How to Find Fulfilling Work
On the art-science of “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.”
By Maria Popova
“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment,” wrote Dostoevsky, “all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” Indeed, the quest to avoid work and make a living of doing what you love is a constant conundrum of modern life. In How to Find Fulfilling Work (public library) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane and Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex — philosopher Roman Krznaric (remember him?) explores the roots of this contemporary quandary and guides us to its fruitful resolution:
The desire for fulfilling work — a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality — is a modern invention. … For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.
We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.
Krznaric goes on to outline two key afflictions of the modern workplace — “a plague of job dissatisfaction” and “uncertainty about how to choose the right career” — and frames the problem:
Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it. Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60 per cent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again. In the United States, job satisfaction is at its lowest level — 45 per cent — since record-keeping began over two decades ago.
Of course, Krznaric points out, there’s plenty of cynicism and skepticism to go around, with people questioning whether it’s even possible to find a job in which we thrive and feel complete. He offers an antidote to the default thinking:
There are two broad ways of thinking about these questions. The first is the ‘grin and bear it’ approach. This is the view that we should get our expectations under control and recognize that work, for the vast majority of humanity — including ourselves — is mostly drudgery and always will be. Forget the heady dream of fulfillment and remember Mark Twain’s maxim. “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.” … The history is captured in the word itself. The Latin labor means drudgery or toil, while the French travail derives from the tripalium, an ancient Roman instrument of torture made of three sticks. … The message of the ‘grin and bear it’ school of thought is that we need to accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get, as long as it meets our financial needs and leaves us enough time to pursue our ‘real life’ outside office hours. The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedaling fulfillment is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.
I am more hopeful than this, and subscribe to a different approach, which is that it is possible to find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.
This is a book for those who are looking for a job that is big enough for their spirit, something more than a ‘day job’ whose main function is to pay the bills.
As we turn the corner of the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Krznaric reminds us of the pivotal role the emancipation of women played in the conception of modern work culture:
If the expansion of public education was the main event in the story of career choice in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth it was the growing number of women who entered the paid workforce. In the US in 1950 around 30 per cent of women had jobs, but by the end of the century that figure had more than doubled, a pattern which was repeated throughout the West. This change partly resulted from the struggle for the vote and the legitimacy gained from doing factory work in two World Wars. Perhaps more significant was the impact of the pill. Within just fifteen years of its invention in 1955, over twenty million women were using oral contraceptives, with more than ten million using the coil. By gaining more control over their own bodies, women now had greater scope to pursue their chosen professions without the interruption of unwanted pregnancy and childbearing. However, this victory for women’s liberation has been accompanied by severe dilemmas for both women and men as they attempt to find a balance between the demands of family life and their career ambitions.
Another culprit Krznaric points to in the stymying of our ability to find a calling is the industrial model of education:
The way that education can lock us into careers, or at least substantially direct the route we travel, would not be so problematic if we were excellent judges of our future interests and characters. But we are not. When you were 16, or even in your early twenties, how much did you know about what kind of career would stimulate your mind and offer a meaningful vocation? Did you even know the range of jobs that were out there? Most of us lack the experience of life — and of ourselves — to make a wise decision at that age, even with the help of well-meaning career advisers.
Krznaric considers the five keys to making a career meaningful — earning money, achieving status, making a difference, following our passions, and using our talents — but goes on to demonstrate that they aren’t all created equal. In particular, he echoes 1970s Zen pioneer Alan Watts and modern science in arguing that money alone is a poor motivator:
Schopenhauer may have been right that the desire for money is widespread, but he was wrong on the issue of equating money with happiness. Overwhelming evidence has emerged in the last two decades that the pursuit of wealth is an unlikely path to achieving personal wellbeing — the ancient Greek ideal of eudaimonia or ‘the good life.’ The lack of any clear positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness has become one of the most powerful findings in the modern social sciences. Once our income reaches an amount that covers our basic needs, further increases add little, if anything, to our levels of life satisfaction.
