Why do we work? What is the purpose of work apart from providing us with money to buy stuff we don't need and pay bills? Is it possible to be happy and fulfilled in our daily work or are we destined to despise, yet endure its demands on our lives? Sure, we need money in our pockets to function within the societal system, but most of us it seems, are dissatisfied and disengaged 1. We have become robots, and work has become transactional – a binary arrangement. I'll give you hours if you give me money is our modus operandi. There's little love in it even for those of us who see our work as vocational. But surely a life worth living has to be built on something more substantial than the prospect of a two week holiday in the sun, a smart home control system, or the future freedom gained from paying off a mortgage. There's got to be something more to life than the constant battle with traffic, the farming out of the care of our children and the subordination of our deepest need for meaning to the demands of bosses and their corporate overseers. But for most of us in western culture, this is how life plays out. In today's article, I am taking a look at our current predominant thinking about work, and how we might find the purpose and meaning that daily fulfilling work has the potential to deliver.
Consider this – most people work for other people. 85% of working citizens within the OECD group of countries are directly employed vs 15% self-employed 2. From the data, it is interesting to note that for countries with a long-standing membership of the OECD, self-employment rates are lowest. In contrast, Columbia, for example, who are relatively new members of the OECD, have a 50/50 split. This says to me that the longer exposed a country is to the manipulation of international corporates, the more open to global trends and the weaker their economy subsequently becomes.
Now consider an alternative.
Imagine a nation's economy supported by a substantial number of its working population operating small and medium businesses, interdependent and cooperative. Then, the majority of the remainder working under their employment, and the rest in civil service roles. In the event of a global economic downturn or even collapse, would that country not be better equipped to withstand the correction? Yes, it's an idealistic notion but it stands to reason. At a business level, I would prefer to have many small customers rather than a couple of large ones. This way, if one or two of my customers' businesses fail, my business will not be too badly affected.
However, the current momentum of commercial enterprise is too strong. It is built on direct competition and survival of the fittest. In that competitive atmosphere, we become accustomed to bright shiny things and have developed a reluctance to give them up. It seems we'll readily accept a comfortable prison than uncomfortable freedom.
The overwhelming and undeniable truth is that large corporations make nations and their people dependent and weak, and we, the people, cooperate in that. Materially, you may argue we are better off, and that might be true, but what are we losing on a humanitarian level? Anxiety and depression are on the increase, and I believe this is symptomatic of a broken and dysfunctional population that subjugates itself to the will of a minority, and like an alcoholic who knows he should stop drinking and can't, we replicate our mistakes by training our children to become dependent too.
This is the real secret of life; to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realise it is play…Alan Watts | Philosopher
Everyone Can't Be Self-Employed
A common argument I hear regarding the merits of direct over self-employment is that not everyone can be self-employed. The entrepreneurial spirit, like creativity, is apparently reserved for the exalted few. Well, I don't accept that. Because you see I believe that deep down, every single one of us craves autonomy and the ability to direct our own lives, to make things others value, and to feel the freedom to work to our own agenda, the freedom we were born with. It is my experience that working for yourself allows this under certain conditions. Greater job satisfaction and overall happiness are achievable too and most empirical studies support this idea 3
True self-direction and autonomy are not possible within a corporate structure which requires you to play within the narrow scope of its rules. This means for many of us, we have to work crazy hours, spend hardly any time with our families and leave our kids in childcare while we work our bollox off. Corporate HR might talk the talk with regard to work-life balance etc., but in truth, what they actually want from you is very different from what they say they want 4. And so the conditioning of people continues in the background.
Self-employment, on the other hand, places the power to direct our futures largely in our own hands
Truth is that our indoctrination in the contemporary concept of work began at an early age through education. The system is designed to sculpt the minds of our young people to a workforce mentality. Upon this, governments can raise funds for infrastructure projects from international banks based on that country's future ability to produce and so our compliance is necessary for the worldwide capitalist machine to keep moving. Following our innate curiosity through a self-directed creative career such as artist, sportsperson, writer etc. is just not encouraged.
