How Meaningful is My Work? Answer these Fifteen Questions to Find Out
Does my work add meaning to my life? Or is it more like some bothersome hoops to jump through so that my bank account doesn’t go into the red? Do I feel respected and valued, or disrespected and instrumentalised by my colleagues and bosses? These sorts of questions are bound to impress themselves upon us in a world in which, on the one hand, we celebrate the right of the individual to carve out an independent and worthwhile life, and on the other hand, we see the growth of giant corporations, state bureacracy, and global franchises over which local participants often have very little influence.
In a medieval world in which each person must “know his station,” to interrogate the meaningfulness of one’s job might have seemed superfluous, since life, the universe, and God were thought to have assigned one one’s place in life, for the greater good of society. The peasant or day-labourer, in such a world, would be more likely to wonder whether he had enough work to feed his family, than whether his work was “meaningful.” The noble was destined to live the life of a freeman, devoted to taking care of and defending the family estate. Noblesse oblige.
But in a world with a sophisticated labour market, a high degree of professional specialisation, a pervasive itch for equality, and a significant amount of geographic and social mobility, people become aware that there is not just one “station in life” to which they have been foreordained by their family lineage, or by God’s providence. Instead, they are confronted with the idea that they themselves can shape their fundamental life options, and that they themselves must take some responsibility for shaping their life into a meaningful whole. They themselves must stand back from their own life, and ask whether it is satisfactory, meaningful, or “fulfilling.”
This yearning for fulfilment and meaning is not always a good thing. It can lead us down the path of narcissism, a path in which the only projects we truly value are our own; or it can lead us down the path of unmoored romanticism, in which self-expression and the realisation of personal potential become so dominant that we forget about the constraints of living in society, making a living, or supporting a family.
But there is surely some truth to the romantic longing for meaningful work. It is more than merely a vain pipe-dream. For one thing, many of us know people who work in jobs that get them up in the morning, in which they really do believe they are making a difference or enriching their own lives and those of others. Furthermore, we are interpretive and meaning-making creatures, who naturally want to understand the inner logic of our lives, and who naturally want to build lives that make sense to us and contribute something worthwhile to those around us.
This does not mean that everyone can have their “dream job,” or that nobody has to settle for a job that has very little intrinsic value. But it is reasonable and good to seek out meaningful and valuable work, even if the result of our quest is not always as successful as we would like to it to be. It is worth evaluating how meaningful our current job is, and seeking out work that is personally meaningful, even if we ultimately find that we have to make a trade-off between meaning and money, or between meaning and security. Better, after all, to settle for a shallow, uninteresting job after consciously performing a trade-off with other values such as job security, than out of sheer inertia.
Let me conclude this reflection with fifteen questions we might ask ourselves to determine whether our current work, or a potential job we are eyeing, is meaningful to us (keeping in mind that I mean “work” in the broadest sense, to include home-making and child-rearing - this should go without saying, but in a hyper-professionalised world, it needs to be said):
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