Jonathan Malesic over at The New Republic urges workers not to search for purpose in their jobs:
We would be better off if we liberated work from the moral weight of “purpose.” There is dignity in the struggle just to get the objective (NEED, PAID) and subjective (GOOD, LOVE) elements of our work closer to each other. … Few of us will ever find our meritocratic purpose, much less “OWN it!” That shouldn’t mean we’re failures. Often, just standing in the PAID circle is a triumph. That’s certainly true for day laborers, whose purpose on the job is to make each other’s work bearable. Their rule is, “Carry your end of the load.” If we all adopted that rule, then once we’ve carried our end, we can meet at the water cooler, share a laugh, and scheme to knock off early. Being human together is purpose enough.
Meanwhile, David Brooks writes in the New York Times that it is in fact the small life well-lived that seems to give us meaning:
Terence J. Tollaksen wrote that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the “decision trap”: “This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomena whereby ‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”
Tollaksen continues, “I have always admired those goal-oriented, stubborn, successful, determined individuals; they make things happen, and the world would be lost without them.” But, he explains, he has always had a “small font purpose.”
Malesic’s piece indicates that—contrary to popular consensus—searching for purpose in work will only end in frustration. Many Americans focus their entire lives around work, dedicating 50 to 70 hours a week to their career. They have a trajectory in mind, an end: yet oftentimes, their hopes are disappointed. There are days in which they feel motivated, inspired, purposeful, but there are also times when all the joy fades from work, hopes are dashed, and our purpose feels muddled and distant.
If we attempt to find our telos, or end, in work, we will be disappointed. Not because work isn’t important: indeed, the ability to work is fundamental to our nature as human beings. We were made to work. But work is not sufficient for human flourishing: it is only one component of the human soul. Thus, no matter the achievements and accolades we may procure in our vocational duties, we will not find purpose if we are not seeking it in deeper and more diverse venues. If we are to seek purpose as “the reason for which something exists,” as my dictionary puts it, we must acknowledge the fact that circumstantial things like employment will not be able to provide lasting purpose to our lives.
So what things should we look to for teleological fulfillment? There are, of course, the beliefs, philosophies, or religions that we hold dear: they often provide the compass and timeline on which we base our entire life. Without them, it would be difficult to determine an “end” which we are pursuing.
Additionally, Brooks’s piece seems to highlight the importance a sense of self plays in establishing our sense of purpose: not that we ought to have a bloated sense of self-worth, but rather, a proper understanding of oneself—balanced with humility and discretion—helps us consider the role we can or ought to play in the world.
Meanwhile, the relationships we have—with family, friends, and community—can bring great purpose and fulfillment to our lives. We must consider carefully the importance of people in giving our lives meaning. While we should never found our entire sense of worth or meaning on the opinions or presence of others, we also cannot ignore the fact that a life devoid of community is oftentimes devoid of purpose, as well.
Brooks’s piece reminded me of my grandmother. She did not live a grandiose life. She rarely traveled outside her home state. She lived in a simple, yet elegant way: using every opportunity to beautify the world around her, to bless the people she loved. Work was important to her, and she worked hard. But she also was very involved in her church, a devoted mother and grandmother, a faithful friend. Her way of living was, as Brooks put it, that of a “small, happy life”—one filled with things like strawberry shortcake and Easter baskets in the spring, family grilling parties and homemade pickles in the summer, giant Christmas trees and hearty stews in the winter.
It’s worth reemphasizing the role that humility plays in giving us purpose: Brooks points out that it is those who live small, unrecognized lives with contentment who are often the most happy—while those who seek a grandiose and perfect sense of “purpose” end up unhappy and discontent. They may feel that all their efforts only amount to “not enough.”
Those who live a simple life, grateful for its blessings and significances, are liberated from that discontent. They don’t need great successes or accolades in order to feel accomplished: rather, they beliefs and relationships they hold dear bring them purpose.
The small life is often seen as unfulfilling. We worry we’ll get to the end of our lives and think, “All that ambition and dreaming wasted. All those opportunities not taken.” But really, what Brooks seems to indicate, is that there are few people who achieve positions of extreme passionate purpose and acclaim in the world. Rather, it’s those who find purpose in the sweet, small things that will be happiest in the end.