Finding Purpose In The Salt Mines

“It’s all well and good to talk about finding purpose,” you say. “But I work in a hope-crushing, mind-numbing and soul-destroying bureaucracy. It’s all I can do to bring myself to get on the subway to go to work every day. Purpose doesn’t live here.”

One response to that statement is that your purpose might be to find a way out.

At the same time, one of the articles I shared last week suggested that attempting to find purpose was actually a mug’s game, doomed for failure. Their point being that (leveraging a venn diagram that has been making the rounds of social media) finding something that you love, are good at, can be paid for and that the world needs is hopelessly impossible. Or else it’s a one way ticket to workaholism, burnout and exploitation.

Cynicism aside, there is something to be said for the point that the New Republic article makes. Just being paid for work can be of value in itself, regardless of whether you find it meaningful, engaging or inspiring. It’s a faustian bargain that actors have been making for years; waiting tables (literally and metaphorically) to supplement their incomes so that they have freedom to pursue their art.

In actual fact, that’s not necessarily a bad bargain at all. As the writer Austin Kleon (author of “Steal Like An Artist”) points out, a day job has the wondrous benefit of actually paying the bills. Your art (substitute ‘purpose’ for ‘art’ here and my point starts to become a little clearer) may not, at least at the outset. Even when the thing that engages you and fills you with meaning also produces some revenue, it will be scary to leave the security of a regular pay cheque. The freedom to pursue your dreams can be daunting; to some, it doesn’t feel like freedom at all.

What Kleon has to say about this is incredibly important: “The “meaning” in your job is: it pays the bills. Get as good at it as you can, because it’ll make the job more interesting to you, and it will provide you exits to another one. Then find the rest of your meaning elsewhere.” At our essence, we are not just one thing. We are not unidimensional beings—or at least we shouldn’t be—that are defined only by our profession, our career and our job. We can and do have other interests that may be more profound, more exciting and more meaningful than what occupies us from 9 to 5.

What I want to hone in on, though, is a part of Kleon’s quote that many might gloss over on the way to answering the whole meaning question. Specifically, I want to explore the idea that getting good at what you do will “… make the job more interesting to you.” What he is saying here is that regardless of whatever ultimate larger meaning you hope to create with your life, purpose can also be found in the salt mines. It might not be ‘Purpose’ with a capital-P. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be engaged with what we do, and focus our efforts at being really good at it.

Look around you right now (assuming that, like many, you are reading this in your office while munching a bagel and drinking your second coffee of the day). Look at the people working around you. Some are sullen and miserable. Many are just quietly getting on with getting on. And some—admittedly not many, but if you look hard you’ll still find some—are actually happy. They are positively engaged, smiling and enjoying themselves. Some people manage to eke out satisfaction in the same corporate environment that feels like indentured servitude in Azkaban to others.

So what is it about the happy ones? What’s actually going on there? Admittedly, some of them may have just gotten lucky last night. Yet despite the bureaucracy, the unrealistic expectations and the inane decision making process, there are a select few that get on with being engaged with their work. They have connected with it, they are good at it, and they quietly and contentedly make it happen every day. That’s not to say that their life’s purpose was to figure out how to de-normalize the Oracle databases in order to eke out a few percentage points of performance improvement in the nightly indexing for the TPS report. That’s just their job for today, and they are choosing to take that challenge seriously.

Not only have the happy ones figured out a way to make their jobs more interesting, but they are—more often than not—the ones that others want to be around, and to have on their teams. They are competent, they do good work and they are engaged with the task at hand. They may well have other pursuits outside of their work. They may well not even think about the TPS report once they go home. But they give it their focus and attention while they are at work, and it shows.

That’s part of the challenge of uncovering what our purpose for now is. Because our purpose for now might well be—in the context of our work—simply paying the bills. Our job may only serve as the vehicle that enables us to do the thing we genuinely do care about and value. That’s OK. There is inherent virtue—and no blame—in looking at our job as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. At the same time, doing it well—and being engaged by it—means not only that we will find it more interesting, but that we are more likely to be seen as one of the indispensable ones. The steady pay cheque that lets us explore other pursuits also then becomes a pretty reliable thing.

Be. Do. Have fun. And be engaged. Even in the salt mines.

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