Not counting sleep, where do you spend most of your time? Unless you’re lazing comfortably on an extraordinary inheritance or lottery winnings, I’m going to guess that you either work for a living, or you mind the kids and the homestead while your spouse or partner generates the income (more on stay at home moms and dads in a future post). Roughly 70% of people 16 and older in the developed world are employed1, and even if you aren’t, I still think you stand to gain a lot from reassessing how you think about work, productivity, and wealth generation.
What is “work?” What concrete concepts are we talking about when we discuss our careers or part time jobs? Let’s get the easy answer out of the way: it’s what you do to get money, which you then exchange for goods and services in order to, well, exist. But is that all work is? Hardly. Unfortunately, I think a great many people hold this view of their work, even if only implicitly. A great many people are also dissatisfied or downright resentful of their work, and I, for one, don’t believe these two facts to be unrelated coincidences. Hold this question in mind; we’re coming back to it in a few paragraphs.
For the sake of illustration, let’s say that this description fits you, dear reader. You have a job, maybe you’ve even been there for a long time, but you dread Mondays and cheer Fridays, as do hundreds of millions of other wage-earners around the world. You’re out the door at precisely 5:00PM at the end of the week and, by Jove, you’re not going to think about work again until your alarm goes off Monday morning. Rinse and repeat for 40 years or so, and suddenly you’re retired (or still working because you can’t retire), bored out of your mind, and wondering where your entire life went.
Is this scenario perhaps a bit of an exaggeration? Maybe, but maybe not. It’s hard to pin down real numbers on career satisfaction rates and even harder to know how accurate those numbers are, but I don’t think anyone can deny that it’s a common problem. Maybe you don’t hate your job, you just prefer your downtime on the weekends. Still, is this kind of feeling toward the place where you spend most of your waking hours conducive to flourishing? Could there be a better way to go about it?
I’ll grant that you genuinely might have a sucky job. But even if you do, what do you do about it? Go somewhere else in the same industry? If you’ve tried it, you may have found some superficial improvements, but likely still struggled with the same core problems. So perhaps you then took the more drastic step of changing fields entirely. Did you find your career utopia that way? If so, great! I’m genuinely happy for you. But if you didn’t, if you still find yourself counting down the hours till Saturday, allow me to suggest that perhaps the problem is more fundamental and closer to home.
Let’s return to my earlier question: what is work? Allow me to offer the following definition: “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.”2 You may ask, why this definition? What makes it a correct and proper one? I will answer this question in greater detail in a future post about hierarchies of values, but for now I will say this: you are a human being. There is one and only one thing that truly, fundamentally sets you apart from any other living organism: your mind. Specifically, your ability to reason. I don’t care how intelligent you are or aren’t – if you’re capable of reading these words right now, you possess a faculty of reason, and it has made possible all that you hold dear, no matter how vast or modest your material and spiritual wealth. You don’t survive like trees or wolves or eagles do; you have no automatic form of knowledge, no genetic programming that tells you unerringly how to get along in the world. You get hungry, but the sensation of hunger does not tell you how to find food, or what kinds of food are good to eat. You’ve been pining over your dream house for twenty years, but that desire alone will not move you one inch closer to obtaining it. In order to accomplish anything, even something as inconsequential as cooking yourself some eggs, you must perform a complex chain of behaviors possible only to a reasoning mind.
There are only two ways to gain values:3 to produce them yourself, or to receive them from someone else who has produced them. Cars do not grow on trees and the fully formed secret to love is not lying forgotten in a desert cave somewhere, merely waiting for you to come claim it. Anything and everything that promotes and supports human life is the product of a thinking mind – some specific individual’s thinking mind. Because of what we are as living organisms – because of what nature has dictated are our physical and emotional requirements for life – we must act in specific ways, via specific mechanisms, in order to live. The more consistently we act in accordance with our nature, the more harmony and well-being we will experience. (In yet another future post, I will discuss exactly what our nature as human beings consists of in much greater detail.) Therefore, all actions either promote or hinder eudaimonia. If you’re not acting consistently to advance, protect, and enrich your own life, you are in fact damaging it.
What I’m getting at here is this: your work, whatever it may be, is the single most important thing you will ever do. It is the means by which you enable your very existence on this planet. You have only two other fundamental choices: stop working and depend on the charity of others, or stop working and demand their charity by force (usually indirectly, through a government). Neither option promotes self-esteem or flourishing; both will, in time, destroy your very soul. Self-esteem, which is absolutely critical to happiness, comes from one and only one place: the knowledge that you have what it takes to get along in life, that you have produced the values necessary for your survival by thinking and acting rationally, without having to be carried by someone else. Nothing has more positive psychological power than knowing that you have thought, worked, and received value in return.
I don’t mean that whatever you’re doing today is inherently and automatically a wonderful job and that you should fall on your knees and be thankful for it. If you’re stocking soda cans for 40 hours a week and you don’t like doing that, figure out how to make a change that will enrich your life in whatever context is most immediately important. Exactly how to frame and make that decision is the subject of Part 3 of this article, to be posted next week. I give you my personal guarantee that what I have to say about it is not what you will have heard from most other career gurus.
The image I chose for this post was not random. It’s a fairly typical sort of picture one sees in connection with choices or major crossroads in life, the implied question being “which way should I go?” I say it’s a false alternative: there is no one door you should choose, concretely speaking. There are myriad things you could do for a living that will bring you tremendous success and happiness. Don’t believe me? Come back next time and give me a chance to convince you. In closing, I leave you with the following question to ponder: how does your career affect your day-to-day happiness, and is it possible that your very notion of what a career is could be wrong?
Until next time, I wish you the best premises.
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