Meaningful Work

“We know on a fundamental level that working for forty years at a job we hate, for the sake of maybe ten years of retirement during which we can do what we want, is a big gamble (since we might not live to retirement, or our retirement savings might not be there if we do) and maybe even a hatred of life, as Wendell Berry once said.”

Chris Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church

I enjoy work. Work, it seems to me, is a good thing. To my way of thinking, a full and complete life requires meaningful work.

I did not always think this way. For many years I saw work as only a means to an end, something to endure in the hope of something better. I worked only to pay the bills, and in the hope that my work would someday enable me to live a life of not-work. I dreamed of a future in which I would be liberated from work.  But I now realize I had no appreciation of what a life without work would be like. What would I do with all that time I spent not working?

For many of us, probably even for most of us, our work is unsatisfying. It is not meaningful work. It is not work that brings us happiness. It is not work that makes the world a better place.

Because of that, our culture has come to see work as something unpleasant, and something that should be avoided if possible. We celebrate the arrival of Fridays and we bemoan the arrival of Mondays.

But I’ve come to believe that it is not work that diminishes life, but rather an absence of meaningful work.

Since I left the practice of law I have kept my bar membership active, just in case I should ever need it. In order to remain an active member of the bar I am required to satisfy continuing legal education requirements every few years. Because I am approaching a deadline, I’ve been listening to legal seminars on my iPod to fulfill my CLE obligation. Yesterday I found myself listening to a seminar focused on electronic discovery rules. There was an extended discussion of a well-known case in Florida in which attorneys were severely sanctioned for what the judge regarded as bad faith gamesmanship in connection with production of certain electronic evidence. The speaker laughingly and sarcastically referred to the lawyer who took over that case from the sanctioned attorneys as the “hero” who had to face the judge and try to mitigate the harm the ruling would do to the party.

That lawyer was me. I had to face a judge who was anxious to punish someone.  Even though I had nothing to do with the mess that had led us there, I was on the proverbial carpet, with a tremendous amount of money (and the reputations of some lawyers) on the line.  I recall the day of that hearing as being very stressful.  But it was just one of many.

As I listened to that seminar and heard those speakers joking about that experience, I was pulling weeds in my tomato garden.

I was doing meaningful work. As meaningful as any work I have ever done in my life.

My day in the tomato garden will never be analyzed by a panel of lawyers and judges.  And that’s just fine by me.

I love my work.

17 comments on “Meaningful Work

  1. DM says:

    Love love love this post! I too love my work and have been blessed to accidentally stumble into it, the year out of high school, which is coming up on 38 years ago already.


  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, many times I have mentioned that I was side tracked from my passion of farming on this blog. The side track was a close second in passion though. It was the world of technology repair. I was never in the development side but always in the making it work side of technology. I did love that work as well. I can’t really say that I hated my job because it was learning about some thing new and exciting that was happening to the culture. Back when I started my career the mobile phone was just coming into the market. To make a mobile phone work a car trunk load of equipment was used in conjunction with a 10 foot antenna. Even with all that equipment the range was five miles at best. So with one foot in the fascinating world of technology and the other in the dirt, it was a hard choice to make. Looking back I’m not so sure I made the right choice but it was not a terrible one. Now I can enjoy digging in the dirt with a pension to live on and not worry about living on what I grow. Health insurance is still there after retirement so again maybe it was the right choice after all. It’s one of those choices in life that either way would have been ok but totally different lifestyles and journeys. And the finally test is, if I had it to do all over again knowing what I know now, I’m pretty sure I would do it all same way.

    Have a great meaningful work day.

    And know I was not up before 5am today.


    • nebraskadave says:

      And no I was not up before 5am today.


    • Bill says:

      It seems to me that a job is certainly in part a means to an end. We need to trade our labor for money to pay for things that have to be created or produced with the labor of others. And money enables us to store up some of that labor to use in the future we when we aren’t physically able to work any more or when we have needs that require an accumulation of our labor. I used a lot of the money I earned in my old job to prepare for the life we’re leading now.

      But it also seems to me that good work, work that is satisfying and fulfilling, is not something we dread or despise, but something we enjoy. Too often people in our culture find themselves trapped in jobs that hate and that leads people to conclude that work is something to be hated or avoided, when in fact it isn’t work that is the problem, but rather than kind of work.

      We start early on Saturday mornings–up at 4:30. Last night we had a get together with friends and didn’t get to bed till after 11–which is much later than we normally stay up. So I’m off to a slow start this morning. 🙂 Hoping you have a great Sunday Dave.


  3. Since I too was up at 5am (4:30 actually), I say I worked enough today for the right to hog space and post here this most amazing tribute to work by Marge Piercy:

    To Be Of Use

    The people I love the best
    jump into work head first
    without dallying in the shallows
    and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
    They seem to become natives of that element,
    the black sleek heads of seals
    bouncing like half submerged balls.

