The meaning of work


In our modern economy, we go to work to make money, and then we exchange that money for the goods we need and want. This is a relatively new mechanism for humans.

Humans (as well as hominids and all other animals) have always had to spend a portion of their time working to ensure their survival. For most of history, humans would spend the majority of their time on actions directly impacting their ability to survive, such as gathering plants, hunting animals, building shelters, collecting water. In this way, work has always been a mechanism for survival.

Now, due to specialization and efficiency of production, we are able to produce enough goods for human survival with only a fraction of the population. This means most people do not have to spend their time directly tending to their own survival needs. Instead, we work on a wide variety of things, trading our time during the day for money, which can then be used to purchase the necessary goods for survival (and much more).

Fundamentally, this is not that different than what we have always done - we use our work to ensure our survival, but now, the trade-off is much less direct. In a world in which work is not directly tied to our survival, I, amongst many people, have experienced a dissonance regarding the meaningfulness of work.

But what is the right framework to approach this trade-off with? How can we determine the optimal way to work and to spend our time?

I recently watched a talk given by Daniel Schmactenberger, where he answers a question about this very issue. Schmactenberger, around the 29 minute mark, talks about the two ways one should approach work:

  • Make your money in the way that feels like your vocation
  • Make your money in the way that uses the least amount of time possible and is not harmful

This framework makes a lot of sense to me and advocates for optimizing on one of two dimensions. Either do what you love or make enough money for yourself in the smallest amount of time as possible.

In this framework, work is a balance between enabling survival and allowing us to fulfill our meaning, but it is often used as a tool for many other things (e.g., status signaling, source of identity, distraction from the mind, power game, materialistic greed) that are not aligned with our best interests.

I have certainly been guilty of this, leading to times when I have worked more hours than I needed to / should, prescribing a greater importance and meaning to my work than what actually exists, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, avoiding work that is not perfectly aligned to "my calling".

It is natural for work to be used as a tool for other means in a world where work is somewhat disaggregated from survival, and I would only expect this to increase as production continues to expand (in the extreme case of UBI, there is zero connection between work and survival). Perhaps though, in this world, we can learn to use work as a tool for positive-sum, infinite games (e.g., finding the best new friends) that are aligned with our best interests.

Our work does not need to be our whole life, but it is where most of us spend the greatest amount of our time, so we should put significant thought into what it means to us and what we really want from it.