In 2009, two US professors set out to study zookeepers and aquarium workers in an effort to discover what kept them motivated at work.
The results pointed to an overwhelming similarity: The keepers gained a deep sense of meaning from their jobs. It didn’t matter that caring for animals was extremely badly paid and offered little career advancement, or that many of the actual tasks involved could be classified as “dirty work”—cleaning up feces, chopping vegetables, scrubbing floors. The zookeepers, most of whom were highly educated, felt that they were fulfilling a calling, and in doing so were extremely dedicated, often volunteering for months before even beginning to be paid, and rarely quitting.
“I can’t think what would cause me to leave” was a common sentiment noted by the researchers, who surveyed almost 1,000 zookeepers, and conducted in-depth interviews with many of them. But the fact that the keepers had found and followed a calling was a double-edged sword. Doing what they did for love also meant putting up with poor conditions and potentially being exploited.
Some of us, like the zookeepers, get a lot of fulfillment out of what we do for a living. In many jobs, however, the connection between our work and the meaning we derive from it is much less obvious. In some cases, the link is almost or completely severed—as in what anthropologist David Graeber has dubbed “bullshit jobs.” At the same time, we’re brought up to believe that work—not the church, the state, or even the family—is the fountainhead from which our sense of meaning should spring.
But when we talk about “meaningful work,” what do we actually mean? Negotiating peace treaties, growing food, making spectacular amounts of money—all of these can be framed as meaningful, depending on who is doing the framing, and what it is they truly want. Meaning isn’t something to be found, and it can’t be uncovered by heartfelt commitment, long hours, and self-sacrifice. Meaning is something we make.
Accepting that fact can transform what you choose to do with your life, but it can also transform the way you feel about what it is you already do. Your career is a treasure-hunt, except you are not the person seeking the ultimate prize. You are writing the map.
The state of overwork
The past year has produced a steady stream of articles about and by workers—mainly in the US—who are miserable, burned-out, and overworked. We’ve been trained to associate our work with our identities, and we seem unable to break free of unhealthy ways of working.
This particular state of affairs is relatively new. For most of human history, work was a drudgery to be borne by those people who had to do it, and avoided by those who could afford to. From ancient Greece to medieval Europe, toil was seen as a necessary evil, and mainly as a misfortune of the poor. Meaning was found outside of work, through family, religion, and—for the lucky elite—in leisure and learning.
But with the rise of Protestantism, work was ennobled. Martin Luther for the first time suggested that an individual’s work—whether it was making shoes or building churches—could be a way of serving God, and that the harder we worked (and, by default, the more money we made), the better God would be pleased.
That Protestant work ethic dominates in the US to a greater degree than almost anywhere else because it is a relatively young country without a long, prevalent pre-Protestant history, according to Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to Be Free, a book he published in 2007 to do battle with “workism.”
Hodgkinson, a journalist and writer who runs the UK magazine The Idler, advocates for people to lead less busy, less driven lives, with more diverse sources of meaning than career alone. Essentially, he tells people to work less—an edict that would likely deeply rile people who have been raised with the Puritan work ethic as the fabric of their education and professional lives. Since beginning his crusade against the overworking mindset, Hodgkinson says, things have only got worse, especially in the US. In his view, the problem has been exacerbated by tech companies that telegraph a woke culture but, in reality, aggressively focus on making money: “A new breed of super-brutal, crystal meth-pure capitalism,” in Hodgkinson’s phrasing.
His solution is to let go of the idea that full-time work is the only possible route to success, suggesting that the model of the permanent, long-hours job should be scrutinized, and that workers can take their lives into their own hands by resisting its ubiquity.
“There are lots and lots of different ways of organizing your life which don’t rely on one full-time job,” Hodgkinson told Quartz—especially since, in a volatile economy, that job might not even be particularly secure. There’s evidence that people are, indeed, veering away from the full-time job model, and toward more bespoke careers. A third of Americans surveyed by McKinsey in 2016 said they were entirely freelance by choice, while a third of UK workers surveyed by Manpower Group in March 2019 said they were also seeking alternative ways of working other than full-time jobs. Companies are experimenting with non-full-time models, most notably Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate-managing firm that in 2018 introduced a four-day week for all its staff. The workforce, which remains on full pay, is judged on productivity, not time spent at the office.
