The Meaning of Work

Work can so often be meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, or moronic. As Albert Camus, the French philosopher, put it: ‘Without work, all life goes rotten but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies’. Productive, purposeful work is to be preferred to ‘hopeless labour’. Work, in whatever form, is a fundamental dimension of human existence.  The difference between work as a curse and work as a blessing lies mainly in our attitude towards it. We spend one third of our life preparing for work or working. So we shouldn’t work against ourselves. The goal is to bring meaning and purpose into the world of work. We need to work at work in order to experience what Marx called ‘meaningful labour’. What gives a job meaning is the person doing the job and, in particular, his/her mental attitude to it, not necessarily the work itself. If we can’t change our circumstances we are challenged to change ourselves. This is the essence of the logotherapeutic approach to work. Creating meaning may well be the most important of managerial tasks.

To give an example: A New York post-office worker saw her role as akin to a message-deliverer at the very heart of the Information Age (Hermes in ancient mythology – messenger of the gods). She took seriously the words inscribed on the General Post Office building in New York, written by Herodotus in the fifth century BC: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’. In so doing, she saw and served a higher purpose. Adopting a different perspective leads to an attitudinal adjustment and alteration.

‘Show me the money!’, shouted Jerry Maguire from the 1996 movie of the same name. Yes, but only after you show me meaning! Money follows on from meaning; profits accrue from purpose. Now, according to Frankl, meaning may be sought in three main ways: creatively (in all the things we give to the world), experientially (in all the things we receive from the world), and attitudinally (in our mental response). So, these three groups of values can all be actualised at work. We may call this the Meaning Triangle.

Our creations (what we’ve accomplished/ produced/ created/ achieved/ performed/ made to happen); Our experiences of and encounters with our work colleagues and places of employment;
Our stance towards some cause. Ask yourself: what creative, experiential and attitudinal values have you embodied or exercised at work?

Frankl observes: ‘Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself’. This is the principle of obliquity, in other words, the indirect route to financial feasibility and economic sustainability. John author of Obliquity, Professor at the LSE, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and columnist of the Financial Times, similarly notes:  ‘Happiness is not achieved through the pursuit of happiness. The most profitable businesses are not the most profit-oriented. The wealthiest people are not the most material assertive in the pursuit of wealth’. Like Frankl, he advises that we achieve our objectives obliquely (indirectly).

Why should we? Why not directly? The answer lies in what psychology calls the Profit-Seeking Paradox. It is the same as the pleasure-seeking paradox. Constantly pursuing pleasure, power, or profits interferes with experiencing it. The first philosopher to note this was Henry Sidgwick in his The Methods of Ethics. We need to fix our minds on some other object, namely, on meaning and purpose. ‘Success in circuit lies’, as Emily Dickinson poetically proclaims. The most successful enterprises have a core ideology (a meaning), a purpose: why the company/corporation exists in the first place, and a mission statement. In short, a business must have an idea. Success depends on articulating a set of values, vision, and virtue. Values give rise to goals (aspirations); a vivid vision enables us to envision our goals, and virtue is value in action. It’s not about greed or short-term gain but meaningful goals.

As Aristotle argued: ‘Man is a goal-seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching and striving for his goals’ – what Frankl calls ‘noödynamics’. Success is less about position or prestige and more about personal flourishing. Success is about contribution not recognition. For, as Frankl has demonstrated, one can be very successful in one’s professional life and still feel that life is meaningless. This phenomenon can be described as despair despite success. On the other hand, there is fulfilment despite failure. The meaning of true success lies in service. The root cause for long-term success in business is a self-transcendent meaning of the enterprise as a whole. For examples consider John D. Rockfeller (the world’s richest man) who said ‘I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man, according to the dictation of my conscience’. Or Andrew Carnegie (the steel magnate who gave away his fortune)  proclaiming that ‘the man who dies rich thus dies disgraced’. Or Sam Walton (founder of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart) who said ‘I have concentrated all along on building the finest retailing company that we possibly could. Period. Creating a huge personal fortune was never particularly a goal of mine’.

These entrepreneurs all believed in success through service (Frankl’s ‘self-transcendence’). The business people who, by contrast, are obsessively interested in money tend to be drawn to get-quick-rich schemes, legal or criminal, rather than business opportunities. We can say that the direct pursuit of wealth damages both the individuals and the organisations that seek it. An example of this is Gordon Gekko who greeted us with the infamous ‘Greed is good’ doctrine from Oliver stone’s 1987 classic film, Wallstreet, and played superbly by Michael Douglas. Gekko was partly based on Ivan Boesky, a notorious corporate raider of the 1980s. Shortly after he addressed a class at Columbia University with the words: ‘You can be greedy, and still feel good about yourself’ he went to prison, convicted of insider trading.