    I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
    who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
    who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
    who do what has to be done, again and again.

    I want to be with people who submerge
    in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
    and work in a row and pass the bags along,
    who stand in the line and haul in their places,
    who are not parlor generals and field deserters
    but move in a common rhythm
    when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

    The work of the world is common as mud.
    Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
    But the thing worth doing well done
    has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
    Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
    Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
    but you know they were made to be used.
    The pitcher cries for water to carry
    and a person for work that is real.


    • Bill says:

      That is great Will. Thanks for sharing it.

      “the thing worth doing well done/has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident….The pitcher cries for water to carry/and a person for work that is real”

      That’s what I meant.


  4. EllaDee says:

    Sometimes it’s not easy, sometimes it’s impossible, in a legal environment familiar to you, but I try to find in each day’s work something worthwhile… Sometimes that thing is only that it is just one additional step towards a goal we have set ourselves. The good days are when something I have done, always small, has left its mark. Your experience on the proverbial carpet had the merit of that, at least. That said, I too would prefer to weed a garden.


    • Bill says:

      I tried to think that way in my earlier job too. I tried to find merit in whatever I did, even if it was just in trying to appreciate the company of those working with me. And on the worst days I reminded myself that I was one day closer to something different. Staying grounded in the present in that situation could be hard at times.


  5. shoreacres says:

    A passing thought, which just occurred to me. Most of the people I know who are unhappy with their work are unhappy for the same reason. They’re teachers who are constrained by administrators, nurses and doctors who are prevented from spending time with patients by the number of forms to be filled out, business people who can’t expand their business because of governmental regulations.

    In short, they’re unhappy not because of their work, but because they can’t do it. The bureaucrats, HR departments, administrators, and governmental agencies are running amok, and it doesn’t bode well for any of us.


    • Bill says:

      I wonder if the bureaucrats and administrators find their work meaningful and satisfying. I imagine they far outnumber professionals and business owners. My guess is that some do and some don’t. For many (in any profession) it might boil down to whether work is seen as something good and fulfilling, or rather a necessary evil and something to be avoided. We have imposed cultural values on work that tend to regard the work of professionals and entrepreneurs, for example, as good and meaningful work, and the work of “unskilled” laborers as not.


  6. Joanna says:

    I need to contemplate this thought on meaningful work for a while. I’m torn between two worlds at the moment, the academic and the pulling weeds. I love research, but after doing the third re-write of a paper for an academic journal, I wonder and yet it is a path on which I have been led. I know it is important to get the words of local people out there, into the academic world, into the government circles and generate conversations – will my work achieve that? Who knows! All I can do is keep plugging on and hope so, meanwhile I pull weeds when I can, or tend alpacas and their skin problems (just an ongoing problem at the moment)


    • Bill says:

      It seems to me that there are all kinds of meaningful work. I enjoy my academic work too. It is up to us, I think, as best we can, to find the work that is best for us and to regard good work as something important and beautiful, not something to be hated and avoided.


  7. Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    I think the lack of meaningful work in our culture is a large part of the epidemic of depression. I also think of the young people, locked away in school all day earning grades, who learn at an early age the “work” of studying as only a means to an end (getting a good grade). The natural next step then is to obtain work to earn a paycheck to purchase things that will supposedly make them happy. Everything we see – television, movies, advertising, encourages this mindless cycle.

    We need more positive role models for our young people (and ourselves). Seeing people engaged in meaningful work, living life with joy, and contentment. But then, this might have negative consequences for the corporations and economies…


  8. avwalters says:

    Meaningful work must satisfy. It may be that there’s an intellectual curiosity to fulfill, a puzzle or challenge. That may be enough. I’m in transition–still practicing law, building my new home (and planning for next year’s garden) and with two novels published and several more in the planning. In my practice, I no longer litigate. I do consulting and advise. This part of the job has real satisfaction, because the objective to educational–to avoid disputes and “exposure.” It is also based on relationships–and I’ve kept the clients I liked or could work with productively.
    Who knows if the writing will pan out? I do it because I enjoy it, and because feedback from readers tells me that it brings pleasure to others. So, in an odd sense, that too, is based on relationships.
    These are my standards for the future. Work must bring some kind of personal satisfaction or reward. I don’t know yet where this will lead, but I have found a sense of place and beauty, and there’s no going back from there.


    • Bill says:

      For a long time I looked forward to going from a life of work to a life of not-work. If I was dissatisfied with my job I didn’t seriously consider making a change in the kind of work I did. I see now that I was wrong for thinking that way. Ultimately I ended up on a journey similar to yours. I especially like your last sentence. There’s no going back.

      Wendell Berry has suggested that there are some questions that need to be asked about work:

      Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money? How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work? Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work? For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself? What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

      Those are good questions, it seems to me, when trying to assess whether our work is meaningful.

      Liked by 1 person

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