On Meaningful Work

I just finished reading “Things That Matter” by Joshua Becker. This is one of many books on meaningful work that I have imbibed over the years.

Somewhere in the middle, I found myself thinking about how married men keep writing these books about optimizing their lives. They talk about getting down to the basics, but don’t ever include, “How to get your house in order.”

Getting the House in Order

Women’s productivity books are ALL about how to get your house in order. They show how to meet your family’s needs, how to plan your meals and your logistics and your days. That way, you will make time to do your great work… even if you have to stay up all night.

(Only also, “put on your own oxygen mask.” Which seems to mean putting in just enough self-care that you don’t actually get sick. Because then what would people do without you?)

hands writing in notebook in front of coffee cup

Around the same time, I pulled out my journal from the last year. It has all my most meaningful work lined up over the course of about five pages.

I’ve written it out dozens of times over the last decade. It is always followed by a few entries that go like this:

“Once I get my house in order. Once I get the walls painted. Once I get in shape. Once I figure out how to plan my meals. Once I have my finances sorted… then I will do this work.”

It is a quick slide from self-actualization to basic entropy management.

And I see, right here and now, that my entire life is an example of exactly what I’m talking about.

“First I need to get all these things in place so that I have been useful enough to others that I am entitled to my own time.”

Useful work or Meaningful work?

Is “useful” actually a reasonable goal, though? Useful means that you have placed your value system outside yourself. It looks back through another person’s eyes, and turned yourself into a tool for their means.

Of course people want you to be useful… it makes their lives easier. But what if… it’s not what you’re here for? What if you are actually here on your own recognizance, for your own purpose? (The corollary is that everybody else is, too, so coercing them into “usefulness” is also dubious.)

Coming back to the whole “Women’s work/men’s work” productivity books… Things That Matter has a whole chapter on the importance of taking pride in your work. He reports some studies that show that worldwide, up to 85% of people are disengaged from their work… But instead of saying, “Wow. This work is a problem!” he concludes that people need to learn to make sense of it.

Oddly, his examples are all people who figured out why their work sucked and moved on. But he still wants the rest of us to find contentment with what we are doing. And he suggests that we do that by seeing how important and useful it is to other people.

I did that.

For years I tried to force myself to Do the Things. More to the point, I tried to be happy Doing the Things, and to find meaning meeting other people’s needs.

But I have things that I need me to do.

And being in service to other people’s needs, no matter how legitimate, will not get MY work done.

The Allure of Minimalism

So, how do we do this? How do we get our work done without magical fairies to keep our houses running in our absence? I keep thinking, “It’s going to have to be van life. Or maybe a tent. A studio apartment with no kitchen, and no furniture other than a desk and a bed.” Paring down to the essentials so that the essentials don’t take so much time. And then, there I am doing it again:

“How do I get the conditions of my life aligned so that I feel entitled to do this work?”

I keep trying to automate, codify, and simplify the systems of my life so that I can extract myself from them without it being inconvenient to other people.

This 100% does not work, by the way. If you’ve been doing a bunch of stuff, and you stop doing all that stuff, it’s inconvenient to somebody.

These men with many children and elaborate morning rituals have not made their lives convenient to their families.

Which is, ironically, why women’s books seem to focus on how to pick up the slack and still fit in the elaborate ritual:

“How to have a perfect life in which everybody feels loved and supported, and leave just enough in the tank to get up and do it all again the next morning – with shining hair and perfect skin. And an impressive job that pays you well.”

– Every women’s productivity hack ever

It’s exhausting just thinking about it. And yet I keep trying to do it.

The Reframe

I have argued before that Meaning is not a Luxury.

Even more than that, meaning and usefulness are not synonymous. Finding something “useful” to do with your time is an offer of a particular type of meaning.

Meaningful work is what you make of it. And meaning-making is work, in and of itself.