Searching for Purpose

Can we find it in work?

Jonathan Malesic over at The New Republic urges workers not to search for purpose in their jobs:

We would be better off if we liberated work from the moral weight of “purpose.” There is dignity in the struggle just to get the objective (NEED, PAID) and subjective (GOOD, LOVE) elements of our work closer to each other. … Few of us will ever find our meritocratic purpose, much less “OWN it!” That shouldn’t mean we’re failures. Often, just standing in the PAID circle is a triumph. That’s certainly true for day laborers, whose purpose on the job is to make each other’s work bearable. Their rule is, “Carry your end of the load.” If we all adopted that rule, then once we’ve carried our end, we can meet at the water cooler, share a laugh, and scheme to knock off early. Being human together is purpose enough.

Meanwhile, David Brooks writes in the New York Times that it is in fact the small life well-lived that seems to give us meaning:

Terence J. Tollaksen wrote that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the “decision trap”: “This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomena whereby ‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”

Tollaksen continues, “I have always admired those goal-oriented, stubborn, successful, determined individuals; they make things happen, and the world would be lost without them.” But, he explains, he has always had a “small font purpose.”

Malesic’s piece indicates that—contrary to popular consensus—searching for purpose in work will only end in frustration. Many Americans focus their entire lives around work, dedicating 50 to 70 hours a week to their career. They have a trajectory in mind, an end: yet oftentimes, their hopes are disappointed. There are days in which they feel motivated, inspired, purposeful, but there are also times when all the joy fades from work, hopes are dashed, and our purpose feels muddled and distant.

If we attempt to find our telos, or end, in work, we will be disappointed. Not because work isn’t important: indeed, the ability to work is fundamental to our nature as human beings. We were made to work. But work is not sufficient for human flourishing: it is only one component of the human soul.

Read the rest at The American Conservative!


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