Work and Meaning

Work is obviously a big part of life, regardless of the society that you live in. It always will be, even if we live to see a future where robots automate the vast majority of jobs that make up our economy today, and governments are forced to provide universal basic income (UBI) to prevent an uprising of the people against corporate greed and the 1%.

I think that there’s a cynicism amongst some people, which tends to be associated with right-leaning economic views, that people are inherently lazy and will sit around watching TV and playing video games all day if given the opportunity. This is the belief in human nature that partly underlies right-leaning economic philosophy, that we need to have a small welfare state in order to reduce incentives for people not to work and to freeride.

Although I’m sympathetic to this view, I think that human nature is conditional. That is, I believe that human behaviour is largely dependent on the environment in which it is forced to manifest. I believe that, given the wrong circumstances, people can become lazy and unwilling to work, but I believe that the drive to work and be productive will always be stronger than the desire to not work and be passive.

It seems clear to me that human beings are animals that are born to be put to work. This is why we’re the most dominant species on the planet in history. It’s been our desire to be productive and to innovate and constantly improve that has brought us to where we are today and that continues to push human progress. There is a drive within our nature that makes us proactive. As with human behaviour more generally, however, our desire to work is the product of a combination of both nature and nurture, and our environment can both help and hinder this desire.

Human nature is complex and is of course, to a large extent, very individual. Work is also very closely tied to feelings of self-worth and consequently wellbeing. As I stated at the beginning, work is an enormous part of most people’s lives. Many people work eight hours a day, five days a week, for the vast majority of the weeks of the year, for over half the years of their life. This is a substantial amount of time to contribute to any activity, so ideally it would be something that you enjoyed doing, or at least had some deeper or wider positive meaning.

It isn’t atypical to tie your sense of identity closely to your work. Your work should be, after all, an expression of a combination of your passions and your capabilities. This is also often true for how others perceive you. For example, society celebrates people who excel in literature, or science, or charity, who have an impact on society doing interesting things using sophisticated skillsets. Society doesn’t, however, celebrate call centre workers, binmen, or people that work in retail. And this isn’t to slight these people or what they do. Some of them may genuinely enjoy what they do, and some people may simply do it because it’s the only work that they get and they need to earn a living. There’s nobility in that without a doubt, but there are not the types of careers that we as a society glorify. Another illustrative example is that one of the first things that people ask each other when they meet one another for the first time is “So, what do you do?”. I don’t believe that this is just a filler question, it’s a heuristic for assessing someone. And it would also make sense, if the job market in most countries wasn’t broken. The problem is that the number of creatively fulfilling, intellectually stimulating and meaningful jobs are severely limited in most countries, our economies simply just don’t provide sufficient incentives to encourage the creation of these types of positions, or make them feasible career options for most people. The other problem is that most people don’t have the requisite skills or knowledge to succeed in modern economies, such as computer programming or just general software skills. And the softer skills that non-digital types of careers require are often obtained and/or evidenced by gaining exclusive work experiences that are often reserved for those with social capital.

Meaning is also largely to do with expectations and what you hope for yourself or imagine your life to be like. If you’re an immigrant or a refugee from a developing country and you come to somewhere such as Britain, maybe your sense of meaning is simply material (that is, related to survival), and that your meaning is derived from merely making money to support yourself and your family, and there is without a doubt significant meaning in that. This is, in fact, probably the foremost meaning that someone can have, providing for and supporting their family and loved ones. But I think that your expectations of yourself and resultant feeling of self-worth is largely defined by the environment in which you grew up during your formative years. If you grew up in a family where your parents were successful, in the sense that they made a lot of money in respectable professions, and in which your siblings and friends went on to pursue similar career paths, everyone seemingly having the same resources and opportunities to be successful, you would have an expectation to achieve similar degrees of success, and if you didn’t you would probably feel as though you had failed, or as though you were incompetent. This is, however, sadly, what the higher education system perpetuates (disclaimer: the topic of higher education will likely be a theme throughout my posts on this blog, so forgive me if I begin to sound like I’m beating a dead horse). Higher education creates an expectations gap by promising a better, more meaningful career on the condition of obtaining a degree, than you might have otherwise achieved, but the reality upon completing that degree is that there is no guarantee of this whatsoever. Our society sells young people a false reality of a job market with an abundance of graduate-level jobs, but the dirty little secret is that there are far fewer graduate-level jobs than there are graduates, so unless the rest of the graduates who aren’t able to get graduate-level jobs in Britain go abroad (which most of them will be unlikely to have the money of the skillset to do) then they’ll be forced to, in most cases, settle for jobs that they could have gotten straight out of secondary school.

