps afraid of losing. We don’t want to be left outside in the cold without the security of the community. As such we move in a herd. We have become reliant on others to support us, to give us jobs. Our ability to self-determine our personal futures has been weakened to the point of servitude. We take their jobs and although there may be a hint of something in the role that reflects our need to create, by and large, we’d rather be doing something else. We don’t necessarily see this in the beginning, it’s only later, in the midst of the existential crisis that we begin to question our decisions. In this then, there seems to be a kind of paradox of work – we need it, we are compelled to go, yet, we despise the prison that daily work represents.
It is a prison without bars. In fact, it’s perhaps the most luxurious prison you could possibly imagine with all the modern conveniences you could ask for. But there seems to be something fundamentally missing. Leaving our children with other people for 10 hours per day for the sake of financial security, for example, just seems like a bum deal. Following their rules, coming into work and going home at the times they say, taking lunch breaks when the bell rings, etc. just doesn’t seem like freedom to us. We are not as happy as the fairytale says we should be.
Instead of engaging in work that stimulates, we work because we have to. Life then becomes a chore, an endless sequence of working weeks broken by occasional trips away (if we can afford it), or long weekends where we can escape to the bar, the couch to engage in mindless TV watching, or the arms of some other dissatisfied soul for a few fleeting hours. Once those frivolous activities have ended, we return to the daily grind that we love to hate so much. There’s little or no love in our work. There’s no challenge, no stimulation, no complexity or purpose and rarely creative expression. Short term stimulation then often leads to compulsive and addictive behaviour.
The truth, as far as I have been able to tell, is that we create it all by blind obedience and an unwillingness to question the standard model
Creating Meaning Through Work
I’m not promoting the idea that we should blame others for our dissatisfaction with life. I’m not suggesting that we should stand and point the finger at corporations for manipulating us with their propaganda marketing. I don’t think that you and I should blame our teachers and parents for leading us to believe this way was the only way – they fell for the promise just like we did. I am instead pointing the finger firmly at myself and at you for failing to notice, for choosing the comfort of job security and a road well trodden over the discomfort of following our creative impulses. We have been unconscious co-conspirators in the creation of the current worldwide state of affairs by accepting what they told us without question. We have denied ourselves the right to freedom and creative expression by adopting the standard working model for life.
The truth, as far as I have been able to tell, is that we create it all by blind obedience and an unwillingness to question the standard model. And so it is up to us to change it. However, to consciously, effortfully change current worldly conditions would be a mistake and often leads to mass rejection of new ideas by those resistant to change. The correct course of action is to focus on our work, whatever that work is, for its own sake, for its inherent enjoyment. Rather than by conscious effort, change is more likely to occur when we have tried the old ways and failed spectacularly. Change then seems to be a spontaneous occurrence.
I take the lead from people like R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller made the decision to become a business of one and do whatever he needed to do and learn what he needed to learn, in order to design and build what he called artefacts – systems built for the benefit of all humanity and not for personal gain. He worked alone and immersed himself in his work for its own sake. The exposure he needed for his work was achieved through filing patents in the public record. He held no ulterior motive in the execution of his work and believed completely in what The Artist’s Manifesto calls Purposeful Accident; the materialisation of favourable circumstances coming about from doing the work for its own sake.
Buckminster Fuller created meaning in his work and went about it purposefully and without question. There was no background motivation to take advantage of others – he tried that and failed miserably. He chose to make for the sake of making. That does not mean there was no effort – of course, there was. In fact, from what I have read of his biography, he endured many years of fruitless work and financial difficulty. But something else motivated him. There seems to me to have been an undiluted, raw and focused passion which he directed towards a single aim. As a result, he eventually became one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th Century.
The idea is to be so saturated with it, that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re making meaning…
The State of Flow In Daily Work
I’m usually slow to get to my writing desk. On reflection, it seems to be that I have to leave behind so many other things that whatever I am when I’m not writing doesn’t want to take a back seat. The effort required both attracts and repels. The level of attention I need to give any particular piece of work requires me to have no other responsibilities. In other words, I can’t write an article such as this and be in charge of the children. In fact, I’m much better equipped to work when I know there is nobody else at home because even the mere knowledge that my family are there is a distraction. My office is at the end of the very small back garden and it’s as private a space as I’m ever likely to get, but even that does not halt the mental intrusion.
When I’m in, I’m in 100%. I need to be, but it’s not like I make that happen, it happens itself. I have no choice but to engage fully when I write, it just happens. Now, what I produce may not be exemplary but it won’t be too bad either. Occasionally I’ll produce something good. The object of the exercise is just to get started and see where it goes.
A couple of years ago I read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 3. Csikszentmihalyi says that when we are in a flow state, we are not feeling because in the activity we are only concerned with the work of the activity. The idea of happiness or unhappiness serves as a distraction. It is only after the work has been completed, when the focus of attention is removed from the work, that we have an opportunity to feel something. When we are in the moment of the work there is no space for consideration of how we feel.
On reflection, this is how I feel about my writing. When I get up and walk away from the desk I’m either happy with my progress or frustrated with the lack thereof.
It seems to be that we are absent of mind in a flow state. There is no thinking involved. It seems to me that when I am engrossed in my work, the work appears to be doing itself and it’s only afterwards I can think about how well I have fared. For example, when I’m writing a lab report – they are not easy to write, especially for someone inexperienced like me – on reflection I enjoy the process. I get a feeling when I walk away from the computer how well I have done. I know if the conclusion is weak or where the introduction has a good flow. The engagement in the process takes days of focus for me, and that time immersed in it is something to which I’ll gladly return. It’s challenging and effortful, but it gives me a particular sense of accomplishment especially when I see a good result come in from my effort.
Csikszentmihalyi in Flow, quotes poet, Mark Strand;
Well, you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. The idea is to be so saturated with it, that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re making meaningMark Strand, Poet
Immersion In The Daily Work
Many of us are odds with our daily work. However, to drop everything and leave may not be the right option, after all, we need money to live. The solution, therefore, is to make peace with it, at least until we can build something new. Ultimately though, if we are to create meaning and evoke happiness and satisfaction from our lives, we need to find work that stimulates us, that draws us in. After all, we spend the best years of our lives working so what better reason is there to engage in something we love.
Some say to work at something you love is not enough, there’s got to be something else at play if we are to find success. Well, firstly, success is arbitrary and subjective. Secondly, we could discuss the importance of loving our work until the cows come home but the undeniable truth is that if we don’t enjoy the work we do then no amount of application or some other mysterious factor, motivation or external stimulation will ever make us happy.
Immersion in the daily work, first and foremost, is our only priority. I’ve had too many personal examples of this and read many other testimonies of others who assert the same. They may not have termed this natural process as I have, but it seems to be the same thing.
For me, it seems that curiosity is the seed, and it grows if we follow where it takes us. Often that runs counter to the prevailing narrative, but we must develop the ability to ignore that and listen to the small internal voice instead.
Because one day soon I and everyone I know will be gone. It’s a sobering thought. In consideration of that inevitable fact, there is no greater reason for me to continue following where my curiosity leads. In that, there is the meaning of life – for me. Your’s may be different but you have an obligation to yourself to find it.
Also published on Medium.
- Haupt, M. (2017, July 27). Introducing the Universal Abundance Income. Retrieved June 2, 2019, from https://medium.com/postcards-from-2035/introducing-the-universal-abundance-income-7fd61419de56
- Darwin, C. (1860). On the origin of species… A facsimile of the first edition, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr. With a portrait and a bibliography. John Murray.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.