I filled out an online survey recently — something I do a lot of, actually. (What can I say? Slider scales make me feel powerful, and I never pass up an Amazon gift card.) This one was for BEAM, Stanford’s Career Education Center, the only people more concerned with your career than you are (okay, aside from your mother). The topic was “meaningful work.” It was mostly the kind of undemanding click-through questions I’ve come to know and love, but one stuck with me. It asked something to the effect of, “What was meaningful about your last work experience?”
Last summer I interned at a nonprofit publisher in Berkeley. Personal growth was the order of the day pretty much every day for two-and-a-half months, but it had nothing to do with my work. What did I do? I replied to emails, attended acquisitions meetings, wrote promotional copy, edited webpages, distributed event fliers, read Kafka on my lunch break and generally tried to look as busy and unapproachable as possible. What exactly was I supposed to find meaningful about that?
Americans work a lot. On average, we put in 25 percent more hours per year than Europeans, staying later at work and taking less vacation time. Any American could tell you that these disparities are grounded in our culture. We believe in the inherent dignity of hard work and the moral status it confers. The ability — and more, the desire — to devote yourself to your work is a sign of character. It’s central to the story our country can’t stop telling itself: I came from the bottom, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, I am a self made man.
Even in this most secular of moments, the Protestant work ethic is still pulling our motivational strings. Self-reliance is the specter that drives our society, but equally it haunts us. All that work doesn’t make us all that happy. Ironically, we’ve come think our work should be fulfilling. As children, we play at being cops or astronauts (or in my case, an archaeologist), and adults ask us, What do you want to be when you grow up? Guidance counselors, teachers and well-meaning mentor figures promise us that someday we’ll discover what we’re meant to do, and so we’re initiated into a culture that tells us our place in the economy will be a matter of our individual interests.
For some, that’s true. We’ve all met that person who decided in the womb that she wanted to be a doctor and is now headed to medical school. (Congrats, I guess.) Otherwise, you scrounge together as much self-knowledge as you can, do some educated guesswork and settle on something. You’ve probably met even more people for whom, when it comes to work, meaningfulness never enters the picture.
There’s a class element here. Do what you’re passionate about is the kind of advice we get, but imagine telling that to a plumber or a construction worker. Do you think the person who cleans your toilet finds their work meaningful? I wonder: Did my progenitors toiling in their damp Irish potato patches ever think to see more in their work than sheer survival? Meaningfulness is like Spotify premium: Not everyone can afford it.
Whatever your socioeconomic background, a Stanford education is presented as your ticket to a comfortable life and a career in something you want to do. If you want to innovate, acquire capital or corner the market, go for it. If you’ve bravely elected to be an aid worker in a war zone or teach at a public middle school, that’s good too. Even if reality hits and slam poetry or witchcraft or philosophy don’t lead to the career you expected, you’re still expected to want to do the thing you end up doing. Work shouldn’t be good or fine or not great, let alone actual trash; it’s supposed to be meaningful. Having no particular desire to do any job in the first place is patently not an option.
So what if I don’t expect my work to be meaningful? That doesn’t mean I can’t like it. My days are filled with activities I like but could hardly call meaningful. I’m not saying your work shouldn’t be meaningful. If it is, awesome, but don’t be confused: That’s not what work is for. The invisible hand doesn’t cater to your emotional or spiritual fulfillment. And why should it? Meaningfulness is too great a burden to place on something you do for a salary, the thing you must keep doing if you want to keep eating. What you do in the office doesn’t have to matter, and don’t let BEAM tell you any differently.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.