We can easily find ourselves pursuing a career that society considers prestigious, but which we are not intrinsically devoted to ourselves — one that does not fulfill us on a day-to-day basis.
Krznaric pits respect, which he defines as “being appreciated for what we personally bring to a job, and being valued for our individual contribution,” as the positive counterpart to prestige and status, arguing that “in our quest for fulfilling work, we should seek a job that offers not just good status prospects, but good respect prospects.”
Rather than hoping to create a harmonious union between the pursuit of money and values, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents. This idea comes courtesy of Aristotle, who is attributed with saying, ‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’
Krznaric quotes the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who wrote over a century ago:
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.
And yet, Krznaric argues, a significant culprit in our vocational dissatisfaction is the fact that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a cult of specialization, leading us to believe that the best way to be successful is to become an expert in a narrow field. Like Buckminster Fuller, who famously admonished against specialization, Krznaric cautions that this cult robs us of an essential part of being human: the fluidity of character and our multiple selves:
Specialization may be all well very well if you happen to have skills particularly suited to these jobs, or if you are passionate about a niche area of work, and of course there is also the benefit of feeling pride in being considered an expert. But there is equally the danger of becoming dissatisfied by the repetition inherent in many specialist professions. … Moreover, our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize, but which career advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves. … We have complex, multi-faceted experiences, interests, values and talents, which might mean that we could also find fulfillment as a web designer, or a community police officer, or running an organic cafe.
This is a potentially liberating idea with radical implications. It raises the possibility that we might discover career fulfillment by escaping the confines of specialization and cultivating ourselves as wide achievers … allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.
Krznaric advocates for finding purpose as an active aspiration rather than a passive gift:
“Without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies,” wrote Albert Camus. Finding work with a soul has become one of the great aspirations of our age. … We have to realize that a vocation is not something we find, it’s something we grow — and grow into.
It is common to think of a vocation as a career that you somehow feel you were “meant to do.” I prefer a different definition, one closer to the historical origins of the concept: a vocation is a career that not only gives you fulfillment — meaning, flow, freedom — but that also has a definitive goal or a clear purpose to strive for attached to it, which drives your life and motivates you to get up in the morning.
And yet fulfilling work doesn’t come from the path of least resistance. He cites from Viktor Frankl’s famous treatise on the meaning of life:
What man actually needs is not some tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.
Curie was absolutely committed to her career. She lived an almost monastic lifestyle in her early years in Paris, surviving on nothing but buttered bread and tea for weeks at a time, which left her anemic and regularly fainting from hunger. She shunned her growing fame, had no interest in material comforts, preferring to live in a virtually unfurnished home: status and money mattered little to her. When a relative offered to buy her a wedding dress, she insisted that “if you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.” Before her death in 1934, aged 67, she summed up her philosophy of work: “Life is not easy for any of us,” she said. “But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”
But while Curie’s career embodies the essential elements of meaning — she employed her intellectual talents in the direction of her passion for science, which she pursued with “Aristotelean sense of purpose” — Krznaric debunks the eureka! myth of genius and points out that Curie’s rise to vocational fulfillment was incremental, as she allowed her mind to remain open rather than closed in on her specialization, recognizing the usefulness of useless knowledge:
Marie Curie never had [a] miraculous moment of insight, when she knew that she must dedicate her working life to researching the properties of radioactive materials. What really occurred was that this goal quietly crept up on her during years of sustained scientific research. … Her obsession grew in stages, without any Tannoy announcement from the heavens that issued her a calling. That’s the way it typically happens: although people occasionally have those explosive epiphanies, more commonly a vocation crystallizes slowly, almost without us realizing it.
So there is no great mystery behind it all. If we want a job that is also a vocation, we should not passively wait around for it to appear out of thin air. Instead we should take action and endeavor to grow it like Marie Curie. How? Simply by devoting ourselves to work that gives us deep fulfillment through meaning, flow and freedom. … Over time, a tangible and inspiring goal may quietly germinate, grow larger, and eventually flower into life.
Excerpted from How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador.
Published April 23, 2013