As such, I would strongly argue that our propensity to comply, to need and find a job, to rely on others for our livelihood, is a conditioned response and not a natural consequence of human nature. So most of us choose safety and apparent predictability of a job over following our innate curiosity. And so, taking direct employment, although important in the initial stages of skill development, leaves us exposed to the vagaries of the market. The rise and fall of international markets dictate our lot.
Self-employment, on the other hand, places the power to direct our futures largely in our own hands.
Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something elseJ.M. Barrie | Author
Losing The Love of Work
I've been in business for myself at various levels since I was 25 or so. Even before making the leap from direct to self-employment I felt self-employed.
Know what I mean?
I felt the importance of personal responsibility and of the need to give the best I could as often as possible. Not because I wanted to impress, but rather because I enjoyed the challenge. Of course, I didn't always create the best results, but on balance it seems to me that the standards I brought were always at least a little better than most others I worked with. Now, this wasn't hard given a working environment where most guys just did enough to blend into the background. They took little pride in their work as far as I could see.
Truthfully though, I had no intention of standing out. I am fundamentally introverted and would much rather stand in the corner of the room unnoticed than being in the centre. It was the work I was interested in. I enjoyed it. At 17 years of age, it gave me a sense of purpose and direction even though I didn't want to do it originally. On reflection, it was a case of attitude to work and application of intent that made me different, something I believe I have retained.
So despite my introversion, I stood out. Managers noticed, I was promoted and continued to acquire important skills. After a couple of years, I began to outgrow the company and decided I should do my own thing. Working for other people just wasn't going to satisfy me long term. The freedom I felt from taking that step was liberating but through the lure of blind ambition, that freedom I gained would be lost. As I recently discovered through work by Peter Warr at the University of Sheffield 5, the self-employed tend to lose the love of their work when responsibility for employees begin to make demands on their time and creativity. This was my experience.
The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed… Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it.Seth Godin | Author & Entrepreneur
This is why today I believe in the complete integrity of businesses of one. A business of one, owned and operated by you, has the ability to give you the means to live a materially comfortable life and the psychological means to find release from the bastards who would have you do their bidding. Yes, ok, that's a little dramatic but the reality is that large companies don't really care about you – they care about your productivity. You are just a number.
I remember this phrase being bandied about when I was a young apprentice working on sites and it felt to me like an excuse to get away with doing as little as possible – because that's what it was. Here I use it to highlight the fact that the sole objective of corporations is to be profitable and they need you for your skillset in the pursuit of this goal.
Most of them will ply you with bright shiny things to keep you on board, to keep you content, mute and subjugated. Like the mining companies of the 19th Century California Gold Rush 6 who built bars, whore houses, motels and entire towns around their mines, modern companies make your working environment so materially grand that you can't imagine leaving.
They want your soul and you invariably give it to them.
Finding Meaning Through Work
Many people really enjoy their work. They manage to find an organisation where they can express their truest self – I certainly can't deny that. For example; my wife is a hospice nurse and loves going into work. Of course, we realise that people die in the hospice. She deals with grief-stricken people almost daily so some might ask; what is there to enjoy about that? She has shitty days, but on the whole, she seems to get enormous gratification from caring for people at perhaps what is the second most significant period of their life (the first being when they were born). I have great admiration for her dedication.
I enjoy my work also, the stuff I do for money I mean. I like working with my hands, making things, solving problems. I guess that it's the figuring out of things, the problem solving that I enjoy most, and have enjoyed it since I was a kid. I'm over 30 years at it now (not including a short break when I did fuck all except stare out my kitchen window), so most of what I do is automatic. It does it itself, although I do need to be with it to get a good result. If I let my mind wander, I'll mess something up or lose half a finger, so my attention is required.
All happiness depends on courage and workHonoré de Balzac | Playwright
On the whole, I don't necessarily classify work as that thing that earns me a living. Rather I see it as the stuff I like to do when I not sleeping. Writing, reading and researching is work to me too. None of it is a chore; I do it because I'm drawn into it so in that sense it's different to the stuff I do for money. The stuff I do for money is like gardening, you know? Only I get paid to do it. The stuff I do for money is easy because the skills have been long established so there's no huge mental demand. There is thinking things out but the answers come pretty quickly.