In some cases, as in parts of the gig economy, flexibility can lead to exploitation: 14% of Americans surveyed by McKinsey also said they were reluctantly freelance. In other cases, it leads to freedom.
The evolution of the professional nomad
“There’s a much more global story” than the American experience alone, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, who originally trained in psychiatry. He notes that in modern times, our sense of self was primarily tied to two behemoths: The nation state, on the one hand, and the company, on the other.
But both of these allegiances are fading. More and more, our sense of self is connected to the kind of person we believe ourselves to be—a combination of profession and meaning—and not to our place of work. In this, we’re reverting to an earlier mode: before we had companies and careers, we had professions (for example, stone mason) and tasks (build a bridge.)
“At the forefront of this story is a group of people who see neither the organization, nor the nation state, nor the company as organizers of identity…They’re very nomadic, they have very loose affiliations to institutions but very deep personal connections to their work,” Petriglieri says. He calls them “nomadic professionals,” though their nomadism relates to a conceptual un-rootedness, rather than to physical changes of location. (This idea is also distinct from the more widely-known concept of the “digital nomad,” a term that now has some less-than-positive connotations of comparatively rich Westerners living in cheaper countries and working primarily online.)
Professional nomads might be programmers geographically located in Ukraine, British civil servants, or Indian entrepreneurs. What connects them is that, while they identify closely with their “calling,” their specific workplace or role is less intrinsic to their makeup. They carry their tools with them. They write their own clues.
Our contemporary tying-together of selfhood with work may indeed be stressful, Petriglieri says. But it’s also privileged. Two hundred years ago, a person’s life—almost regardless of where they were born—was mapped out when they entered the world: They would become a servant or a priest, carry on the family business, marry for status, die young. There was growing up, but there was no becoming, he notes. What we have now is painful at times, but it involves infinitely more freedom than we’ve ever had before.
Buried treasure of the ‘because’
The freedom to choose our path is a privilege, but it doesn’t necessarily make us happy.
Some surveys find that the majority of people globally feel unfulfilled by their work. A 2013 Gallup poll surveyed 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries and found that fully 63% were not engaged in their work. Barry Schwartz, author of Why We Work, an accompaniment to his often-viewed TED Talk, says that human nature itself adapts and changes based on the conditions in which we find ourselves. Thus, the post-industrial structures of work—demanding that people specialize, to the point where they must often fulfil small, repetitive, unrewarding tasks—creates a mindset in which it’s impossible to enjoy work, and extremely difficult to see beyond its confines.
Faced with such an apparently intractable problem, what are our options? Despair, and railing against the unfairness of the system, are both reasonable. Many people, globally, do not have the freedom to choose. Some work situations—losing your job through no fault of your own, being bullied, suffering discrimination—are certainly unfair. But the narrative of entitlement to a fulfilling job obscures the fact that it’s not our job’s job to be meaningful. It’s our job to find meaning in what we do.
Some of us have the option of changing our work situation if that becomes absolutely imperative. But we can also change the narrative we choose to explain our work to the world and to ourselves—and in so doing, change our experience. As my colleague Ephrat Livni points out, there truly can be nobility and even enjoyment in a vast range of different jobs, from barista to barrister (and yes: Ephrat has both made coffee and practiced law for a living).
Petriglieri says that he consistently sees individuals tackle similar work issues in utterly different ways.
Two people might have “the exact same work circumstances—the same precariousness, same distress and long working hours, same obnoxious boss,” Petriglieri said. “And one person feels: ‘This is a hopeless situation, I’m really in pain, I’m suffering.’ And [the other] person says, ‘Well, you know, I’m putting up with this because…’”
Petriglieri isn’t suggesting that all we need to do is “put up with” unhappy situations. He’s identifying the idea, widely accepted in psychology literature, that the “because” is key.
