The meaning of working

Look around you. They are everywhere: The over-worked. The under-appreciated. The under-valued. The lost ones. The professional zombies. 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

Our yearning for meaning at the workplace is not a new topic. It has been brewing for a couple of decades now. The Industrial Era -with its emphasis on scientific and mechanical thinking- created robo-men and robo-women. We might not be aware of it, but deep down we view our body as inorganic – a kind of machine controlled by our brain. Not knowingly we were brainwashed to use mechanical metaphors to describe our body: We “burn” calories. We are “full.” We need our “morning fuel.” Even smart and spiritual people like Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks that “a cow is the biological machine invented by humans to turn grass into steak.”

Not surprisingly, a typical 21st Century professional works for a company that has a human “resources” department, dealing with human “capital.” Work, however, 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 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 taboo. But achievement and success are not the same. The former is nothing more than a mean to an end, the end being a success. 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.)

There is a surface activity and an underlying meaning to this work. To remain on the surface takes you nowhere.

Thomas Moore

You might be asking, “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 etymologically related to 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 development. The good news is that these are abundantly present in the corporate world. On the flip side the corporate heroic fantasy overlooks the fact that without a transcending goal, the hero is a self-serving, egotistical maniac. Without a noble 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 is 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. Joseph Campbell, the world’s most famous comparative mythologist, discovered “the” storyline: the monomyth, which we all live without knowing. The monomyth has three consecutive major stages, and the hero’s journey is full of ups and downs. We all have to go through the alienating “separation” phase, of which our society does a decent job. The “explorer” archetype is active, especially in North America. Then, there is the painful “initiation” phase that we have to go through to achieve what we want to. Unfortunately, initiation rituals are sorely missed in our era. 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.

Photo by Chester Alvarez on Unsplash

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