Motives that make for success in business are commitment to a purpose and a passion for the business. Money, of course, is a good; it’s just not the good because it is a means to an end not the end itself. The end is eudaimonia (happiness/ flourishing) – the well-being of the workforce (wellness is the real wealth). Money is a by-product, a side-effect of engaging in meaningful goals and tasks. Kay acknowledges: ‘The achievement of wealth, like the attainment of happiness, is an oblique process, and the overly direct approach frequently ends in the bankruptcy courts – or the criminal ones’.

In any given work we can identify three-levels: High-level objectives, Intermediate goals, and  Basic actions. An old story is told of a visitor who encounters three stone-masons working on a mediaeval cathedral, and asks what each is doing. ‘I am cutting the stone to shape’, says the first, describing his basic actions’. ‘I am building a great cathedral’, says the second, describing his intermediate goals. ‘And I am working for the glory of God’, says the third, describing his high-level objective. The higher level includes the lower ones and transcends them. The construction of any architectural masterpiece (as metaphor) requires high-level objectives through ‘lesser’ but nonetheless important goals and actions. We need to work on our attitude, on how we approach the world of work so we don’t end up hating or hurting or harming our souls. In Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris writes: ‘How we hated our coffee mugs, our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the content of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served’. Work, depicted in this scenario, becomes a Sisyphean struggle, a lamentable and loveless labour. Much of work is boring yes, but much of life is too! We shouldn’t expect too much from work – but enough. In one statistic, more than 33% of the 100,000 workers surveyed in a large American study from 2005 claimed that they had too little to do at work. We might outline an ABC of work thus: Anxiety (too much to do); Boredom: (too little to do); Challenge: getting the balance right (having just enough to do).

Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher, and author of a little book entitled simply Work writes that, ‘Boredom is a bigger problem than stress in the workplace’. Boredom is the desire for desires. It leads to lack of interest and initiative. The key is managing to find meaning and this principally lies in our mental attitude. In The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky writes: ‘The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, one at which the most fearsome murderer would tremble, shrinking from it in advance, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning’. The philosopher Bertrand Russell emphasises the importance of a compelling sense of purpose: ‘Consistent purpose is not enough to make life happy, but it is an almost indispensable condition of a happy life. And consistent purpose embodies itself mainly in work’. The aim is to see the point and purpose in what we’re doing. Passion leads to purpose. Svendsen, again: ‘We suffer when our work fails to provide us with much meaning’.

There are two views of work:
1) The Instrumentalist view of work: something you do to make a living (work as a means to an end).
2) The Intrinsic view: work as an end itself.

The hope is that we find a balance between these two extremes. Svendsen enquires: ‘Shouldn’t something you spend that much time of your life on be something that in some sense matters to you? .... The role it plays in providing our lives with meaning is more fundamental’. Work, seen as a resource of meaning, is an existential need, not just a source of income. We need to see work as a meaningful mission and not just as a means. Svendsen states: ‘If we expect work to provide us with the ultimate meaning in life, we will be disappointed. The same holds for love, friendship, art and all the other things’. Work is good for our physical, mental and spiritual health. We look to work to provide us with some meaning. It’s a mistake to seek in work all of the meaning we need. A world without work would fill us with despair precipitating what Frankl’s labels the ‘existential vacuum’ which may lead to a ‘Sunday (or unemployment) Neurosis’ – the main symptom of which is apathy rather than depression. This occurs when we work so hard or for so long that we can’t enjoy our leisure time. Frankl calls it ‘Executive’s disease’ – a case where livelihood overshadows life. It manifests itself in work-mania. To give an example: the factory manager or financial magnate who is entirely devoted to making money, being so busy earning the means for living that he forgets life itself. He has money yes but no meaning. Frankl: ‘The real emptiness and ultimate poverty of meaning of his existence come to the fore, however, as soon as his vocational activity is halted for a certain period: on Sundays’. The person who is wholly wrapped up in work (the workaholic), who has nothing else, needs that weekend bustle. Frankl writes: ‘In any city, Sunday is the saddest day of the week. It is on Sunday when the tempo of the working week is suspended, that the poverty of meaning in everyday urban life is exposed ... On Sunday, when the frantic race pauses for twenty-four hours, all the aimlessness, meaninglessness and emptiness of existence rises up before them once more’. Ultimately, Sunday neurotics seek self-narcotisation. The Sunday neurotic is worked up instead of working. What characterises him are: multiple addictions, denial, low self-esteem, inability to relax, external reinforcing, and obsessionality. Work can bring out the demonic just as it can bring the divine out in us.

In Genesis we read: ‘Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath ... you shall not do any work’. Sunday calls us to leisure rather than labour. But Sunday neurotics live to work rather than work to live. But life and livelihood should not be separated because they both flow from the same source – the spirit of the person. When that is dampened or demeaned or degraded then meaning vanishes and depression ensues and this results in high levels of anxiety and heart attacks, stress and suicide, fear and feelings of failure that is literally costing firms billions and billions each year in terms of compensation claims and medical expenses and absenteeism. So it pays to make the workforce happy. Work without meaning is deadly.

