December 22, 2008
News & Opinion: Excerpt from Boreout by Philippe Rothlin and Peter R. Werder
Chapter 10 challenges readers to think about what is personally meaningful to them when it comes to their work lives.
WE SEEK MEANING
Why exactly do we work? The off-the-cuff answer tends to be: because we have to, because we need money to live. It is primarily about purely ensuring one’s existence and basic material needs.
Because we have to live, and because our standard of living is directly connected with money, we often ascribe too much weight to it. If the money is right, the job is right. We will put up with a lot in exchange for a good salary. Hence we often take on jobs that we don't in the least want to do. Not a very original conclusion, to be sure, but it is the truth nonetheless. Yet ask yourself: would the many employees in such situations stop working if they no longer had to because their basic needs were met -- because they are simply rich? With respect, this is barely conceivable. In such a case, what would they do all day? Sit by the pool, go on a trip to the mountains or the Caribbean every so often and fill their stomachs like the lotus-eaters? Perhaps that would work for a short while, in the same way that a bit of boredom in the workplace for a short time has its attraction.
But, and this goes for the lotus-eaters too, you can have too much of a good thing. If we won the lottery, it would probably not be long before we were looking for something to do: maybe helping the couple next door to renovate their house, or maybe working for a charity or going back to college to develop our own ideas about some area of interest.
It is in cases of catastrophe that we see most starkly just how meaningful work can be: people help each other out in times of floods, landslides and earthquakes. Lives are saved, the sick cared for, emergency supplies shared out, money donated. Boreout is unthinkable in such situations. Or can you imagine people from the fire brigade or health workers turning their backs on the crisis and just lazing around?
So if we did not have to work because our material needs were covered, we would do so nonetheless. Our criteria for choosing what to do would, however, be different in this case: we could choose freely without having to consider the financial aspect. We would do what seems meaningful to us: what we like doing, what we find fun, something that we feel at ease with and identify with. The criteria would be the meanings we find in the work.
It is therefore not about having no work at all instead of an unloved job, but rather about meaningful work: something that provides us with satisfaction and recognition. It is through recognition that we find the meaning of what we do, because recognition gives us the feeling that we are real and that what we do is valued. When people praise us in our work, they recognize us. Whether in catastrophic situations or in everyday life, that gives us a meaning that is tangible and can be experienced.
The first element of qualitative pay is therefore meaning, for we must find it in our activities. If you do that you will find it easier to identify with your work, perhaps even find it fun. It is a question of looking for the meaning in what you do, or changing the basic conditions so that the meaning becomes clearer. This meaning is not simply present in the work; it exists in the relationship between work and worker. It must be discovered: by the bank clerk who develops strategies to make the business more profitable; by the police officer who wants to protect society from criminals; and by the doctor who helps the sick.
The point is this: what is meaningful for one person can be absolutely meaningless for another.
Think about whether your job at the moment is personally meaningful for you, about whether your work really interests you. First we must look at this idea we call 'interest'. Interest enables us to recognize the meaning of our activity very quickly for ourselves. The question 'Does my job really interest me?' is often suppressed, wrongly. For if interest in work is not present, then in all probability working days will become torment. Qualitative pay turns out to be higher if you are working at something that really interests you. For then you will spend your working time in satisfying ways.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.