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What Is Work For?

What Is Work For?

Last week, I starting thinking about why so many people devote so much of their lives to work, and seem to get so little enjoyment or reward in return. It doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense. Surveys show that many people, perhaps a majority, feel dissatisfied with some major aspect of their working lives. It may be lack of satisfaction, too little free time, too little reward, or work that bores and frustrates them.

Life isn’t always (or often) fair and few people get all that they want, but to have so many people who feel dissatisfied with a major aspect of their life raises an important question. What is the problem? Why are so many people so unhappy? What is work for?

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There is an obvious and superficial answer to the last question: you work to make enough money to support yourself and any family you may have. But that doesn’t seem a good enough answer. If work had no more than this utilitarian purpose, no one would do a single hour of work past the point where they had enough money to sustain life. You could argue that what people see as “enough” varies hugely. Some are content with modest lives; others want the best of everything. But the general point would still hold good.

Well, yes. But that doesn’t explain why ultra-rich people go on working and amassing money far past the point where they are even able to spend it in their lifetime. Nor does it address the phenomenon I tried to think about in my posting Leisure Is the Meaning of Work. It seems for many people today work is no longer a means to an end (whatever that end may be). The reward for work success has become the requirement to work still more . . . and so on, for ever and ever. Amen. A means to a means to a means. Maybe that’s why so many are feeling frustrated and miserable: the end for which work is the means never comes into view. It’s just more work ahead, like in the old Buddhist tale about the guru who told his disciples that the world sits in space on the back of four elephants. The youngest and cheekiest disciple asked what the elephants stood on. “More elephants,” replied the guru. “And what do those elephants stand on?” asked the disciple, trying to show how clever he could be. “Look,” replied the exasperated guru. “It’s elephants all the way down. Get it?”

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One aspect of this endless cycle of work for work’s sake seems to be a loss of any great interest in seeking The Common Good. In the past, a willingness to work together for the common good was seen as the natural basis of democracy and the foundation of any society. Today, individualism is rampant, and each person seems to be out for him or herself, regardless of others’ needs. Despite much pious cant about “customer-centric organizations,” the reality is that the managers of an enterprise gain the lion’s share of the rewards. With “ownership” spread between huge financial institutions, many corporations no longer face any effective external control. So long as they make profits for these institutional shareholders, thereby meeting their self-interest, the executives in charge are free to do pretty much as they wish. Maybe it’s all tied up with the epidemic of short-term thinking; the “grab-and-go” style of corporate management. Whatever the reason, it’s making for some miserable working conditions.

Looking to the past brought me to Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who observed and commented on the fledgling American republic in the early 1800s. His argued that true freedom is compromised as soon as people are limited in all the small, daily decisions of life. That struck a chord for me. In The Freedom to Choose . . . and the Time to Do It, I suggested that unless people have the freedom to choose the small things in their lives, any larger freedoms have little meaning. You may have freedom to vote, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech, but if you aren’t free to take some time off occasionally, or decide how you want to balance work with the rest of your life, you will still feel like a slave. Petty tyrannies are rampant in most organizations, breeding mistrust and frustration. Tyranny—be it religious, political, economic, or military—always begins with oppression in the small, seemingly insignificant things of life, before growing to envelope everything else. We should slow down and stop this insidious growth, before it stifles our lives with poisonous tentacles.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to business life.

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Last Updated on September 15, 2020

7 Helpful Reminders When You Want to Make Big Life Changes

7 Helpful Reminders When You Want to Make Big Life Changes

Overcoming fear and making life changes is hard. It’s even harder when it’s a big change—breaking up with someone you love, leaving your old job, starting your own business, or hundreds of other difficult choices.

Even if it’s obvious that making a big change will be beneficial, it can be tough. Our mind wants to stay where it’s comfortable, which means doing the same things we’ve always done[1].

We worry: how do we know if we’re making the right decision? We wish we knew more. How do we make a decision without all of the necessary information?

We feel stuck. How do we get past fear and move forward with that thing we want to do?

Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are 7 things to remember when you want to move forward and make positive life changes.