Ora et labora is the motto of the Benedictine order. Pray and work. Your work is your prayer. Now this is often not experienced as such by us. So we must distinguish between a job and work. They are not the same thing. A job is what we do, our work is who we are. It is the difference between having and being. Once work comes from an inner sense of coherence and concord – from our noetic core and character (spiritual centre) – no work is alienating – no work is just a job. Furthermore, we can distinguish between two kinds of work: outer work and inner work. The latter is the work we do on ourselves. The aim: to bring the two together. Meaningless work is an abomination just as real meaningful work is the joy of life. A person who sweeps floors can, by knowing the meaning of his task and appreciating its contribution to the community can literally flood his life with meaning – his actions become sacred acts. That said, all work contains aspects of drudgery – whether it holds meaning or not.

In a chapter entitled ‘The Meaning of Work’ in his The Doctor and the Soul, Frankl writes: ‘Work usually represents the area in which the individual’s uniqueness stands in relation to society and thus acquires meaning and value. This meaning and value, however, is attached to the person’s work as a contribution to society, not to the actual occupation as such. Therefore it cannot be said that this or that particular occupation offers a person the opportunity to fulfilment. In this sense no one occupation is the sole road to salvation’.

If the actual occupation does not allow a sense of fulfilment to arise, ‘the fault is in the person, not the work’ (Frankl). The job at which one works is not what counts but rather the manner in which one does the work. Frankl: ‘It does not lie with the occupation, but always with us’. For example: the meaning of a doctor’s work lies in what he does beyond his purely medical duties; it is what he brings to his work as person, as a human being.

Frankl observes: ‘The capacity to work is not everything; it is neither a sufficient nor essential basis for a meaningful life. A man may be capable of working and nevertheless may lead a meaningful life; and another can be incapable of working and nevertheless give his life meaning’. To see and seek all of meaning in work is restrictive. Alice Lyttkens: ‘where love is lacking, work becomes a substitute’. There is work (a part) and there is life (the whole). We shouldn’t commit the mistake the part for the whole.

All creatures in the universe have work and work permeates all of creation: from goats to galaxies. We therefore need more than ever to look for the meaning in it or behind it and the see the gift it gives. I recall a Benedictine monk telling me that the yucca moth does only one thing – fertilises the yucca plant but if it doesn’t do this one thing necessary the whole ecological system goes awry. This is what we might call the Great Work of creation itself and we are co-creators with God, or of evolution and creativity, if you prefer to put it in more secular terms. The Great Work is the great mystery. As Aquinas observed: ‘God works at the heart of all activity’. True work comes from our being – our inner nature. When thus working from the core of who you are then you will never experience this Monday to Friday sort of dying. Of course, work is a mixed bag but life is too. Aquinas again: ‘There can be no joy in living without joy in work’. Work is an eschatological act. ‘When we delight in our work and the whole life of a person is ordered to it, then it is called our life ‘The deep meaning of our work is that it is a metaphor, a symbol for what we cherish and love, of what we take delight in. Of course, our primary work is living.

Jim Rohn (motivational speaker) sets out his list: (Five Major Pieces of the Life Puzzle: A Guide to Personal Success):

1) Philosophy (what you know; your personal philosophy is THE major determining factor)
2) Attitude (how you feel about what you know; your life is affected by your attitude)
3) Activity (what you do about what you know; take action: do the best you can)
4) Results (monitoring/ measuring the results of your action)
5) Lifestyle (how you consolidate the four above in living well, with and for others)

So, if you don’t like your lifestyle look at your results, if you don’t like your results look at your actions, if you don’t like your actions look at your attitude, and if you don’t like your attitude look at your philosophy. As Rohn suggests: ‘Success attracts the person you become’… ‘Success is a few simple disciplines practiced every day’. Daily disciplines lead to habits of the heart. Work not at the expense but at the service of others.

Viktor Frankl’s philosophy provides an excellent framework, one that has been tested and not found wanting. It can boost morale in the workplace, motivate people by and through meaning, and increase profits and productivity, following on from core philosophical principles.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes: ‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible’. So: what is my work asking of me? That is the question; and whether we can conjoin it with the Great Work of Creation itself. Let me conclude with one of Dr Frankl’s favourite Spanish proverbs: la hora pasa, la pensa se olvida, la obra queda: ‘Time passes, suffering is forgotten, the work remains’.

About the author: 

Dr Stephen J. Costello is a philosopher and logotherapist. Author of 9 books, he is director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland and a consultant to the corporate sector offering executive coaching, corporate counselling, and ‘Meaning at Work’ seminars.

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