An essay on meaning and working

Look around you. They are everywhere: The over-worked… The under-appreciated… The under-valued… The lost… The professional zombie… Today’s professionals are not happy at work and I think our thirst for meaning is at the core of the problem.

Follow your bliss and doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.

Joseph Campbell

Clearly, our yearning for meaning at the workplace is not a new topic. Actually, it’s been brewing for a couple of decades now. The Industrial Era, with its emphasis on scientific and mechanical thinking, ended up creating robo-men and robo-women. We might not be aware of it, but we subliminally view our body as inorganic – a kind of machine controlled by our brain. Insidiously, we were brainwashed to use mechanical metaphors to describe our body: We “burn” calories. We are “full.” We need our “morning fuel.” Not surprisingly, a typical 21st Century professional works for a company that has a human “resources” department, dealing with human “capital.” That being said, work had not always been mechanic, inorganic, or lifeless. Humanity’s need for meaningful work has always been there, we just overlooked it.

I believe we live in an era in which everyone is deeply obsessed with achievement. We are clearly an achievement-oriented society, and we think there is nothing wrong with that. Quite honestly, even questioning that became a taboo – a sign of loser mentality. Achievement is not a bad thing or a taboo. But achievement and success are not the same. The former is nothing more than a mean to an end, which is the latter. By merely focusing on achievement, which can be quantified, measured, and ultimately controlled (three obsessions of the scientific/mechanic mind), we miss the point that our ultimate goal should be having a successful life (one’s life work.)

You might ask “Where does our obsession with achievement come from?” This question leads us to depth psychology. One of the dominant archetypes of our era is the hero (which is rooted in Hercules.) Globally, we live the heroic fantasy in a trance form, which means it controls us instead of us controlling it. Every hero needs a challenge, an adversary, a can-do spirit, and a strong will to persevere. These are all useful and necessary things for personal and professional growth. The good news is that these are abundantly present in the corporate world. The bad thing is the corporate heroic fantasy overlooks the fact that without a transcending goal, the hero is a self-serving, egotistical maniac. Without a transcending goal, the hero is not likeable and his/her story is not compelling. Lack of a transcending goal presents itself as a feeling of being stuck in a maze. Many of us can relate to that… That’s why it is not a coincidence that, not only individuals but also organizations are desperately trying to discover their “purpose” these days.

The hero's journey
Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

Like every other archetype, the hero has a built-in storyline. Actually, Joseph Campbell, the world’s most famous comparative mythologist, discovered “the” storyline: the monomyth, which we all live without knowing. The monomyth has three major consecutive stages and the hero’s journey is full of ups and downs. We all have to go through the alienating “separation” phase, which our society does a decent job of. The “explorer” archetype is very strong, especially in North America. Then, there is the painful “initiation” phase that we have to go through in order to achieve what we want to. Unfortunately, initiation rituals are sorely missed in our era. And finally, there is the final stage that we miss dearly and it’s called the hero’s return. The meaning of work could be lying there…


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