Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Meaningful Work in My Future

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, mentions that for labor to be meaningful, it must have three properties. There must be a clear relationship between work and reward. The work must have a degree of complexity. The work must be autonomous. In an interview, he put it like so:

Meaningful work is one of the most important things we can impart to children. Meaningful work is work that is autonomous. Work that is complex, that occupies your mind. And work where there is a relationship between effort and reward — for everything you put in, you get something out… If you are convinced that the work you are doing is meaningful, then curiosity, there’s no cost to it. If you think there’s always got to be a connection between what you put in and what you get out, then of course you’ll run off with a great excitement after an idea that catches your eye.

After reading that, I was struck by a realization - I never want to do another job that’s not meaningful. Not ever. And I don’t want anyone else to have to do one either.

I think that humans should do exactly two types of labor: jobs that only humans can do, and jobs that individual humans are actively enthusiastic about doing. Everything else should be left to robots and software. We all deserve better than toil, than work that only benefits others, than work without end or reward or satisfaction.

In all of the crappy-job stories I’ve heard, this has been a common factor - that the job was not meaningful in the sense explained above. It may have manifested through a controlling boss, bad tools, abusive customers, bumbling coworkers, or any of a wide variety of things, but that’s what it boiled down to - a job that didn’t occupy the mind, didn’t give you autonomy, and didn’t yield a relationship between effort and reward. All of these things are pitfalls for employers (and the last one a pitfall for governments, too): if the work that your company does lacks one or more of these things, you will not be able to hold onto good workers, and you are destined for eventual extinction. As Seth Godin points out - if you couldn’t recruit for your job opening instead of hiring for it, you might want to consider whether you’ll actually attract the people you’d really want working for you. No job that is not meaningful labor will ever be worth quitting another job for.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest mistakes that both employees and employers can make. Employees should feel zero guilt about walking away from an employment situation without meaningful work in favor of one that does. Employers should recognize that they do not deserve and will not retain employee loyalty, competency, or performance in an environment where workers don’t have autonomy, labor that requires their brains, and a relationship between effort and reward. I’m uncomfortable with the continuing trend of globalization, of a global labor market, but one of the positive things that I hope for out of it is an increased willingness and ability on employees' part to say - screw this, I can do better - and leave a job for something better. This is a right that some people would dearly like to deny to employees, for predictable reasons.

Of course, this whole spiel definitely comes from a highly privileged place: I’m lucky to be in the 2% of the world’s population who won’t get laughed out of the room when they talk about things like this, the very top percentile of the global population who has a good chance of achieving a life of doing meaningful work. But being in that 2% means that I’m wasting the resources I was born with if I don’t bust my butt to achieve meaningful work, and it means that I’m behaving heartlessly to the rest of the world if I don’t insist that everyone deserves as much. I am, and I do.