1. You’ll Never Have All the Information

We often avoid making important decisions because we want more information before we make a tough call.

Yes, it’s certainly true that you need to do your research, but if you’re waiting for the crystal clear answer to come to you, then you’re going to be waiting a long time. As humans, we are curious creatures, and our need for information can be paralyzing.

Life is a series of guesses, mistakes, and revisions. Make the best decision you can at the time and continue to move forward. This also means learning to listen to and trust your intuition. Here’s how.

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2. Have the Courage to Trust Yourself

We make all sorts of excuses for not making important life changes, but the limiting belief that often underlies many of them is that we don’t trust ourselves to do the right thing.

We think that if we get into a new situation, we won’t know what to do or how to react. We’re worried that the uncharted territory of the future will be too much for us to handle.

Give yourself more credit than that.

You’ve dealt with unexpected changes before, right? And when your car got a flat tire on the way to work, how did that end up? Or when you were unexpectedly dumped?

In the end, you were fine.

Humans are amazingly adaptable, and your whole life has been helping you develop skills to face unexpected challenges.

Have enough courage to trust yourself. No matter what happens, you’ll figure out a way to make it work.

3. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Like jealousy, most of your fears are created in your own head.

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When you actually sit down and think about the worst case scenario, you’ll realize that there are actually very few risks that you can’t recover from.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Once you realize the worst isn’t that bad, you’ll be ready to crush it.

When you’re preparing to make a big life change, write down all of the things you’re afraid of. Are you afraid of failing? Of looking silly? Of losing money? Of being unhappy?

Then, address each fear by writing down ways you can overcome them. For example, if you’re afraid of losing money, can you take a few months to save up a safety net?

4. It’s Just as Much About the Process as It Is About the Result

We’re so wrapped up in results when we think about major life changes. We worry that if we start out towards a big goal, then we might not make it to the finish line.

However, you’re allowed to change your mind. And failing will only help you learn what not to do next time.

Furthermore, just because you don’t reach the final goal doesn’t mean you failed. You chose the goal in the first place, but you’re allowed to alter it if you find that the goal isn’t working out the way you hoped. Failure is not a destination, and neither is success.

Enjoy the process of moving forward[2].

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5. Continue to Pursue Opportunity

If you’re on the fence about a big decision, then you might be worried about getting locked into a position that you can’t escape from.

Think about it a different way. New choices rarely limit your options.

In fact, new pursuits often open up even more opportunities. One of the best things about going after important goals with passion is that they open up chances and options that you never could have expected in the beginning.

If you pursue the interesting opportunities that arise along the path to your goal, then you can be sure that you’ll always have choices.

6. Effort Matters, So Use It

It sounds simple, but one of the big reasons we don’t make life changes is because we don’t try. And we don’t try because then it’s easy to make excuses for why we don’t get what we want.

Flunked that test? Are you stupid? “Of course I’m not stupid. I just didn’t study. I would have gotten an A if I actually studied.”

Stuck in a job you hate? Why haven’t you found a new job yet? “Well, I haven’t really tried to get a new job. I could totally ace that interview if I wanted.”

Why do we make excuses like these to ourselves? It’s because if we try and fail, then we just failed. But if we don’t try, we can chalk it up to laziness.

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Get over it. Failure happens to everyone.

And the funny thing is, if you actually try—because it’s pretty clear that most people aren’t trying—then you’ll win a lot more than you think.

7. Start With Something Manageable

You can’t climb Everest if you don’t try hiking beforehand.

Maybe applying for your dream job seems intimidating right now. What can you start with today?

Can you talk to someone who already has that position and see what they think makes them successful? Can you improve your skills so you meet one of the qualifications? Can you take a free online course to expand your resume?

Maybe you’re not quite ready for a long-term relationship, but you know you want to start dating. Could you try asking out a mutual friend? Can you go out more with friends to practice your communication skills and meet new people?

You don’t need to be a world changer today; you just need to make small life changes in your own world.

More Tips to Help You Make Life Changes

Featured photo credit: Victor Rodriguez via unsplash.com

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