On the other hand, writing, albeit easier than it was ten years ago, is more taxing on me I think. When I write I'm searching for a pattern and a flow, it needs to read well on the page. It's like drawing – same process, different medium. So when I write I'm exploring possibilities, I'm drawn in, engaged and curious. I want to know what I know and I want to tell it. It's art in the truest sense.
Both the work that makes me money and my studies/writing etc. are different to unadulterated play mind you. Although there's not a world of difference between them, merely an intensity of focus it seems. Regardless, if I think about the work I do, I find I'm not driven to succeed in any way. Sure I imagine writing and selling books and making money from that, but it's a do or die thing. It's playful. I'm easy about the work I do but I'm also intense, engaged and intent on bringing out the best I can, just like I have always been.
Some Final Thoughts
These days as I occasionally navigate my way through bumper to bumper traffic on Dublin's M50, I feel very grateful that I no longer have to tackle that challenge and similar ones every day. I suppose people who do endure it, somehow find a way to make peace with it, or maybe they have not. As I consider it, I don't know which is worse; remaining in what we see is an ultimately destructive way of life, raging against it, or denying the destructive reality while passively kidding ourselves that the tomorrow will be better.
And as I sit here tip-tapping this article it appears so blatantly obvious that there is no future time to which I can look forward. My life and that of my kids are continually shaped by what I do now, and now is all I have. It's the only place I can ever exist and be effective. There is no future better version of me to which I must aspire and work towards. All of that is simply an idea held somewhere in something I call my mind. It has no reality outside of that. Therefore, to spend time planning and dreaming of a future that never gets here is a waste of my life. it is equally a waste of my life to deny my discomfort and unhappiness.
If I feel unhappy about my current life experience, then I must change that and I can only change it now. So any notion of putting things off until next week, month or year until the moment is right, is foolish to me. I must take some action, no matter how small, right now, then change will happen. Although change will happen anyway and upon closer inspection, it seems the impulse to make that change is really a realisation that change has already happened. It seems to be spontaneous and that I, whatever I happen to be, is an observation of it all.
Maybe I'm confused.
Maybe the I that I think I am is not real and that thing I identify with is merely a bundle of emotions to which something internal has attached an identity. But I do know that I feel, and given the choice, I think I'd rather feel happy. But ultimate happiness doesn't exist, not on its own. Happiness is one half of the up and down of the wheel and between the two there is no definitive dividing line. Instead, one blends with the other and depending on my position, my state of conscious awareness, any given experience can either be good or bad, happy or sad. To a man in the gutter, a bedsit is an improvement, but to a wealthy man who has lost it all, that same bedsit is a fall from grace.
So with daily work then it must be the same. The only measure that warrants merit is your individual judgement. Where is it that you want to be, what experience is it that you wish to have?
There is no single answer to how best to work and at what. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
Therefore, make a decision, do it now and don't look back, because life will be gone for you and me soon. It's not worth wasting.
- Gallup, I. (2019). Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/181289/majority-employees-not-engaged-despite-gains-2014.aspx
- Employment – Self-employment rate – OECD Data. (2019). Retrieved from https://data.oecd.org/emp/self-employment-rate.htm
- Lange, T. (2009). Job satisfaction and self-employment: autonomy or personality?. Small Business Economics, 38(2), 165-177. doi: 10.1007/s11187-009-9249-8
- Grant Halvorson, H. (2019). How To Give Employees A Sense of Autonomy (When You Are Really Calling The Shots). Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/heidigranthalvorson/2011/09/15/how-to-give-employees-a-sense-of-autonomy-when-you-are-really-calling-the-shots
- Warr, P. (2018). Self-employment, personal values, and varieties of happiness–unhappiness. Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology, 23(3), 388-401. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000095
- Striking it rich: American gold rushes of the early 19th century. (2019). Retrieved from https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/gold-rushes