But this all wouldn’t be as much of a problem if degrees, or secondary education for that matter, taught students practical skills to prepare them for not being able to get a graduate job. Skills that would allow them to be independent, freelance workers, or even entrepreneurs and innovators; self-made people. Skills such as the ability to create a business-plan, how to find funding for an idea, how to create a website and market yourself, how to create networks of people who can facilitate your business, etc. Nowadays it’s easier than ever to start your own business, to pursue a venture, yet most of us coming out of school or university don’t really know where to begin, or think that these options are infeasible. It seems to me that with the growing digital market, and the way in which entry costs to marketing oneself are decreasing thanks to social media, the opportunity to be content creators is massive. Everyone has their own interests and skills, or can at least develop them, and there is an enormous market of consumers out there, which means that there is pretty much a guarantee that at least a small group of people will share your passion, or with whom what you have to say will resonate, or who will really enjoy art or merchandise that you create. The common misconception is that whatever product or service you provide needs to appeal to everyone, but that isn’t true, and it doesn’t even make logical sense. This realisation first occurred to me when I was listening to a podcast by Tim Ferriss, the entrepreneur, author, podcaster and investor, who was referencing Kevin Kelly, founder of WIRED magazine, when describing his theory of ‘1000 True Fans’. The idea is that you only need a small number of people (it probably doesn’t have to be strictly 1000) of passionate customers or fans who will consistently buy and/or promote your products or services. This support should be more than enough to sustain your business and make a living. The point is that you don’t need to pander to the masses, merely follow your instincts and your passions, and odds are this will resonate with someone, even if that’s 0.000000001 of the population of people on the internet. Furthermore, there is a movement away from people expecting everything to be free. Adverts are useful, but they have their drawbacks, and increasingly, content providers such as bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters are being funded by their readers, viewers, listeners, a trend also being witnessed on streaming sites such as Netflix and Spotify. This is a good trend, we shouldn’t expect everything we consume to be free, that’s not how the world works and that’s not how it should work. If we value something we should be willing to pay for it.

But of course in order to begin your own business, you need a skillset and the knowledge of how to go about doing it in the first place. Yes, there are plenty of courses and resources on the internet, but a much more reliable way of ensuring that people have this option by would be by making it a core aspect of state education. School should make people better citizens and better people, and prepare them for success for when they leave. Currently, however, it fails to a large extent in each respect.

Being the owner of a successful business that doesn’t run into your personal life, that is both creatively stimulating, intellectually challenging and that has a positive impact on society in some way is the ultimate goal, in my opinion, for anyone, if they really think about it. Being self-employed is the ultimate liberation, and is a goal that aspire I aspire to achieve at some point during my career, although I realise that I’ll probably have to serve some time prior to that before I can earn it.

***

For the first six months of this year I was working as a customer assistant at my local cinema. It wasn’t where I pictured myself being after graduating from university last summer, but it served a purpose for a short time. I quit that job two months ago, however, because I started feeling quite depressed quite frequently because I felt as though I was wasting away. There were people there who had graduated university and been there for years, and I didn’t want to be that guy, and I knew that I wasn’t. There was nothing wrong with these people, almost every single person I worked with was extremely friendly and easy to get along with, but I think a lot of them suffered from what most people suffer; a lack of belief in themselves and lack of clear ambition, and a resignation to the idea that this is as good as its going to get for them. Most of them were intelligent, and in many cases probably more intelligent than I would consider myself to be, and I often thought “If these people are smarter than me and have been working in a cinema for several years, then what chance do I have?”, but I’m not ready to give up on having a career that actually means something to me, that I can look back on with pride in years to come. I don’t think I ever will be. That is until the time when me and my partner hopefully settle down and decide to have a family, then I’ll have to set my own ambitions aside for a greater purpose. But for now, I don’t really have any obligations, except to myself. Yes, I have a partner and I want to make sure that I earn some money so that we can have fun and actually have a life, but our relationship doesn’t necessarily hinge on me having a high-paying job right now.

At the moment, my plan is to be consistent with this blog and build a body of work. Writing is a valuable skill, and I believe that I have something of value to say, at least I have to believe that, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have any motivation to write. Everyone in life should think that they’re special or unique. Everyone owes that to themselves. If you’re not the hero in your own novel then something’s wrong. It’s not too much to ask to have a meaningful career, at whatever stage in your life you are. It’s always possible to develop skills and acquire knowledge, even around a full-time job. And even if that doesn’t lead to a new career, it’ll be a rewarding practice, and will make you a more interesting person and increase your self-esteem.

The vast majority of jobs that I see when browsing through job sites are marketing-type roles, or accountancy, or admin and HR. Outside of working at Sports Direct again, I couldn’t think of anything worse. Clocking in at 9, clocking out at 5, doing something that feels so corporate. In all fairness, this is probably just my delayed teenage angst talking, I know people do have to do these jobs, and that in many cases they’re valuable roles, but that’s just not me. If I have to (and if I can), I’ll work in a cafe, or something similar, whilst trying to work on my skills and build a portfolio, gain experience, until the right thing comes along. I just need to wait until the right moment, meet the right person, or do the right thing well enough, and hopefully that will allow me to pursue my ambitions. I’m just not willing to be a person that lives for the weekend, and then lives for the long weekend that is retirement at 65. I’m not that person and I never will be. I’m special. And so are you.

 

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