If you were to ask someone why they work, they might have a variety of answers. Some may say they enjoy working with their colleagues, others might say they need their jobs to pay the bills, and the really lucky ones will say their work is meaningful. But what is that meaning and where does it come from? Are some jobs inherently meaningful and others nothing more than a source of income? What if you were given the chance to never work again? Would you instantly decide? Or would you hesitate?
I myself (and I’m sure many others) used to imagine a perfect life as one without work. Laying by the pool, reading good books, enjoying seafood… life would be a vacation. But an endless vacation is not really desirable. Soon, each day would be exactly like the last. While we might dread the alarm clock each morning, we all work because we seek meaning.
In my opinion, what truly makes work meaningful is the challenge of it. What I mean by challenging is that the work motivates us. Now, I’m not one to say I necessarily enjoy math problem sets while I’m doing them, but I certainly love the sense of satisfaction I get when I finish it. And that satisfaction drives me on to the next problem set. Similarly, in my translation project, I often get frustrated while clicking through the online dictionary, but I definitely have a smile on my face when I see that the article is published. And then I start the next blog post, knowing that there will certainly be challenges within that one too, but they’re challenges I’m willing to tackle. That’s the motivation that comes with a challenge: it encourages us to continually challenge ourselves.
Perhaps paradoxically, the size of the challenge doesn’t matter. I’m sure that my Chemistry 101 problem sets are “easy” in comparison to those of organic chemistry, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that my problem sets are challenging to me and I’m proud of myself when I complete one. There is no chart that tells us what is universally challenging and what is not; it’s all up to the individual.
All challenges (big, small, short-term, lifelong) drive us to be better versions of ourselves. They create a sort of internal competition. A challenge pushes us to seek the next opportunity to prove that we can conquer any obstacle. And while I can’t objectively say if my school work or translation project is more challenging, I do know they are equally meaningful to me. They both motivate me to learn from my mistakes, engage with others, and reflect upon my work. No matter if the challenge is finding a cure for cancer or making milkshakes at a fast-food restaurant during the lunch rush, the effect is the same. We grow as humans through our work.
While I am definitely proud of my work regardless of who sees it, I can’t pretend that I don’t enjoy validation of my efforts. In school, I work hard because I enjoy learning, but I also appreciate seeing my efforts reflected in my grades. With my Duke Engage project, I love the challenge of translating, but I am equally satisfied knowing that NGOs in Latin America will actually read my translation. If Dan Ariely’s social experiments are any proof, when we enjoy work and our efforts are validated, we do more of it.
As Dan Ariely suggests, meaningful work is now more important than ever. With meaningful work, we are happier and more satisfied in our daily lives. We might wake up a few minutes earlier to get started on that new essay, share an idea for a new invention, or create the perfect swirl of whipped cream on top of that milkshake. So, when posed with the option of choosing never to work again, my answer is no. And I hope yours will be too.