When it comes to work, we’re usually not searching for a job that makes us wildly happy all day, every day; we know that’s not realistic. What we’re seeking is work that makes sense in the context of who we believe we are. And because we have to give things up in order to do it—leisure time, rest, seeing our families—the trade-off has to feel worth it. When we experience loss, it’s crucial to humans—who need to feel that our situation has meaning—to feel the loss has meaning, too. (This is why, Petriglieri says, we have rituals around death, and the changing of seasons.)
In Petriglieri’s conception, the difference between finding a situation bearable—possibly, indeed, happy—and unbearable is about whether we experience ourselves as performing a willing sacrifice, or simply as suffering. When working hard tips over into working too hard, or with too little reward, sacrifice has slipped into suffering. Writing about the two modes for Harvard Business Review, Petriglieri uses sport as an example. Elite sportspeople couldn’t get to the top of their game without a love of what they do and a willingness to sacrifice—often huge amounts—to achieve it. “Sacrifice might be hurtful and exhausting, but it is a conscious choice,” he writes. “Suffering is the result of feeling that we cannot slow down or else we will be shamed and lose control. Sacrifice makes us who we are. Suffering keeps us captive.”
The zookeepers in the 2009 research saw themselves as performing a willing sacrifice—of high pay, or status, or a warm office to work in rather than a pen. They experienced those things, but didn’t seem to resent their work, because they believed the tradeoff was worthwhile.
For some, the “because” of our job could be making the world a better place. But it could also simply be allowing us to pay the bills or care for our family. Meaning isn’t reserved for work with some “higher purpose.” But it has to be there. The because “ties the suffering to a goal; the present to future,” Petriglieri says. “The pain is in the context of a narrative. Which could be a narrative of endurance. It could be a narrative of transformation. But there’s always a goal.”
Our freedom to make meaning is both a blessing and a curse. To get somewhat existential about it, “work,” and the problems associated with it as an amorphous whole, do not exist: For the individual, only his or her work exists, and the individual is in control of that, with the very real power radically to change the situation. You could start the process of changing your job right now, today. Yes, arguments about the practicality of that choice well up fast and high. Yes, you would have to find another way to pay the bills. That doesn’t negate the fact that, fundamentally, you are free.
For many workers, telling ourselves a better story about our jobs won’t be enough; there are specific problems that need solving. The field of what makes us happy or unhappy at work is rich with research: Studies point to the importance of relationships with colleagues, the negative effects of bad management, and our craving for feedback. Workplace abuse, exploitation, and discrimination remain real issues, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement and its predecessors, prompting demonstrations like 2018’s Google walkouts.
Unreasonable conditions and real misery need to be met with concrete changes. But other conditions, Petriglieri says, can be radically changed by reframing what we expect from ourselves—and how we see what we do with our days in the context of our lives as a whole.
“There’s some pain that needs a solution, and some pain that needs a story,” Petriglieri says.
Many practical ways of combating the brutality of modern working come from within—not necessarily from self-optimization strategies or work hacks, but from simple changes that, in turn, change the culture around us. Leave the office at 6pm. Take holidays and talk about how completely you disconnected. Ask for paternity or maternity leave and take it, ostentatiously. Negotiate remote working and spend time at a cabin in the woods with your laptop and morning runs around the lake. Show your colleagues that you are free. Show yourself. This is true for managers, perhaps even more so than for workers: Petriglieri points out that when a manager has a talented report who is willing to make sacrifices, it’s particularly important for the manager to guard against exploiting them.
To maintain or gain a sense of perspective, Petriglieri suggests, write a list, perhaps ten statements long. “I am a journalist,” it might begin, followed by “I am a mother.” But press on: I am a daughter, I am a writer, a dog-owner, a cyclist, a brother, a neighbor, a volunteer, a friend. Meaning might well be concentrated, for the “nomadic professional,” in work. But it’s not the only story that defines a life. Remembering that is one road to freedom.